How to Deal with a “Bad-Mouthing Spouse”

What should you do when your spouse speaks negatively about you?

Filed in Child Custody, Divorce, on July 14, 2017

In my practice of over a decade in divorce and child custody, one of the most common allegations I hear is that their spouse is speaking negatively (“bad mouthing”) about my client in front of or directly to the children.  If your spouse engages in this conduct, it can be infuriating.  Hearing your child say something like “Dad says I can’t play baseball this year because you took all his money” naturally makes you want to defend yourself and set the record straight.  Setting the record straight may include a response like “I took all HIS money?  He gives me almost nothing, and went out and bought a brand new car last week.”

Although this response, in your perception, may be totally honest, it places the children in the awkward position of choosing which position is true.  So what should you do?  It seems like you have only a few choices:

  1. allow your spouse to continue filling the children’s heads with lies
  2. defend yourself to your children
  3. confront your spouse
  4. tell your lawyer and wait for it to be the subject of a petition in court.

I’ve never seen anyone choose #1.  Most people choose a combination of #2, #3 and #4 for several reasons. First, it is difficult to get immediate relief in court on something like this. Most judges do not consider allegations of one parent bad mouthing another an “emergency” warranting immediate relief, unless there are some pretty startling facts.  Second, it is equally difficult stand silent in the face of someone attacking you and allow him or her to drag the children into it as a manipulation tactic.   And third, you pay your lawyer good money to go to court and get you justice.  However, even using these tactics in combination, in most cases, only alleviates the problem for a short time, if at all.

In reality, none of these choices address the real problem:  your children’s negative perception of you, compliments of your spouse.  If you confront your spouse, chances are it’s not going to a pleasant conversation.  Plus, he or she may get satisfaction seeing you upset.  If you find yourself defending yourself to the children often, you are just as guilty of dragging your children into the divorce as your spouse.  Even if you ultimately get relief from the court, there is no guarantee your spouse will follow the court order, and if you suspect he or she is not, it is hard to prove in court.

In my experience (and my humble opinion), the following suggestions on dealing with a “bad mouthing spouse” directly address the problem and can at the same time, teach your children important lessons about listening to gossip that they can apply to other situations.

Financial Issues

  • Child: “Dad says I can’t play baseball this year because you took all his money.”
  • Mom: “I wish Dad wouldn’t talk to you about financial issues you may not understand.  It sounds very negative and confusing.  I know you really want to play baseball this year, but the reality and truth is that neither Dad nor I have as much money as we did before the divorce.  It’s going to take a little while to get used to it, but we aren’t going to be able to do all the things we used to do.  But know that you will always be provided for and loved by both of us, no matter how much money we have or don’t have.”

Boyfriends / Girlfriends

  • Child: “Mom says your new girlfriend is a slut and a home-wrecker.”
  • Dad: “I wish Mom wouldn’t use that kind of language to describe my friends, and we don’t use that kind of language in this house when we talk about people.  My friend is neither of those things, and I expect you to be respectful of any person who is my friend, just as I expect you to be respectful of any person who is your mother’s friend.”

Lifestyles or Habits

  • Child: “Dad says you shouldn’t smoke around me or anywhere in the house because it will give me cancer.”
  • Mom: “I’m sorry Dad said that to you.  I don’t know why he would say that.  He and I do not agree on that, and I hope you know that I love you and would never do anything to hurt you on purpose.”

Lies

  • Child: “Mom says you got fired from your job because you are a drunk.”
  • Dad: “I’m sorry Mom said that about me.  I’m sure you don’t like hearing bad things about me, but you need to know that it’s not true.  Saying bad things behind a person’s back and calling someone names is rude and disrespectful, and we don’t do that here.  When people say bad things about me or call me names, just ignore it like you would if someone was calling you a name.”

Although these suggestions will not necessarily cure the problem of your spouse disparaging you in front of the children, they do address the possible negative consequences of this kind of behavior.  The focus is to make your spouse’s bad behavior a “teaching moment”, without saying your spouse is a bad person.  It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s worth it for your kids.

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