I Already Feel Guilty Enough

 I Already Feel Guilty Enough

Fixing the bad behavior my kids learned from my dysfunctional marriage

We know that children are “collateral damage” in a divorce. Whether by choice or not, and regardless of whether the divorce is better for everyone involved, we have deprived our children of that “family unit” that largely exists only on television.

But recently I noticed another way in which our children are unintended victims of divorce, and it comes in a form that may affect their future success and happiness. As loving mothers, it’s our job to ensure that they don’t carry the inappropriate behaviors they witnessed at home into their professional and personal lives.

I didn’t even realize it until I had some distance from my 30-plus-year marriage, but for a long time, my children saw me accepting verbal and emotional abuse without deflecting it or defending myself. It was not only a matter of how their father diminished me, but also the fact that when they disrespected me, as is typical of children, he didn’t stand up for me. As a result, despite how loving my children are under most circumstances, there are times when they speak to me with a lack of appropriate kindness, compassion, and respect.

I don’t claim that they don’t have legitimate reasons to be frustrated with me; they may be perfectly right to be annoyed with my driving or inability to remember something they had told me weeks earlier or a decision I made that might affect them. I’m not perfect, and I have limitations. But the fact that they feel it is appropriate to talk to me in a tone that they would never use with their bosses, or even perfect strangers, is a serious problem. I don’t want them to treat a prospective partner that way, whether or not she has the skills to tell them that such communication is unacceptable.

It’s easy to understand why disrespecting me seems appropriate. Just as I learned as a child that I had no right to talk back or stand up for myself, I played a similar role in my marriage. I was the one on whom everyone unleashed frustration. I absorbed those blows and responded with unconditional love and support. I thought that was my job. I never said, “I don’t care who said or did what to you today; you do not come home and speak to me in a demeaning way.” Instead, I rationalized their actions. I was an expert at “understanding” that someone else was under stress, so I excused mistreatment and validated bad behavior. I thought it was best to let insults roll off my back instead of grabbing them by the neck and confronting them. After all, why add tension to an already stressful situation? But while having compassion for others is admirable, having compassion for everyone but myself was unhealthy.

It isn’t easy to change long-established patterns, and thus far I have addressed it inexpertly, with an email following a hurtful conversation. What I need to do is listen to my heart when it aches because of something that has been said instead of automatically dismissing the feeling. Then I need to find out whether I am correctly hearing frustration, irritation, or disappointment; if so, am I the cause of those feelings? If I am, I will take responsibility for my actions, but regardless, I will remind my boys that despite my faults and limitations, I still deserve to be spoken to with respect.

I have no doubt this will be difficult—for each of us—but I love my sons enough to want them to have successful and healthy relationships, and the change in their behavior might as well begin with their relationship with me.

Image via Shutterstock.com

Bryna Kranzler is the author of the award-winning historical biography The Accidental Anarchist and the forthcoming 9 Critical Steps to Successful Self-Publishing. She works as a developmental and copyeditor, copywriter, and publishing consultant.

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