Burning Down the House: When Family Relationships Fracture and Partners Leave

Depicts feet walking out the door.

Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks.

The messages come with depressing regularity on support forums: “Well, my marriage is over.” “How do I get my husband on board?” “I don’t think my marriage can survive this stress much longer.” And while the details differ, the heart of the conflict is almost always the same. One partner in a couple, usually a male, refuses to accept that his child (or step-child or partner’s child) has a genuine medical problem, refuses to alter his discipline techniques or participate in therapy, and frequently blames the female partner (assuming a male-female couple) for the child’s condition, perhaps claiming she coddles the child or makes excuses for him due to her misguided belief that the child has an illness. Tensions rise. The female partner has no choice but to focus on her child’s welfare. The male partner tires of the disruption and lack of attention and leaves. Now the woman partner is left to raise an emotionally difficult child in a broken household with less support, often both logistically and financially.

Sometimes the distress is caused by other family members, typically in older generations raised in a more male-dominant culture. This can be even more difficult when those family members are from a different country with conservative mores. “My mother-in-law doesn’t believe in ODD and says the problem is that I’m just not firm enough.” “My father says my child would straighten up if I just gave him a good whoopin’.” “My mother says that if I would just follow James Dobson (or other ‘Christian parenting’ advocates), my child would behave.” “In our country, we didn’t have all this ADHD. It’s just indulgent American parenting!”

Men are not always the problem partner in a male-female relationship that involves a special needs child. And older relatives aren’t always the source of unhelpful criticism that makes the task of keeping a troubled child connected with family even harder. But cultural conditioning makes men (and people of both genders who are raised in conservative religious or social climates) far more susceptible to pushing back on the idea that their child or a partner’s child has a neurobehavioral problem, even when medical or psychological professionals are telling them that this is the case. That resistance merges with the popular outcry against what some social critics see as trend toward pathologizing normal childhood behavior. A typical companion belief is that “big pharma” drives this phenomenon with an eye toward selling pills to address invented childhood behavioral disorders. With cultural validation supporting cultural conditioning, resistant family members feel assured in the correctness of their position, which also conveniently frees them both from having to question their preconceived notions and from living with a behaviorally challenging child.

So, what messages make resistant family members dig in their heels and even cut ties rather than consider that a child has a medical condition that means that requires a different approach to discipline?

    • the belief that men don’t cry, men are strong, men suck it up and get on with things Yes, it’s the same belief that keeps men from getting mental health support for themselves when they need it. It’s the same belief that makes the armed forces provide inadequate support for soldiers with PTSD. It’s the fear that their children will be weakened and left vulnerable if they are not conditioned by the rebuke and punishment that is our society’s mainstay motivational technique.
    • a deep-rooted disdain for touchy-feeliness Men in the 1970s were encouraged to “get in touch with their feelings,” “explore their feminine side,” or “discover their inner child,” but the 1990’s and beyond brought a backlash that slammed the door down on that kind of personal exploration. How many of us can even hear those phrases anymore without smirking? Worse, as self-discovery led more men to acknowledge their same-sex attraction, the willingness to open oneself to one’s own emotions became associated with being gay, the ultimate transgression against masculinity. Helping children with neurobehavioral problem means interacting with empathy, trying to understand their feelings, and trying to respond without anger. It’s a tall order for everyone, but especially if you’ve been programmed to reject emotional awareness even in and of yourself.
  • the belief that unilateral authority is the driving force in our society and we must be trained to respond to it  Some people fear that modifying their child-rearing techniques to accommodate a disability will cause them to be unable to cope in the “real world” of hierarchical relationships. Dr. Ross Greene addresses this concern in his book, The Explosive Child.
Photo of Jimmy Cagney in White Heat

We did have methods for dealing with problem kids in the old days. They worked great if you weren’t too picky about outcomes.

When I attended one of Kirk Martin’s Celebrate Calm presentations, near the end of the program, he paused to note that there were a larger number of fathers than usual in the audience than usual and thanked them for coming. I wondered whether he said that in earnest or whether this was something he always said to encourage fathers who come to hear him. Martin is unusually frank about family dynamics, a liberty he exercises as a non-academic and as someone not a part of the medical or psychology-related professions. Does fear of contact with the danger zones of cultural attitudes and gender-related norms keep childhood professionals from addressing this aspect of home environment for kids with behavioral disorders?

I don’t know the answer to that, in part because we’ve had so little formal therapy for our son, but regardless that would only represent one family’s experience.  I only know I see a lot of suffering that could be prevented with a little more education and a lot more open-mindedness.  But dealing with children with neurobehavioral problems is hard, and the escape hatch is just one finger point away.

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