In Part 1 of this post, I began exploring some of the reasons why kids may side with a man who abuses their mother, especially if he’s their father. We looked in particular at kids’ desperate desire to feel safe – and it feels safer to be on the abuser’s team — and their desire to escape the pain of injustice, which they can do by deciding that Mom deserved what she got.
There are a few additional causes that are as important as the ones I examined in Part 1.
Manipulation By the Abuser
Tragically, most domestic abusers have strong manipulative skills, particularly if they are well-educated. (Yes, the more educated the abuser is, the more psychological damage he can do to kids. But the courts, especially the custody courts, love a well-educated batterer.)
The collection of manipulative tactics they use is endless, so I’ll give just a few examples:
* Get Mom upset when she’s trying to spend good time with the kids.
The abuser especially loves to do this at key times, like birthdays or Christmases or the end of a hard day.
His goal is to create the impression in the children that “Mom is just always upset about something,” casting her as hysterical and moody. He sets it up to make it look as though she’s the one who ruined good times that he actually ruined. You can start to feel like you almost never get to have those close moments, because he always messes them up.
* Undermine her appropriate efforts to set limits.
Dad comes out looking like he’s the fun parent while Mom is the strict one. This dynamic gets worse after the parents split up, because once he starts to have the children alone with him he can get away with doing whatever he wants – which often means letting them get away with doing whatever they want.
The custody court is two-faced on this issue. They’ll declare that parents need to provide a united front for the children; but then when Mom points out that Dad is destroying her maternal authority by letting the kids run wild at his house, the court turns condescending and says to her, “Part of divorce is accepting that each parent is going to have a different parenting style.”
As if the problem had anything to do with “different parenting styles”! The custody courts are the absolute kings and queens of euphemism. They really can’t get it that a domestic abuser loves to destroy the mother’s parental authority?
Of course, at the times when the abuser is mad at the kids he switches into his other personality, sometimes turning outright cruel in his punishments, such as not letting kids go to events that are hugely important to them. Mr. Nice Guy simply disappears when he doesn’t like the way someone is standing up to him, and the real abuser comes out. But the trauma that he causes at these times actually works to his advantage, tragically, because it makes his nice times seem even more dazzling to his (wounded) children.
Good manipulators are good liars, and the domestic abuser lies and lies and lies. It’s overwhelming to kids – unbearable, really – to accept the fact that one of their parents is routinely and deliberately dishonest with them. It makes the world feel too scary. So children tend to convince themselves that what he’s saying must be true, even when deep down inside they know it isn’t. As the years go by, the children feel more and more confused about what’s real and what isn’t. And they start to pull away from Mom emotionally because of all the bad things they are being told about her, some of which make her sound absolutely awful.
The custody courts get sick of Mom always saying what a liar Dad is, but it’s the court’s own fault, because they refuse to look into what she’s telling them. If they would bother to check it out, they could easily see that she’s right. (I know how easy it is, because I used to do custody investigations for courts myself, and 90% of the time I could find out which parent was telling the truth by making even the most minimal effort to examine the evidence; but most court personnel, and court-appointed personnel, refuse to do so, and just choose to believe the abuser instead.)
* Control the kids’ access to what they want.
For example, he takes various steps to keep Mom financially broke, then he gets a nice house and buys the children all kinds of things. He looks generous and Mom looks stingy.
Next, he reaches out to relatives of Mom’s and kisses up to them. The next thing you know, the kids are seeing their maternal cousins through him instead of through Mom. (Yes, I run into cases like this over and over again; more on this below.)
Then he tells teenagers he’ll buy them a car, but only if they come to live primarily with him.
And on and on it goes. He keeps setting it up so that he’s the pathway to the things that they desire in life.
I could write a whole book just about how abusive men manipulate kids. But the above examples capture some of the key dynamics that they set up.
Using Societal Messages to His Advantage
The predominant culture in the U.S. and across much of the globe, teaches that:
* Mom’s have the primary responsibility for kids, including for keeping them safe.
