My wife and I have a 4 year old boy and a 6 month old girl. Our boy’s biological father is a good father and pays his child support on time. However, he does not show my wife any respect and allows his girlfriend and entire family to ridicule and attack my wife daily. While dealing with these very immature hateful people is unfortunately common these days with the convenience of Twitter and Facebook. We are finding it virtually impossible to ignore or shrug off any longer. Neither my wife or I have a Twitter or Facebook account, we have asked our friends to not tell us what they say considering that ignorance can sometimes be bliss. However, things have gotten so bad lately our close friends have felt obligated to speak up about the array of rude comments and personal attacks on my wife and I. I know that we cannot change the way that their little immature minds work, but something has to change. We have completely tightened up on the custody agreement and no longer allow them to pick him up early or drop him off late considering that we never get reciprocation or even a “thank you” for our leniency. Instead they spend what must be hours every day bashing my wife about her parenting and anything else they can conjure up. My wife is an excellent mother! She gave up here career to raise our children and she is doing an awesome job at it!! They are putting a strain on our life and we feel helpless. Can we take legal action? Does anyone have any advice for us? -MP
Thank you for your letter. Your situation is a challenging one. It’s obvious that you’ve been taking the high road and hoping that this all passes. Good for you. Someone has to have your son’s best interest at heart. I wish your situation were uncommon. Unfortunately it’s become far too common that exes bash each other in the public forum. When someone is comfortable speaking out in such a public way about it demonstrates their true feelings. These feelings are almost certainly showing in private as well- as when your boy is visiting his bio-dad. Speaking badly about the other parent is at the root of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Cruel speech about one parent by the other can be confusing and psychologically damaging to kids. If this continues over a long period of time it can result in PAS. Kids become confused and can suffer the psychological effects as they struggle to make both parents happy, while feeling torn about the cruel things being said about a person they love.
There have been cases where a parent sued another using PAS as a basis –but it’s rare. Ultimately you want to deal with this issue before it starts to have a negative effect on your son. Your child’s well-being should be at the center of every decision you make about this. Try to find the quietest solution you can to this issue. If it becomes a legal matter it will almost surely have a negative effect on your child. Consider how a child must feel, watching his parents fight over him. Even if you get what you want, feelings are left hurt on both sides and the child is left to sort out the emotions he’s dealing with about the battle that he was at the center of but had no control over. Kids will usually feel a great deal of guilt in situations like these.
At the end of this article I will go over legal definitions and rights that you can use- but I encourage you to use them only as a last resort. So far, you and your wife seem to have your son’s best interest at heart. That is vital. I encourage you to use your best diplomatic skills to resolve this issue. Your son shouldn’t even know that it’s a problem. Don’t talk about it in front of him. Don’t burden him with it. This is an adult issue that needs to be resolved by the adults alone.
There is an obvious communication break between your home and your son’s other home. This needs to be mended. It sounds like these negativity and attacks are driven by the stepmom. She may be your highest hurdle in trying to mend the situation. To resolve the matter the four parents will all need to be willing participants, but having the two biological parents on the same page is the most vital first-step. Your wife will have to swallow some pride and make the first gesture to try to bridge the gap with her ex.
1) Open a dialog: I always recommend that communication between the wife and her ex should be from her-not the Stepdad. This is especially important in sensitive matters like this. The bio-dad will probably take it personally if another man questions him about his parenting style. Your wife should approach him about the issue and talk about the negative effect their public comments are having on their son. She should play to his desire to have the child’s best interest in mind. “We may not agree with each other on everything but we can agree that our child’s happiness is important, right?” If he’s reasonable then he will understand this.
2) Set the rules: If he is open to speaking about the issue then they can talk about setting ‘ground rules’ about how they talk about each other in front of the boy. “Let’s play nice. We both love him and want what’s best for him.” Don’t assign blame- just agree to the fact that the child’s happiness matters most. “Speaking badly about each other only hurts his feelings. If we disagree about something let’s agree to talk to each other instead of other people, or make comments online.”
