I first heard the term ‘divide et impera‘ in relation to my ancient Latin history studies at the uni and I remember thinking it’s a brilliant military tactic that could be implemented in any loosing situation to turn it around and achieve victory. It has been used widely in politics and also as part of the power play among employers vs employees, but never in my wildest dreams did I consider the fact that one day my young adopted son would use this tactic to break the bond within my own family…
During the Adoption Preparation Course we were told about the Triangulation tactic, that traumatised children often use to feel safe and to gain control over a situation, especially when they feel out of control – which is, let’s be honest, MOST OF THE TIME!
They didn’t ask to be born.
They didn’t ask to be born to a mother with substance abuse while pregnant.
They didn’t ask to be born to a dysfunctional family who is unable and/or unwilling to care for them properly.
They didn’t ask for the abuse and/or neglect they received.
Despite all these they still didn’t ask to be removed from their family.
They didn’t ask for everything and everyone to be taken away from them.
They weren’t asked about the new adults in their life whom they have to call Mum & Dad from now on…
All these things ‘just’ happened to them!
Triangulation tactic at work
I must admit I didn’t believe I could be fooled. Definitely not by a small child! I also believed my bond with my husband was strong enough to withstand any potential cracking. I believed that I was clever enough to realise what is happening around me and get a clear read on potential disruptive tactics and I believed I was equipped to prevent them before a major disaster develops. Well… about that…
Last Sunday I had a Big Revelation, which was followed by a massive Paradigm Shift in my approach towards my children, especially towards our oldest boy.
It so happened that we were coming home from church and were laughing in the car, all four of us. I got out of the car to have a quick word with a neighbour and told hubby to ‘just drive home with the boys, I will be there in 5.’ Five minutes later I walked through the front door only to be greeted by 3 screaming men! Husband was irritated beyond measure in the kitchen, 8 was smashing things in the dining room and 7 was crying because he was scared (of the smashing noise I think). What the hell happened??? How could a situation turn 180 degrees so fast and escalate to this level in 5 minutes???
Clearly everybody was in an irritated stage so there was no point me loosing it as well or even to ask what has happened. Operation Damage Control kicked in and as a first step I separated the 3 men into 3 rooms. 7 stopped crying as soon as the noise level went back to normal and he was fine after a quick cuddle. 1 down, 2 to go. I went to hubby first for answers. He said as soon as I stepped out of the car 8 started to ‘act out’ and attacked his younger brother for seemingly no reason. He had to park the car first before he could intervene and by then the kids were in full on fighting mode. They got inside the house and 8 turned from his brother towards trashing the dining room.
I went to 8 to hear his side of the story – that’s only fair. Naturally his cortisol was over the roof (I wrote about this fear factor reaction and the background of it a few weeks ago) so it took some calming tactics before he was able to speak. According to him ‘I didn’t do anything, he attacked me first’, which is untrue of course, but not an unexpected answer to be honest. The truth is he has neither a conscious idea WHY he started to fight or damage the house, nor the wisdom to know WHAT big feelings he had at the time.
In retrospect I can put the pieces together and paint you a really sad picture. For a long time the children have been passed around between birth mum, birth father (BF), mum’s mum, dad’s mum, mum’s friend, dad’s dad randomly and repeatedly, which of course caused huge anxieties for the children every time and whenever 8 was left with BF he was treated extremely poorly. So when I got out of our car poor 8 got transported back in time, to another city, another car, another mother ‘rejecting him’ and leaving him in the care (or lack of) by another dad. No wonder he freaked out!
It’s not you, it’s him
That Sunday I realised a few things. 8 was not ‘nasty’ to my husband! He was ‘nasty’ to BF! He was terrified of BF! He hated BF! He didn’t want to be near BF! He didn’t trust BF therefore he never did what BF told him, which in return just got him into more trouble with BF so you can see how the cycle just got worse with each meeting…
I also realised that 8 and my husband didn’t really have enough opportunities to bond and connect! During our play therapy and filial therapy sessions I was always with 8, while hubby was with 7. At that time that was the correct action plan, everybody agreed. But because I am the Stay-At-Home-Mum I have spent significantly more time with the children than my husband who works full time. I had plenty of opportunities to develop a good relationship built on trust and love and respect with 7. So the boys are much more responsive whenever they are with me. We have less and less issues when we are together, all four of us – amazing, how far we have come since Introductions!
But 8 has never learnt to see and experience my husband for who HE IS; 8 only saw BF and therefore projected all his negative feelings onto his new daddy. (shameless plug, I wrote more about this in a guess article to the Dad website, click here if interested)
So during our Sunday dinner I explained my theory to 8. He didn’t disagree, I really think he understood it. But when I said ‘from now on you and daddy should spend more time together’ naturally he freaked out. I can understand that; he was afraid of the unknown and he wanted the comfort of his mummy (me) instead of anybody else. Again, it was not against my husband per se, but it’s VERY hard not to perceive it as such – and I can also understand why my husband feels rejected, too.
Poor husband has been on the receiving end of much abuse from 8 and no matter how much love and caring he poured into 8’s life he never received anything positive back! It really is a vicious circle! In simplistic terms: 8 hates BF + doesn’t ‘see’ my husband -> 8 acts out when husband is around -> 8’s challenging behaviour is testing hubby’s patience and systematically empties his love tank -> with each encounter hubby has less and less to give while he gets treated poorly => the situation gets a little worse each time.
Paradigm Shift that saved the day
On one hand I can see the situation from 8’s perspective and it really doesn’t look good. He is scared and worried and therefore uses every method he can to feel safe. One of them is to put a wedge between my husband and I. And sadly I must admit I didn’t see it at all until now! He never used direct words, for instance, ‘but mum, dad said the opposite’ or anything obvious. Whenever they were together he ended up crying and screaming and often times I blamed my husband for loosing it. That’s not to say I am blaming it all on the child and hubby is all innocent, but slowly and surely 8 was able to create situations when I was angry with my husband for not being therapeutic enough and I failed to see how the situation was not maliciously, but still, manipulated. Again, of course, it’s not the case all the time, but since I recognised that this ‘thing’ is a real ‘thing’ in our life I noticed 8 acting very differently when he thought he was alone with daddy (while I was observing them from afar without him knowing).
I had to be clear with 8. I told him I do not blame him for his behaviour and we both love him very much, but he needed to understand that I will take daddy’s side, always and forever. I know it sounds harsh, but we feel he needed to know that this tactic will not work any more! But we didn’t leave it at this. Hubby and I came up with a plan to create scenarios where 8 had to be alone with daddy so they can get to know each other in a safe and fun way – in short segments to minimise the potential of a clash and maximise the emotional energy hubby can invest at a time. As a first step I told 8 to sit in daddy’s lap and they were cuddling for a good 15 minutes. I think it was a bit uncomfortable for hubby, but he did it anyways. While he was stroking his son I was ‘hovering’ around them giving him the narrative I learnt from the therapist (‘how lovely this feels, cuddling with daddy, this daddy is safe, this daddy loves you, this daddy wants you…etc). Soon 8 relaxed and while he was hugging my hubby for dear life he said BF never hugged him and never let 8 climb onto his lap. How absolutely heart breaking and tragic!!!
We have been doing this for only a few days, but yesterday 8 drew a picture with him and daddy (well, a small stick figure and a larger one without a skirt) and wrote ‘I love daddy’ for the very first time…
Divided and conquered no more!