Partial Estrangement: Are You Betraying Your Spouse by Talking to Your Child?

estrangement from only one parent“I want to have a relationship with my son, but his father thinks we should present a united front.”

This is a common dilemma for parents caught in the middle in partial-estrangement situations.

Partial estrangement – that is, cutoff from one parent but not the other – leaves both the targeted parent and the favored parent in difficult positions.

As an estrangement specialist, I’ve worked with many couples dealing with partial estrangement.

Sometimes it’s the father who’s cut off by an adult child, sometimes the mother. The child may be a son or a daughter. I’ve seen just about every combination of this unpleasant scenario.

United We Fall

The “united front” argument is often put forth because it seems that as long as the child has access to the favored parent, there are no consequences for estranging the other.

This makes good sense on the face of it. What incentive is there for change, when the child has exactly what she wants?

If there were any evidence that a united front would move a partially estranged adult child back into contact with both parents, this strategy could work.

But when the favored parent insists on including the targeted parent in all communications, the most common result is estrangement from both parents. This is not a win for anybody, neither parents nor child.

Now, instead of one parent forming a bridge to the child, both parents are cut off. There’s often no way to obtain further information about the child’s whereabouts, activities, or thinking. Even though the parents are now united, they’re united in defeat.

This may feel ever-so-slightly better to the formerly singled-out parent, but the overall situation has deteriorated.

One at a Time

If you’re the targeted parent in a partial estrangement, take comfort in the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. The better your spouse’s relationship with your child, the closer you are to him or her unless there’s an inappropriate intergenerational alliance between them — RC members, see my interview with Steve Berman on triangulation).

If you’re the favored parent, your unconditional positive regard for your child, regardless of whether they’re talking to your spouse right now, will benefit all of you.

First, letting your child be close to you without insisting on including the targeted parent will strengthen your own bond. Once that happens, your child will feel stronger psychologically, to the point where s/he may even decide to include your spouse spontaneously.

Regardless, having a good relationship with you will make it more cumbersome to continue to exclude your spouse. Your child’s good feelings toward you may open the door to empathy. S/he might even start to feel bad because…

1) You’re sacrificing time with your spouse to spend time with your child, and

2) Even though you no longer talk about it, your child knows how you feel about the family being broken up by his/her continued estrangement from your spouse.

Once reconciliation with your spouse feels entirely optional to your child, s/he may be more likely to entertain that option. Never forget that it’s easier for everybody when there’s no estrangement – including your child.

If you feel, as many caught-in-the-middle parents do, that you’re betraying your spouse by enjoying a relationship with your child, remember that you’re not responsible for your spouse’s relationship with his or her children.

He or she may need to do some reading, reflection, and personal development work in order to repair his or her relationship(s) with your child(ren). That’s not something you can do. Your job is to tend to your own relationships.

Love is not a zero-sum commodity. You don’t have to choose between your spouse and your child. You love them both. And your relationships with both of them are important to you.

Let that be equally true for your spouse. When it comes to personal growth and the repair of important relationships, each of us must do our own heavy lifting.

The “united front” strategy is not only ineffective, it also keeps people stuck in place instead of encouraging them to grow.

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