Custodial parent has power
Q. Two years ago, my husband and I separated after 25 years of marriage. We have a daughter who lives on her own and a 15-year-old son who chose to live with his dad. The greatest problem in our marriage was that my husband constantly undermined me where the children were concerned. Last year, our 15-year-old was attending a private school where he failed eighth grade. He wasn't readmitted, so he went to public school where he didn't perform but was promoted anyway. This year, he has made no grade higher than a C. I'm very concerned, but I can't talk to my ex-husband without him feeling like I'm attacking him or preaching to him, which I'm not. The fact is, we have vastly different expectations. He thinks everything will turn out fine. I think our son's problems are getting worse. My ex-husband absolutely refuses to go to counseling with me about this. What can I do?
A. There are at least five things going on here. First, your son has figured out that he can get by with next to nothing in a public high school environment -- a sad comment on the state of American public education. Second, he's figured out that his father will do nothing meaningful in response to his bad grades. Third, his father knows his inaction drives you nuts; therefore, his continued inaction. Fourth, you obviously don't understand that whether or not you think you are attacking your ex-, the only thing that counts is that he thinks you are attacking him. Fifth, you have not yet figured out that you are playing right into your ex-husband's passive-aggressive manner of expressing hostility toward you.
You need to face facts. Your ex-husband is the custodial parent. Therefore, and unless you can effect a change of custody (which is highly unlikely at this stage of the game), his definition of the problem, or whether he even acknowledges that there is a problem, will determine the course of events. It follows that you need to stop trying to micromanage your ex-husband's response, or lack of it, to your son's school performance. After all, you couldn't get him to cooperate with you concerning the kids when you were married to him. What in the world makes you think you can get him to cooperate now that you are no longer married?
Furthermore, regardless of your motive, he interprets any attempt on your part to "help" as constituting an attack, and his response is passive-aggressive. Result: The situation goes steadily from bad to worse.
What you know
You already know that your influence in this matter is non-existent and that the harder you try to assert influence, the more resistance you encounter. You are simply having difficulty accepting what you already know. Likewise, it may be hard for you to accept that there may be no ready-made solution to your son's school problems, but that certainly seems to be the case. The school won't do much about it; his father won't do anything about it; so why should your son come to his senses and do something about it?
Under these rather problematic circumstances, your job is simply to love your son and, in so doing, let him know that you are and always will be there for him. You can only pray that at some hopefully near point in his life, he will realize the mistakes he has made and will take his own bull by the horns.
The sad truth, one that many people have difficulty accepting, is that the problems which develop out of a divorce may not be any more solvable than the problems that led to the divorce. In the final analysis, divorce -- where children are involved -- doesn't eliminate problems; it just gives rise to a whole new set of them.
XJohn Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th Street, Suite 26B, Indianapolis, IN 46240 and at his Web site: http://www.rosemond.com/.