* Dads are to be admired if they make any significant contribution to child rearing (in other words, mothers and fathers are judged by entirely different standards, including by the courts).
* Mothers are hysterical and worry too much about nothing.
* Kids can’t turn out okay without a father, especially not boys. They need their father no matter how abusive he is or how absent he has been.
I get so sick of movie after movie (there are dozens of them) where the father is terrible to his children — through some combination of severe neglect and outright mistreatment — and then he finally comes through for his kids years later and we’re supposed to think that’s so wonderful and touching. But find me a single movie where a mother disappears for years (by choice) and then the audience is made to feel moved by the fact that she decided to show up again; I doubt you can do it.
Kids see these movies and they absorb the unhealthy message, along with all the other ones from the list above. And the abuser actively encourages these twisted, sexist values.
Children also can’t help absorbing the powerful reality that in modern society men have far more power than women do. So siding with the abuser doesn’t just put you on the winning side within your own family’s power dynamic, it puts you on the privileged side in the world. This reality is especially seductive for boys, who see that becoming like their abusive Dad opens for them a whole world that they can exploit.
Using Toxicity that Already Exists in the Family Tree
Let’s face it, most family trees have their own issues with addiction, domestic violence, greed, child sexual abuse, narcissism, and other toxic patterns. I’ve rarely talked to anyone who didn’t have at least some of these serious problems present in a few key relatives, and for some people the family tree is riddled with them. (And this is true whether your family tree is rich or poor, formally educated or not, from this culture or from that culture.)
The abuser often builds allies by connecting to toxic individuals among the relatives. He especially loves it when he can build relationships with toxic relatives of Mom’s, and thereby use her own people against her.
The custody courts just eat this one up. They’ll say to Mom, in a tone of contempt, “Your own parents, and one of your sisters as well, have told us that you’re the problem.” Have they bothered to look into what these people are like? Of course not. If they did, they’d find out exactly why these people would side with a man who was abusing their daughter or their sister. (This precise dynamic comes up in my book In Custody.)
These unholy alliances can influence children. The message from Dad, whether actually spoken aloud or not, is, “See how I get along with everyone, while Mom is refusing to speak to several of them?”
Fortunately these maneuvers are much harder to pull off when the Mom has a healthier family tree, and it’s even better if the abuser himself has pretty healthy relatives. But I talk to a lot of mothers who weren’t even aware of how much toxicity there was among their own relatives until they started to see people lining up behind the abuser. And in our times, when there’s been so much public indoctrination teaching people that kids will have ruined lives if they don’t have a father, the abuser can get a lot of mileage by going around crying to the relatives, “All I’m asking is to be able to play a role in my children’s lives.” And their hearts just bleed for him.
Men who care about their children don’t abuse the children’s mother. The damage that it does to children when you abuse their mother is so obvious that you simply can’t miss it — unless you really only care about yourself. The notion that a man can abuse the mother of his children but still be a good father is absurd; abusing a mother is the positive definition of terrible fathering.
But good luck getting toxic relatives – or the custody courts, which currently are as toxic as your worst relatives – to see that obvious fact.
In typical fashion, I have once again run myself out of space. So this post will have to go to a Part 3, since I promised to talk about strategies for rebuilding relationships that the abuser has poisoned. I’ll get to that post within a few days, because many of you have commented on how eager you are to hear those ideas.
Photo by Jed Villejo on Unsplash (teens running away) Photo by Kuanish Reymbaev on Unsplash (classroom) Photo by Leo Rivas on Unsplash (girl with bubble) Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash (boys with matching shirts) Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash (girl covered in paint)
A mom and her daughter mysteriously disappear. Have they fled into hiding? Or have they been kidnapped? The signs seem to point in both directions, baffling law enforcement. A young journalist puts her career on the line to try to find out what has happened to them — and she stumbles into a dark underworld of organized abusers and court corruption. In Custody: A Carrie Green Novel by Lundy Bancroft, available in paperback or Kindle.