STAYING FOR THE KIDS
Not a week goes by that I don’t see a post on my women’s support group in which an abused woman is asking if she should “stay for the kids.” I always stop what I’m doing to respond.
Whether the fire is abuse, alcoholism, chronic neglect, narcissism, addiction, lying (infidelity) or oppositional conflict, the fact remains that the House is on FIRE. When in a House of Fire, your first obligation is to get the kids OUT. You don’t stay in a House of Fire to negotiate with the arsonist. If you do, the kids will get burned and the scars will be permanent.
We think we’re staying “for the kids.” Instead, we should LEAVE “for the kids.” Living in a House of Fire causes the children inexplicable suffering. First and foremost, there is likely to be confusing and crazy-making communication (circular arguments, turning the tables, projection, blame-shifting.) This is hurtful to their sense of reality and destructive to their confidence in their own perceptions.
There are so many things not said, unspoken, when an unhealthy dynamic permeates the house. It might be the cruel things that a drunk said, and no one is talking about it. It might be anger to distract from lies, and nobody is explaining the source of the random anger. It might be rages designed to bully and intimidate. If you are trying to raise a family in a House of Fire, ignoring the crazy-making behavior only adds to the fire. If you aren’t talking about “it”, then the children can’t talk about “it.” And if no one is talking about “it”, then the kids are left to sort “it” out on their own. They take in the cruel words blurted out in a rant; they learn not to believe the liar who is cheating; they learn not to talk about certain subjects, or anything that remotely approaches touchy subjects.
Children raised in a House of Fire, experience first and foremost fear and shame. They may fear the unknown. Is anything scarier than the unknown? They may fear a parent who drinks or rages; but they may fear the other parent who numbs out or mentally checks out because she is overwhelmed. They may fear challenging a scary parent. That fear and intimidation is carried with them to school and everywhere they go. They may become afraid to go to sleep because that’s when the voices get loud, or the dreams may come. They may fear the strange or hostile reaction when they ask the “wrong” questions. Seeing the abused partner put up with the abuse, they may fear that leaving is even worse (which is a very scary thought.) There is so much to fear in a House of Fire.
And the shame….. it is crippling. If they had the words (abuse, narcissism, bi-polar, alcoholism, neglect) they could understand what is being brought on them. But without the words and their meanings, the children feel ashamed. Ashamed that it is happening. Ashamed that they can’t save the other parent. Ashamed they can’t confront and take down the abusive parent. Ashamed of their fear. Fear, and shame of their fear- the twin heads of the children who live in a House of Fire.
If you are living in a House of Fire, do not keep your children in the house while you try to salvage the relationship, save, or change the arsonist destroying your family’s home. If you do, the children will end up with shame, fear, guilt, PTSD, and no idea what a healthy role model is. There can be no peace where abuse, neglect, addiction, and lying are happening. It is better to get the kids out and create a refuge from your abuser’s chaos. If you get them out, they will have one refuge. If you keep them there, they will have no refuge.
The children cannot leave without you, the one and only parent who can pull them from the flames. They have but one childhood. They have one childhood that can have some semblance of peace and calm and predictability; or it can be a never-ending bonfire of unexpected emotions and rages and confusing accusations.
If you keep them in a House of Fire, they will not thank you, for you could have taken them out but you chose to keep them in. They will ask you “Why? Why did you stay?” If you tell them, “I stayed for you,” that will be transparently false. They will tell you, “We were kids. We needed you to protect us FROM him. We needed you to get us out.” The truth is, if you stay, you are sacrificing their well-being to a fantasy of changing or saving the disordered partner.
There are rational reasons partners stay. They may feel they have more control inside the House of Fire, than outside it. If they believe that the disordered abuser will be able to gain custody or unsupervised visitation, they may judge the marriage to be safer than divorce. From inside the House of Fire, they may be able to limit and control the time spent unsupervised, and the risk exposure. There are financial risks in leaving. There are logistical risks in leaving; and there are safety risks in leaving. Risk is something that must be explored with a therapist and an attorney.
If you are in a House of Fire, TALK to the kids about what just happened after incidents. Typically alcoholics and abusers are overwhelmingly rejecting to the children. Ignoring it or pretending it didn’t happen, leaves the hurtful words in place, echoing in the child’s ear. You must speak up and refute the words. A simple, “I completely disagree” is speaking up for your child. Do not answer or respond to his anger and demands. Say “No. This is not acceptable. This is not going to work. No, you are not entitled to talk to us that way.” This is a non-violent way of refusing to accept the abuse.
Get the kids in therapy. Therapy will help them stay sane and manage the fear and shame. A therapist can help later in a custody dispute by speaking as an independent observer.
Tell people. Tell a therapist. Tell the pediatrician. Tell your family. Silence and hiding only strengthens his hand.
If you need help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.