Globe and Mail

Role of surrogate spouse unhealthy for child

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Dear Sheldon:

I have been married for 8 years and have a six-year-old child. My wife is exhibiting what I think is very controlling and dysfunctional behaviour with respect to our daughter.

For example, she insists on sleeping with the child in our bed, forcing me to sleep in a separate bed; this has been ongoing since her birth. When travelling by car, she prefers to sit in the back seat with her. There is no discussion whatsoever regarding child-related expenses; she makes purchases without consulting me.

On the few occasions when I've attempted to discipline the child for what I perceive to be normal childish bratty behaviour, my wife interferes saying the child isn't behaving because she isn't feeling well. More recently, she failed to provide me with our daughter's report card (she claims she forgot to show me). She further said that the report card was kept with a stack of bills and other paperwork and that I should look for it myself.

I feel that I am impotent in having any influence over my daughter's upbringing, and I am very seriously considering a divorce (we have other interpersonal problems beyond the issues regarding the child). I am quite concerned about our daughter's well being, especially if I decide to pursue the divorce. Any thoughts on how best to handle this would be appreciated.
-- T.M.

Dear T.M.,

Don't be surprised that I am about to recommend counselling to you and your wife. Of course, children should not be sleeping with one parent while the other is banished from the bedroom. This action draws the child into the middle of the parental conflict, which you state is ongoing. Children do not thrive when they are thrown into the role of surrogate spouse, emotional booster or parental ally. Children need to be nurtured by both parents and carefully left out of spousal concerns. You probably have your own areas of responsibility for what has gone wrong in this marriage but your wife should not exploit your child if she has beefs with you. This may damage your daughter emotionally for life. What to do? You have three main choices: one is to divorce, another is to live together with the status quo and suffer, and the third is to try and repair the marriage. I ask you to try the third option because published studies are starting to show that divorce is not good for children's mental health. Start by having a discussion with your wife, which indicates your desire to explore repairing the marriage in a constructive way. Discuss ways to do this, which can range from talking to your clergy person, self-help reading, seeking marital-skills training courses, to professional counselling. Let your wife know that this unhealthy situation between the two of you cannot continue any longer and that the matter is urgent. Invite her to suggest avenues for repair. Show her my reply. Surely she doesn't want anything bad to happen to your daughter. Choose whatever means or method you like, just do it now. Try everything you can to make your family work and only use divorce as an option if all else fails.

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