Friday, October 27, 2006

Dismaying Story #74: Ex-Husband, Life-Long Father

Hi Everyone,

I'm on the road today so I'm a little late posting. I wrote this morning on the airplane and now that I've arrived at my hotel (in a warm, sunny destination :o) I'm able to post. I hope you are having a great day.

Dear Andrew,

My ex-husband insists on negatively commenting on my daughter’s appearance – hair, clothes, shoes, etc. No matter what she wears or what she does with her hair, he tells her she needs to “do something” different.

I’ve tried to stay out of it, but she comes to me heartbroken or lately, incensed over her father’s comments. Oddly, she resembles her father much more in appearance than she does me. How can I help without interfering in their relationship?

Signed, Caught in the Middle

Dear Caught,

You can't. Interfere away because helping sounds like a good idea.

I would approach this as if you were still together. You no longer share a marriage, but you are still co-parenting and you should do your best to minimize the effects of your separation on your children.

How would you handle it if you were all living in the same house? I bet you would have a private chat with him. You would ask him why he is doing this and tell him what kind of effect he is having on your daughter. Then, depending on the causes, you would look for a change. Do the same here.

I can only assume from your letter that his complaints about her appearance are largely baseless. Presumably she isn't going out the door in the morning looking like a vampy version of Madonna in concert. What, then, could his reasons be? The obvious question is whether he has resentment because of the divorce. Do you have primary custody of your daughter? Any contact with her could be a reminder of his frustration, putting him in a grumpy mood whenever he sees her. Or perhaps he has unrealistic and old-fashioned expectations of how young ladies should present themselves. If there is a new partner in his life, her resentment over you or his children could play into this; he could be reacting to and passing along negative sentiments that originate with her.

I can't predict which, if any, of these factors may be at work. If I were you, though, I would talk to him and see if he knows. Explain to him why the criticism has to stop and insist that he do so. As an ex you may have less leverage to ask for change than you did when you were married, but you should still try. If this is displaced resentment of you, then talking out the issues between the two of you may reduce the amount that spills over onto your daughter.

In addition, you can coach your daughter on how to handle criticism. This is not the last time in her life she will face it, and coping with it is an important life skill. We all need to be able to maintain a positive self-image in the face of negative external feedback. As many letter writers have already attested on this site, that is not always easy to do. Explain to her that she will face various forms of negative feedback in school, on the job, when she has a significant other, when she imposes unpopular rules on her own children, and so on. Help her understand the need to evaluate her own behavior objectively and honestly, to take ownership of any legitimate issues that others have raised, to use such feedback to improve in a constructive way, and to have the confidence to shed the emotional effects of unfounded criticism.

Has she actually explained to her father how his words make her feel? As unlikely as it may seem, it's possible he has no idea what kind of effect he is having on her. Hearing it directly from her might be the wake-up call he needs. Even if he won't listen, she is likely to feel better about herself (less like a victim) if she is able to stand up for herself in a mature, reasonable way.

If you have gained some insight into the reasons for his behavior, you may be able to help your daughter by explaining them to her. For example, this may be more of a problem between two ex-spouses, which he is unfortunately turning into a problem that involves your daughter. That still means she has an issue with her Dad, but it may help her to know that it's not just about her.

Hopefully treating him as a current co-parent rather than solely as an ex-spouse will make a difference. Good luck!

All the best,

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  1. You know... I'm a firm believer that a husband (or ex) is ONLY the man you married, but your children are your BLOOD! (yes, I LOVE my husband -- but if put in a postion of HAVING to choose between the two...) You protect your children NO MATTER WHAT! Some of us are fortunate to have husbands that are also GOOD parents... others are not. (mine has moments of both!) But as MOM to a child you protect that child. From physical abuse or from verbal abuse. Some people may not consider this "abuse" ... but if it's constantly dragging down her self esteem it IS abusive.

