Dear Family Advisor

How do I keep our children away from my husband's abusive father without making a scene?

Last updated: May 03, 2011

worried 40s woman

My husband's father was abusive to his children and has mental problems to this day. Now he's dying of lymphoma, and the family is coming back around after years of barely speaking.

I never cared for the man but couldn't put my finger on why. He's always been highly emotional and would yell and act ugly over the littlest thing. Recently I found out that he was accused years ago of molesting a child. This was never proven, but we have two young children, and I don't want them around him.

I wouldn't stop my husband from spending time with his family, but I hate that it's centered around a man who doesn't deserve his time or affection. And I'm adamant that my children won't go near him. How do I keep them safe without stirring up trouble?

The most diplomatic way to handle this is to stay on the edges of what's going on and allow your husband's family to make their own choices about caring for their dad while you keep your children close.

Your husband and his family are trying to make amends and come to closure with their dad. It's not about the man himself but about his role in their life as father. Most of us have a deep need to love and be loved by our parents -- even parents that didn't treat us well. We need to make this "right" in our heads and hearts, because it's painful otherwise. It's not that they're denying the hurt this man caused; it's that they need to face his passing with some measure of healing.

The good news is that this isn't about you. You can step aside and not bring any more attention to the situation. I understand that you're appalled at what he may have done in the past and are angry at how he treated his children. It's natural to recoil. However, your husband's family has been coming to terms with this for decades. It's doesn't mean that they've become complacent or that they accept what's happened; it's just that time has tempered their anger and shock, and now they're desperately trying to find some sliver of goodness in all of this. Let them.

You can realize that you and your husband and children are one family, and your husband and his siblings and other extended family members are another family. Your husband loves you and wants to protect his children, but he also needs to step into that other family circle and grieve with those with whom he shares both DNA and his past. You don't have the same emotional bond (however frayed), so you can't fully understand what they're working through. Give him your love and your blessing to spend time with his family, without you and the kids.

This is a time to dig deep and be the wife and mother you're meant to be. Be there for your husband. Allow him to feel and process without adding to his hurt. Give him the space to figure out what all this means to him, and assure him that your love is strong. Remind him what a good man he is, that he's a loving husband and dad. He needs you to keep the home front safe and running while he deals with all this. A good marriage can help a person get through the deep hurts of life. Eventually, this can be one of those times you look back on and say, "Look what we got through -- together."

Try to not judge your husband or his family or this situation. It's part of human nature -- the darker side -- that most families have something difficult to face. What's more important than what happened then is how you choose to handle it now.

If you need to talk about it, share your emotions with a trusted friend, but choose not to dwell on it or discuss it everywhere you go. Why? Your husband and your children identify with their fathers. They will naturally think, "If my dad/granddad was abusive, then maybe that's in me; I could be like that." Or, in your husband's case, he may feel partially responsible. It's not at all true, but just as children of divorce often think the problem was somehow their fault, so do children of abusers.

What's more, particularly if your children are young, don't talk about this in their presence. We tend to think our children aren't paying attention or don't understand, but they do. They also pick up on your emotional cues and feel your tenseness, anger, and fear.

Focus on whatever good can be gleaned from this situation. It's much better for your husband and children to remember their father and grandfather and his passing with as many good thoughts, memories, and feelings as they can gather. Even if your children are too young to remember what's going on now, stories will be told in the future, so make them positive ones. All of them need to see how they came together during this difficult time and emerged as a stronger, wiser, and more loving family.