Should I leave for my kids or should I stay for my kids? This has to be one of the toughest questions I have ever faced in life.
What is right for the kids?
Which way is the least damaging to their young hearts?
How do I protect them from the damage? Can I protect them?
What about custody battles and visitation rights?
How painful is all this for them?
What really is right for the kids?
These are extremely difficult questions to answer. You can turn a lot of different directions and find a lot of different opinions. Some people would say get out as quickly as you can. Others will say stick it out for the kids. I don't know what is right for you, whether you should leave or stay, or do it now or later. But I can tell you this - you are the only one that can answer this. No one else can.
You may not know right now what to do, and that is OK. You don’t have to decide today. Start digging into your heart. You will know when it is time to make a decision.
When I started learning about narcissism (out of necessity), everything I read said “Get out! Run as fast as you can! Don’t wait!” The articles talked about how bad the damage is when you stay, but none of them compared this to the damage of leaving. My strongest concern has been my kids. What is right for them?? How do I figure this out?
Let me take a moment and say, every situation is completely different. Some situations call for immediate separation and divorce. Others allow you more freedom in choosing your time for departure. In my situation, his chosen addiction is a large part of what allowed me to keep the family together as long as I have. His addiction is gaming and electronics. He spent hours and hours everyday doing this, alone in a separate room of the house. So the boys and I lived our lives without him. We laughed, played, and enjoyed life. Our life without him was quite normal and happy. However when he then decided that he needed to come spend time with us, it was a disaster. That’s when all the narcissism would come boiling out.
I completely understand the need to get out of these environments. They are intolerable and such a waste of precious life energy, both for you and your kids. Damage to the heart and soul is happening on a daily basis. But my mind kept asking, “What makes me believe that filing for divorce is going to cause that damage to stop?” In reality, it isn’t. My kids are still going to have to manage a relationship with him, and for the rest of their lives. I have to help them now, while I’m still in this house with them.
I began weighing things in my mind and heart. If I filed for divorce while they were still young, these were some of the nightmares I saw coming:
First will be his reaction to the divorce filing. That is going to be incredibly ugly. He will throw our kids into the middle of it. He will absolutely try to turn them against me, a side of him that he has already shown a few times. It is not fair to any child to have to pick sides between their parents. They are simply trying to grow and learn about life.
Next, the divorce attorneys are telling me that I have to live with him through the divorce proceedings. YUCK!! And this with the boys in the house. I don’t have to tell you that won’t be pleasant for anyone. This makes the current damage look like a small windstorm compared to a cyclone that would hit.
Then comes the custody battles. I have heard nightmares and horror stories. Courts awarding custody to narcissistic parents. The healthy and safe parent being cut out of the picture and not seeing their own kids for a year. Not happening!!!! I am not putting the future of my kids into the hands of the court system.
I firmly believe that I would have gotten custody of them, but there was no guarantee. He doesn’t hit them, doesn’t sexually abuse them, doesn’t drink, doesn’t sleep around. The abuse is verbal and emotional. It is covert and subtle and thus hidden from most of the world. Yet it is incredibly damaging!!
Now, let’s say I do get custody. Ok, then what? The courts aren’t going to say that he never gets to see them or spend time with them. Now my boys will have to go spend weekends with him and some holiday breaks. All this without me around. This is the one that I couldn’t get out of my head. I just couldn’t handle the thought of them trapped in his house for a weekend, dealing with his negativity and emotionally draining tactics, imprisoned in those despisable circular conversations.
One weekend night, with all of us living in the same house, he trapped our 14-year old son in one of “those” conversations. It was Easter Sunday. Afterwards, he left our son’s room and headed to bed. He was in bed and sound asleep within 10 minutes. Yet I found our 14-year old son on his closet floor, curled up with his stuffed animals from childhood, and crying his eyes out. He was saying over and over, “I hate myself!” He left our son feeling like a worthless pile of you-know-what! And yet he went sound asleep like he didn’t have a care in the world.
I spent the next hour with our son. First I took him outside to our workout room and let him turn it loose on a hanging bag. (We train in martial arts.) He wore himself out and burned up a lot of the negative energy. Then I sat with him and talked for awhile. He told me all about the conversation with his dad and how it made him feel. I simply let him talk and told him that I completely understood. Finally, at around 11:30 that night, he said that he was calm enough to sleep peacefully. He thanked me sincerely and intensely for staying with him and helping him. All I did was love him and listen.
If he had been spending the weekend with his dad when this happened, I wouldn’t have been there to help pick up the pieces. He would have been on his own to do that, and at such a young age. At these young ages, the kids just aren’t emotionally mature enough to handle it alone. This is what leads to so much confusion in their young minds and hearts.
At the very least, the courts will give visitation rights of some sort. You see, whether I divorce him now or later, the kids will still have to deal with him. The damage will still be there. Divorce does not always take the damage away!
These two boys of mine are going to have to figure out how to manage a relationship of some sort with their father. At least if I am with them while they are figuring out how to do that, I can provide emotional safety and guidance to them. Their dad continued manipulating and verbally abusing, but I have been there to support them. If they were spending weekends alone with him, I would not have been there to do this. It would not change the abuse, only the aftermath.
So I chose to stay. I gave the boys permission to express their feelings to me. I let them blow up in anger and helped them find outlets for their extreme frustration. I talked with them about setting boundaries with their father. I helped them find ways to do that. I remember the day that I said to them, “I realize you want to blow up at your dad. If you are ready to tell him how you feel, it is okay. I ask that you be honest with him, and I ask that you not be unnecessarily mean. Let the truth speak for itself. If you can do this, I will stay out of your way.” They both were greatly relieved that they had the freedom to express their feelings, even to their father. For more on providing emotional safety to our kids, take a look at my page on Breaking the Cycle.
Over time, they started doing this. They have done it with respect because I have taught them that treating people with respect is about who they themselves are, not about who their father is. They have both been strong enough now to tell their father how they feel about him and about how he has treated them all these years. Yes it has been painful, but at the same time it has been healing for them. Now I am confident that they can go forward with their life. Yes, they will have some form of relationship with their father. But it will be on their terms, not his.
If I had divorced their father years ago, I don’t believe that this would have happened this way. Maybe. I’ll never be able to really know. I do feel that in my situation it has been the right choice to stay for these boys. They are almost grown, and I am looking forward to my freedom. I am confident that when it is time to go, I will know it.
I can’t tell you whether you should stay or not. Every situation is so different. All I can say is listen to your heart. You are the only one that knows if it is time to go or if that time hasn’t come yet. Some situations are just too extreme to stay. If that is the case for you, then get out. But in some situations, the lesser of two evils is to stay. You must realize that you cannot possibly protect them from damage. They are going to be harmed by their narcissistic parent, whether you leave or stay.
If your heart is telling you that you should stay for now, then you should listen to it. It does not mean that you are condoning the narcissistic behavior. I am appalled at his behavior and absolutely hate it! It does not mean that you are blindly hopeful that your relationship will magically be fixed. I knew that ours was over long ago. He is never going to change, and I can’t live like this for the rest of my life.
Either way you will doubt yourself and question your choice a million times. I had days where I just knew that I was making the wrong decision. Days that I was SO ready to throw in the towel and run away as far and as fast as I could. I assure you that it wasn’t easy.
But I knew that I could do this for my kids! And now, on the other side, I am extremely glad that I did!