    It sounds "to me" like he may just be picking an issue to try to have some "control" over... If the mom has custody and he only sees the child occassionally then he's likely to be feeling like he doesn't have a say in her life anymore... so he's looking for things that he feels he CAN control. Even living together in the same house, my husband feels like this sometimes! Because he's at work so often, and I was a stay at home mom, my kids have always come to ME for everything. If it doesn't seem like a "big issue" I'll just give an answer. But if it IS big ... or even could be big, I'll say we have to talk to Daddy. Over the years we have noticed that Daddy "exerts" the NO word frequently just because he CAN! When my five year old son wanted to get his ear pierced, I would have been fine with it -- but hubby said NO. Hubby continued to say NO all Mathew's life! He never would/could give a good "reason" why he didn't want him to (ie - it might get infected, or he felt it gave off the wrong type of vibes -- ANYTHING if it would have just sounded like a reasonable reason!) - he would just say "no boy of mine is going to have pierced ears!" -- Well... you know, in a childs mind (and even in MINE, honestly) this was NO reason! So, of course, as soon as Mathew reached an age where HE felt in control, he went out and got his ears pierced. BOTH of them... and his lip, his eyebrow, his tongue!) My husband never said a word! So not only did he NOT have a "reason" to give him for not wanting him to HAVE it -- he also didn't seem to find it necessary to address the fact that Mathew had gone COMPLETELY against his wishes! (Mathew was 16 at the time) This proved to ME (and to Mathew) that Daddy was just saying NO to say NO!

    Now, I don't KNOW that this Dad is doing THIS either... but I'm just saying... it could be. He may just feel a need to "exert the NO word!"

  2. While I agree that this behavior could possibly be "misplaced resentment" or some such, I had a strong feeling while reading the question that dad is having a tough time coming to terms with his "baby" growing up.

    Of course, this is assuming--as you pointed out--that the criticism is largely baseless and that the daughter isn't heading out the door in some trashy get-up with too much make-up on.

    Little girls become young women. (Mine did.) It isn't easy "letting go".

  3. Anonymous6:17 PM

    I cannot help but wonder if the resemblance is part of the problem--it might make it easier for him to project things he doesn't like about himself onto her.

    I don't physically resemble my mother much but the difficult personality traits that I have about which she complains most strenuously are the ones that she and I share, and which she has never acknowledged in herself.

  4. Anonymous3:52 AM

    unfortunatly from my own experience i can tell that parents think they're doing you good when they're critisizing you. they think they're preparing you for the world. and yes, you are right and they are right: the world is mean and it will critisize you. but the world says doesn't hurt half as much as what your father says.

    you can find excuses for a man you don't know. 'so what if he doesn't like the way i look? i don't care about him!'. you can cope with that. but how can you not be hurt when your parent, the person that's supposed to love you more than anything in the world says 'you look bad'. he's supposed to be your support! he's supposed to love you!

    critisizing parents have no idea what harm they're doing to their children. they might be less likely to be hurt by a stranger's comments, but the price to pay is an extremely low self esteem. and if you ask me the price is way too high.

    and, no, it's not the same thing. it's just not.

  5. Hi all,

    I'll admit to being the one who wrote the original question. Indeed, my daughter doesn't dress like a streetwalker (I'd kill her!) and she's a very sensible, independent smart kid. She's also just turned 18.

    I think Andrew touched on a number of factors that could be contributing. Yes, I'm the custodial parent. I live 300 miles from her father. (Long story short he was fine with our move.) He may indeed feel that his criticism is "parenting" on some level, since he sees her maybe twice a year (his choice).

    He was raised by a mother who acted identical with her children, so this may also play into it. And his new wife is one who has little problem openly criticizing the kids.

    He does have issues with control, and has been diagnosed with manic depression (and is supposedly medicating), so all of this plays into the situation.

    When my daughter complains to me, I do try to remind her that sometimes people cannot be pleased, so it's a waste of energy to try. I give her positive reinforcement, as does her stepdad (and she's closer with him than her own dad, she tells me).

    I want to talk with my ex about it. The problem is that with his fiery temper, any mention will indeed start a firestorm that doesn't end with him (the new spouse will get involved). My daughter will be chastised and "mistrusted" for telling "lies" to me about him. She will suffer if I say anything, but I'm afraid that it can't be ignored.

    I guess it's into the firestorm I go! Should I choose email? In the past when he's gone ballistic, I've limited my contact with him to email only.

    Thanks, everyone. I appreciate your input into a very touchy situation.