Your husband’s adult child or children aren’t talking to him, and he’s obviously in pain about it. Maybe it’s been years since they last saw each other.
Your heart aches for your spouse. The months keep rolling by, and nothing changes. He doesn’t know what to do…
So you went online and found this article, hoping to learn how you can help him. You’ve come to the right place, because this article offers ideas for spouses of estranged fathers. Please note that if your husband’s children are minors in the custody of someone else, this article may not apply.
(If you are the mother of your husband’s estranged adult child(ren), please also see my article on partial estrangement, at https://reconnectionclub.com/partial-estrangement/ )
Here are some things a spouse can do in order to be supportive…
First, the three-step nutshell version:
1. Validate your husband’s pain; this is a devastating problem.
2. Gently reframe his child(ren)’s behavior as self-protective, rather than punitive. Assure him that if they’re like most people, they would be happy to have a relationship with their one and only father… as long as the cost isn’t too high (I’ll talk about this later).
3. Encourage him to try to repair those relationships. He is far from powerless.
Now, the longer version.
Many men lose contact with their adult children after a divorce. Fault lines that existed before the divorce erupt into full-blown rifts, and estrangement is born.
Traditionally, fathers spent less time with young children than mothers did. They had less opportunity to bond during their kids’ childhood. Hence, if a time came when children felt compelled to choose between their parents, mothers as a group had the upper hand.
Even if no such choice was required in your husband’s children’s case, they may not be inclined to try to re-establish a relationship with him today.
Once estrangement is in place for whatever reason, fathers tend to do less than mothers to try to reconcile with their children. That explains in part why estrangement from fathers may last longer on average than estrangement from mothers.
Estrangement as Self-Protection
Regarding the cost mentioned in #2 above. We know from the research that adult children create distance from parents for one reason: Self-protection. They’re protecting themselves from some painful aspect of that particular relationship: disappointment, hurt, awkwardness, feeling abandoned or invisible, etc.
This is a difficult revelation for parents, most of whom did their best to parent well. The idea that your husband disappointed his children in some way is probably hard for him to think about. The only antidote is to recognize that he’s still his children’s father. And as such, he has the power to change the picture.
If passivity isn’t working for him, your husband can begin to take action. Information is available to help him solve this problem. It starts with understanding that parenting never ends.
Parenting as a Skill Set
We first learn about parenting behaviors and attitudes from our own parents. Without upgrading these through conscious learning and practice, our skills remain the same.
How did your husband’s father do in the parenting department? What important skills did he pass down that your husband could use in parenting his own children? Empathy. Compassion. Listening. Respect for differences. How well did your father-in-law incorporate those into his own role as your husband’s dad?
If the answer is “not very,” then your husband likely has work to do. He didn’t have the role model he needed, which is not his fault. (It’s not his father’s fault either, since he was simply doing what he learned from his own father. And so on, and so on.)
Being a loving and lovable father is a set of skills that can be learned, if your husband is willing.
The surest way through the current impasse with his adult children is for him to acquire and develop new skills. He needs to know that he’s capable of – and responsible for – solving this problem. And that there’s no shame in not having known how to solve it before.
The only real shame is in refusing to take advantage of current opportunities for learning and growth.
Change Is Possible
Your husband’s children may be keeping their distance because they think they know what they’re going to get from him. And that he’ll never be the father they’d like him to be. So they think, ‘Why waste the energy?’
But no one knows what anyone is capable of until that person is asked to step up and face his own challenges.
Why are you reading this article? Why isn’t your husband the one searching for answers? Maybe you both share the assumption that he’s not responsible for, or capable of, solving relationship problems.
If that’s the case, you’re both doing him a disservice.
The days when men were excused from relationship maintenance and repair are over. No matter how old he is, expect more from him. Encourage him to expect more from himself. Let him know that he CAN be the change he’d like to see in his relationships with his children — relationships he may have been neglecting because he didn’t yet have the tools to work on them.
If your husband is truly incapable of change, you won’t know it until you step back and let him try. Follow the three steps above. Offer empathy, but also information and encouragement. Be the person in his life who expects him to be (or become) skilled at managing relationships.
Not only will this approach support him in his continuing personal growth, it’s also better for you. You don’t belong in the middle between your husband and his children.
Resources for Estranged Dads
Provided his children are adults, your husband could benefit from a careful reading of my book, Reconnecting with Your Estranged Adult Child. He can also join the Reconnection Club for ongoing support as he works on the changes he wants to make.
Please have him join the Club himself. If you join the Club and post in our forums asking how you can help him reconnect, I’ll ask you why you’re posting on his behalf. He can learn more about the Reconnection Club here.
If you’re shaking your head, thinking ‘My husband will never read that book or join the Reconnection Club,’ you’ve effectively declared him incompetent. Give him a chance by pointing him in the right direction, then refusing to do this work for him.
IMPORTANT: It’s possible (actually, it’s likely) that your husband feels shame about the situation with his kids. It’s hard to scratch the surface of just about any parent without exposing some shame around parenting. And this is even more true for parents rejected by their own children.
Even if he doesn’t admit to feelings of shame, say this to him anyway: “There’s nothing wrong with needing some help with this. Lots of parents are in the same boat.” It’s true, and it might help.