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While my children were growing up I was able to protect them, to a degree, from their father’s (my ex-husband) pornography and sexual addiction. Now that they are grown, they keep getting hurt by trying to have a relationship with him. It is much the same kind of hurt as what I felt when I was married to him. He expects them to adjust their way of thinking to accommodate his, and if they don’t, he blasts them with “you are the problem, not me.” He is in a rough place now and his parents and siblings call our kids to tell them how much their father needs them to comfort him since they just can’t be that for him right now. My kids are torn between trying to be like the Savior and their own human pain. Any suggestions would be helpful.
Your children are in a tough spot because they have built-in instincts to bond with their father, but when he’s in active addiction, he doesn’t have the capacity to respond back in nurturing and connecting ways. It’s virtually impossible to disable our innate desire to reach for connection, so the answer isn’t as simple as telling them to just keep their distance. They’ll need help understanding how to set healthy limits with him.
Family support groups for loved ones with addictions are a great place to get education and support. The LDS Church has support groups for family members that can help each of your children begin making sense of their individual relationships with their father. They can locate a meeting in their area on this website and begin reading the family support manual. (https://addictionrecovery.lds.org/spouses-and-families/1?lang=eng)
You can remind your children that while there is nothing wrong with trying to connect to their father, they need to recognize that realistic expectations of what he can and can’t give them in return will help protect them. That way, interactions with him don’t leave them feeling diminished and rejected.
While you can’t do anything about what your ex-husband’s family says to your children, you can remind your children that they can set limits with their father the same way his parents and siblings are doing. His family recognizes their limits and your children can also learn to recognize their limits. If their father is burning bridges with loved ones, your children need to have permission to back away to protect themselves.
Setting limits doesn’t mean that your children aren’t being Christlike. When I read the scriptures, it’s pretty clear to me that the Savior regularly set limits with others to protect his energy, avoid pointless confrontations, and to make time for his most important priorities. It’s common to believe that because Jesus Christ has infinite love for us and sacrificed everything for us that we should ignore our own limits to love and serve others.
We are taught in the Doctrine and Covenants that one of the fruits of charity is peace.[i] Your children can ask for this gift of charity and know that if they’re feeling peace even when they’re setting limits, then they are truly doing what’s in the best interest of themselves and their father. It is an act of love to prevent someone from abusing those they love. Elder Kevin R. Duncan reminds us that, “To forgive is not to condone. We do not rationalize bad behavior or allow others to mistreat us because of their struggles, pains, or weaknesses.”[ii]
Your children have been hurt by their father and they will be able to forgive him and have peace when they establish healthy limits with him. It’s difficult to register the delicate feelings of the Spirit when we’re in the middle of relationship chaos. It’s also impossible to heal wounds that are actively getting agitated. Elder David E. Sorensen said, “The Savior asks us to forsake and combat evil in all its forms, and although we must forgive a neighbor who injures us, we should still work constructively to prevent that injury from being repeated.”[iii]
As you give your children permission to pay attention to and honor their own limits, they will be in a better position to interact with their father. Further education through books and group support can also help them learn from others who have been through similar experiences.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geo[email protected]
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] D&C 88:125