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Dear Emuna: Why Daddy Left

November 6, 2011 | by Emuna Braverman

How do I explain to my son why his father isn't coming back?

Dear Emuna,

My son's father moved out of the country. He is very inconsistent with his Skype contact and gives no support. How can I explain to my six-year-old why his father left? What reason could I possibly tell give him? I want to protect him from getting hurt or feeling abandoned.

-- Concerned Mother

Dear Concerned,

This is a tough one. No matter how old your child and how carefully and thoughtfully you explain it, your child will probably still end up feeling hurt and abandoned. Frequently small children feel like they are at fault also and you will need to constantly reassure him on that account. All parents, whatever their circumstances, want to protect their children from pain. And all parents, whatever their circumstances, are incapable of doing so. The world was not created that way. There will inevitably be challenges and pain and struggles in every one’s life. We cannot protect our children from all pain. And sometimes we even cripple them by trying.

We cannot shield our children from all pain, but we can give them the resources to cope with the situation.

What we can do is give our children the resources to cope with the situation. This usually involves providing emotional stability and some practical tools. For a six-year-old (actually for every age!), the emotional security is much more crucial. You need to constantly reassure him of your love for him and promise that you are not going anywhere. Any bitterness and frustration you feel towards your ex-husband, however justified, must not be expressed in front of him. He needs to be told that his father loves him too, that he had to leave the country for reasons nothing to do with his son and that his absence from his son is a great source of pain to him.

I don’t care whether this is true in your situation or not; you need to tell this to your son. And you need to go out of your way to be there for him and establish a secure home. Constant expressions of your love for him and his father’s love for him are crucial.

As he gets older, he may ask for more details. Be careful, go slowly, and be age-appropriate. A parent’s job is to focus on their child’s needs, not their own. Do not tell him how you feel about his father; tell him what he needs to hear. At some point in the future, his father may want to reinitiate contact or be more consistently in touch. Your son will probably welcome that joyously and you may feel frustrated, resentful, and even jealous. Your feelings are normal, possibly warranted. But again, your son must be spared them – that’s the real protection you need to give him.

Divorce is excruciatingly painful for everyone involved. You can’t take away the pain but you can continue to provide him a home full of warmth, security and love. That will give him the strength and confidence he needs to confront all the challenges that will come his way.

-- Emuna

Dear Emuna,

I am married and I have a married sister. My sister is in her second marriage and every time she is married she isolates herself from her family (meaning my parents and me). She stays away for weeks at a time and whenever I suggest getting together, she always says how busy she and her husband are. I understand that they are busy trying to create a business. But I am busy too and I always have time to see my parents. It hurts me so deeply that my sister does not want to see me at least once or twice a month. I have tried to work on myself to try to not let it bother me, but some days it makes me sick how she can be without seeing us for such long periods of time. She once told me that she thinks about me and loves me even though we don't see each other often. I find this very hard to accept and I wish I did not need her presence in my life at all.

I have discussed this in therapy and the therapist said that this pain runs very deep inside of me. I have tried and continue to try to get my sister out of my head, and sometimes I am okay, but other times I feel so much anger towards her for isolating herself from me and my parents.

Do you have any suggestions on how I can resolve this conflict inside of myself and not let my sister's absence get to me? I am fully aware that I can only change myself and have no control over my sister's behavior, but it still hurts.

-- Sister in Pain.

Dear Sister in Pain,

I have a few suggestions but I must preface them with the caveat that you have shared with me a very limited view of the situation. Let’s start with the relationship between your sister and your parents. If you are in pain on your parent’s behalf, that is wonderfully caring and empathic of you. But it’s important to introspect and make sure that it’s not some kind of resentment that you are tending to your parents and she isn’t.

Secondly, you have to recognize that this is between your parents and her. If they express their pain to you, you should suggest they discuss it with your sister directly. It is not healthy to be stuck in the middle. If they don’t express any frustration to you, then don’t worry about it. Maybe they have made peace with the situation. Maybe they have different expectations of her for some reason you don’t understand.

If you are not angry but in pain, sit down with her and tell her how much she means to you.

In terms of your own relationship with your sister, there are a few issues. You mention that you have discussed your pain with your therapist. Have you discussed it with your sister? That is step one. If you have, how did you do it? If you attack out of frustration and resentment you will not get the response you desire. I have found through experience that very few people can resist a sincere, emotional appeal. If you are not angry but in pain, sit down with her and tell her how much she means to you, how much the relationship means to you, how much it hurts you not to see her more often. If you mean what you say, there will probably be some tears and your sister will probably respond accordingly. Everyone wants to be loved. And no one wants to be attacked.

If you follow up on this suggestion and, despite your best efforts, you are unsuccessful, then you will need to just accept the reality. This is the relationship you were given with your sister. It is what it is and you need to make the best of it and move on. Constantly railing against it or feeling frustrated accomplishes nothing. Let it go. I hope it won’t come to that but if it does then acceptance is the key, not anger.

-- Emuna

Dear Emuna,

I was recently betrayed by a very close friend and am having a very hard time moving on. After being there for her through every crisis for the past few years, I helped her resolve her issues with her husband, with whom she had no emotional relationship. Now she has stopped calling me entirely and has told me that she needs to invest her energies in her family. She has thanked me for being such a dedicated friend but said that she needs to move on. I can't figure out how she could have ended our relationship unilaterally without taking my feelings into account at all. I truly believed that we were the closest of friends (she told me that all the time) and never in a million years thought that she would leave me, especially without any obvious cause or warning. My feelings fluctuate between missing her and being furious at her. Do you have any advice to help me move on?


-- Sleepless in Seattle

Dear Sleepless,

I know how hurtful this can be but it doesn’t sound like she actually betrayed you. Betrayal to me (I’m not looking at a dictionary) seems to imply some malicious action designed to cause hurt. This doesn’t sound like the situation here. You were there for your friend through serious crises and now she has transferred a lot of that emotional energy to her husband. That leaves a hole in your life which I understand. But you need to focus on the good – it is better for her that she has an emotional relationship with her husband and directs her energies there. A true friend, hard as it may be, wants what’s best for her friend, not the satisfaction of her own needs.

It sounds like the friendship had a strong basis in your holding her hand through her crises. But the real goal should be to help get her through those, not keep her constantly in crisis so you can continue to hold her hand. Additionally sometimes when people have been very revealing, especially about their marriages and other deep personal issues, they feel embarrassed around their confidant. It may be awkward for her that she is rebuilding her relationship with her husband that she criticized so frequently to you. She may feel you judge her, she may feel too exposed, she may feel you don’t understand her choices. She may even be right.

Either way, you should take pleasure in the fact that you were able to help her and that she is moving forward in a positive direction. That would be a sign of true friendship. And when she does get her marriage and her family back in a stable place and she turns to you to renew the friendship, perhaps a new friendship based on shared goals and not just drama and crisis, you should be there to welcome her with open arms.

-- Emuna

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