Watch for the opportunity to speak with the bio-dad. This is a guy you need to create a partnership with. He will be part of your life as long as the child is a part of your life. Working together with the kid in mind should be at the center of your interactions with him. Let him know that you care about his son –but that you aren’t trying to replace him as the kid’s father. It’s very common that a bio-dad feels his relationship with the child threatened by the presence of a Stepdad. Having a conversation with him will usually help alleviate any worries he has about you. The fact that you and your wife have made the effort to have such open conversations with him will help lay the foundation for years of good communication.
Ultimately this entire situation is about personalities and communication styles. It requires all adults to act in the best interest of the child and to try to resolve issues in a mature way. Sadly, it only takes one person to block good communication. If the stepmom decides to continue speaking out and posting negative things online then there is little you can do. Though legal options may be available to you, please consider taking the high road for the boy’s sake.
Ultimately this is an issue that nearly all Stepdads have to face. Stepdads have to deal with the normal challenges all marriages come with –along with the added stress that come with the blended family dynamic. It’s easy to start to feel powerless at times. An outside influence intrudes on your happy home and starts to damage your peace and serenity. A Stepdad doesn’t just marry his wife: He marries her entire situation. He inherits the situation with the ex and the baggage that comes with that situation. He has to find a balance between supporting her and defending her- without overstepping invisible boundaries that may exist. It’s easy to run to her defense, only to create a rift with her ex. The relationship you have with her ex should be approached like a game of chess. Think before you move. Don’t make hasty or emotional choices. Keep the goal in mind and the child at the center of your focus.
Depending on what is being said, you do have legal rights. In the US there are anti-defamation laws that allow you to file a cease and desist against them and even file suit against them for defamation of character. An example of a cease and desist letter can be found here. This one is drawn based on Minnesota law, but is likely similar to most other states. Having a letter sent by a lawyer might get you the results you are looking for. It will let them know you are aware of what is being said and that you are willing to take action. If you choose to send this be sure and document any slanderous statements that have been made beforehand. Do screen shots showing the comments on their Facebook pages and of any tweets they may have sent out. Make sure the dates are shown. This will come in handy later, if they decide to delete what they have written then later start doing it again. It will allow you to document a pattern of abuse.
The Slander is defined as verbal derogatory statements, while libel involves written statements. Under US law, you can file a lawsuit and charge defamation of character to cover any form of false or damaging allegations. This is only worth pursuing if actual definition can be proven. Defamation is notoriously hard to prove in court. The first amendment allows quite a bit of latitude for speaking your mind. However, if they are posting it in a public forum (like Facebook or twitter) then you are in a better position than if they were simply saying hateful things out loud. Statements are easier to deny than written words.
Even words that are written out may not be damaging enough to warrant a lawsuit. A statement that is simply “false” may be hard to prove damage to your character. A Statement like “She’s a bad mother” would almost certainly be considered an opinion and not defined as defamation or slander. Statements that have a high likelihood of damage to your reputation can be pursued for damages. The more hateful the language the more likely you are to have a case. For instance –simply saying someone is “a jerk” or “a bad mom” may not be harsh enough to warrant a defamation case. However, if a person expands on it by saying something like “He lies and steal” or “She beats her kid” you might have a case. If you are in a business that depends on your reputation (like a Real Estate Agent, School Principal or Minister –for example) then you may be able to argue that the written words have the potential to be damaging to your career. This too is hard to prove.
Your situation is not unusual- in fact it’s a common issue Stepdads find themselves dealing with. The potential for harm to your relationship is always present when dealing with bio-dad issues. There is a great deal of emotion left over when a couple splits up. When emotions flare up with the wife and the ex, a Stepdad can suddenly feel like find an unwitting 3rd party in a tennis match he has little control over. Keep your emotions in check and use your head. You will have a better chance of resolving the issue and preserving your relationship with your wife. Finding an equitable solution will also help prevent barriers to bonding with your son. Bonding is vital for a successful family relationship.
Keep being the best Stepdad you can be and always keep your kids’ best interest in mind. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.