My husband and I are separated right now and I’m not sure how long we’ll need to be separated. Our marriage isn’t great and it’s just best for now that we separate. My question involves our kids. The kids are staying with me in our home and my husband has another place to stay in town. We agreed to set up a visitation schedule to keep things consistent for the kids. The evenings, though, are totally wide open as far as contact with the kids. My husband doesn’t call the kids to say “goodnight” and doesn’t ever call them to see how they’re doing. He only sees them for the weekly visits at his place. My kids don’t ask every day to talk to him, but it seems weird that he would be so distant from them during this separation. Should I be worried about the kids having less contact with their dad?
Your husband is ultimately in charge of his own relationship with each of his children, regardless of where he lives. My guess is that when he was living in the home, he most likely didn’t have a close relationship with his children. Daily physical proximity can lull us into a false sense of connection with our children. Being around our children isn’t the same as being there for our children. In other words, just because a parent is physically around the house doesn’t mean they’re building a meaningful relationship with their children. It takes intentional effort to see and respond to the unique needs of each family member.
If he’s not been investing much effort in his relationship with his children, then your children won’t feel they’re missing much with him out of the home. I’m not minimizing the fact that the loss of his physical presence may be difficult for everyone, but if your children aren’t saying much about his absence, chances are, not much has changed for them. As strange as it may sound, you may be the only who is distressed about his lack of responsiveness. The children may have already accepted his unavailability. And, if he doesn’t have much of a relationship with the children, then he’s likely not terribly distressed about missing them.
I don’t recommend you jump in and force him or the kids to manufacture relationships that aren’t authentic. If you care to speak with him about this, I recommend you address it with him directly. You might say to him something like, “I’ve noticed there isn’t a lot of contact with the kids between visits and I want to make sure you know I’m supportive of you calling and connecting with the kids as much as you want to.” Make your support obvious and then let him oversee the building of his own relationship with the children.
You can also make sure that the children know they can call their dad anytime they want. If they know it’s available to them and they choose not to do anything about it, then they are simply responding honestly to the lack of relationship with their father.
Again, you’re grieving the loss of the dream where your husband and children feel close to you and each other. While I don’t know why he’s pulling away, he has to be mature enough to face this reality with you and his children.
It’s also possible that he’s upset about the separation and is pulling away from everyone to protest this new arrangement. If that’s the case, stay on course with repairing the marriage and don’t pull the kids into the middle by forcing contact with them or making it a point of additional contention. While it’s sad that he might be punishing you and the children in a protest of disagreement, he’ll eventually need to express his thoughts and feelings on the matter.
Regardless of what happens to your marriage, he will need to build a relationship with each of your children. You can’t be the ultimate go-between with their relationships. Trust that your husband and your children will create the kind of relationship they want to have with each other. If it doesn’t look as connected or meaningful as you would like it, then it’s important to own your reactions and not interfere. If you engineer something between them that doesn’t represent what they really want, then it will ultimately fail. He can decide what kind of father he wants to be and they can decide whether they want to engage with him. As difficult as it may be to watch, you can trust that it’s exactly what each of them desires.
Focus on making the needed repairs in your marriage and continue to build individual relationships with each of your children. Make your home a safe place for them to talk about their experiences with the separation and anything else that may be on their minds. If they have things to share about their father, you can listen respectfully and validate their experiences.
Separations can expose fractured relationship dynamics that are difficult to detect in the familiarity of daily living. If his relationship with his kids existed more out of passive proximity rather than intentional connection, this is important feedback and a chance to restructure his bond with his children.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
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About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.