Elephant in the room: mental health of an ex-spouse


With Father’s Day this month, many families celebrate, while others suffer.

We all know families where there is no end to the trauma the ex-spouse dishes out through the kids. Still, it is only a tragedy if we let it be.

Whenever the kids come home from the ex-spouse’s house, there’s an elephant in the room. You’re trying very hard not to speak about the pain post-divorce. Not only was your heart broken, but your children’s hearts were as well. You don;t want to add to their suffering, but when there are mental health issues, it can get complicated in a hurry.

Obviously, many ex-spouses build separate lives while simultaneously comforting and rebuilding their children’s broken hearts. Given a second chance, people often take responsibility for their youthful choices, remarry, and build good second marriages, making room for all their children to be emotionally healthy. They learn to treat their ex-spouse with dignity. However, in some families, mental health issues linger excruciatingly even years after divorce has provided some healthy boundaries.

If you have an ex-spouse with mental illness who has provided DNA for your children, you can equip your kids to sort through their fears about their own mental health. Here are some great questions to begin healthy, freedom-building conversations.

What do you think your other parent dreamed of being when he/she grew up? What do you think he/she wanted their grown up life to look like?

What do you think is your other parent’s most attractive personality trait? How do you think God intended that trait to benefit others?

What stories do you know about his/her childhood? How was it different from yours?

If you could be like him/her on the best days, what would that look like? Are there things you wish he/she would try to be better?

If God were to give your other parent a special miracle, what do you think God would choose? If you could imagine a beautiful life for your other parent now, what would that look like?

These questions don’t fix anything, but they can reboot the family conversation. Some relationships yo-yo between love and rejection, with mental health issues thrown in for added drama. We cannot control the other parent’s attitude or behavior. By asking good questions, though, we can help our kids gain control over the things they actually can control, that is, their own perspective and attitude.

Kids can identify realistic choices a mentally ill person might be able to consider. They can limit expectations to what is likely, based on past experience. They can begin to feel released and free to laugh about the weirdness.

When we free our children to think for themselves and to feel positively about the choices they get to make in life, we win a noble victory.

Cathy Primer Krafve, aka Checklist Charlie, lives and writes with a Texas twang. Comments are invited at


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