Healthy Boundaries With An Abusive Ex-Husband

Healthy Boundaries With An Abusive Ex-Husband

Several months ago, Kate was in a situation where she needed to hold a parallel parenting and no-contact boundary. She also had a financial situation that she needed to resolve with her ex-husband, that was proving difficult for several reasons. Kate explains her feelings during this time and reflects on the solutions she had considered, such as blocking him from contact. Coach Sarah also offers some important insight into Kate’s journey. 

Anne: Kate, were you able to resolve that financial situation with your ex?

Kate: Yes, I was. It was difficult, but it was resolved. Retirement funds were transferred, and bank accounts were closed. Financially, I am disconnected from my ex now.

Anne: After considering blocking him on your phone and blocking his emails, now that we’ve had a few months go by, and you have this financial thing resolved, what are your feelings now about doing that?

Kate: Right now, I don’t feel like I need to do that, because I’ve been able to manage texts from him. He hasn’t called me at all and he hasn’t sent any emails. He’s only been texting. What I’ve found is that I’ve gained some resiliency in dealing with texts in the minimum kind of response as possible. I find myself, instead of reacting to his texts, I’m responding and I’m taking time to think things through before I respond. I don’t know the magic solution that has happened. I don’t know how to articulate it, but it has been a peaceful time in my heart and my soul in dealing with him. I am really grateful for it.

Anne: Sarah, I want to talk about how goals might change as situations change, or as we gain more insight, or as we gain more strength. What is the process of discovering what boundaries you might want, and then, in the process of exploring those boundaries, perhaps changing your mind, those types of issues?

Coach Sarah: Absolutely. We have really two types of boundaries, and we don’t even know it. The one type of boundary is what we call definitive boundary. I’m going to use an analogy to help conceptualize this. When I walk into the room, the things that define Sarah, I’ve got dark brown hair and green eyes. I walk in the room, and people see my dark hair, and they see my face, or my skin, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s Sarah.” These are the things that define me for who I am.

Depending on the season, middle of summer in Texas, I might come in in shorts and t-shirt, right? In the middle of winter, I might have my boots on and jeans and a jacket and, maybe, even a hat, depending on if it’s really cold. Those are what we call our protective boundaries. They change, based on our need for protection.

A great way to connect with how this would work, I get to define what I do or don’t want in my relationship. I might say, “In my relationship, I do not want pornography. That will never be a part of my marriage.” If the current marriage ended, “My next marriage, I will not have pornography be a part of my marriage.” That is a way that I get to define, it’s part of how I want things to be. That’s not going to change.

What might change is, let’s say shortly after discovery, I might not want to watch anything on TV. I might not want my husband to watch anything on TV, other than the Food Network channel, something that feels really safe and non-triggery. As time goes on, as safety increases, I might say, “Okay, well now we can also watch the fishing show.” I’m going to be able to add different shows on, because we feel safer. We don’t need as many layers to protect ourselves. Those shift, those boundaries, our protective boundaries shift, based on our needs.

It’s actually a very healthy thing, and a very intuitive thing that Kate was able to say, “You know what, I’m feeling resilience in this area. I don’t feel like I need quite as many layers of protection as I thought I needed. I went into thinking I might need this, because it looked like it was going to be cold outside, but I stepped in,” like that kind of an idea. Our safety boundaries shift with our safety needs.

Anne: Is that how you felt about it, Kate? Did you feel confident in your decisions, or were you like, “I should be doing this, but I feel guilty”? What was your internal process?

Kate: At first, as I investigated apps to help me set some kind of barrier between the communication, I felt very guilty. Like, “Well, this just doesn’t work for me, but, yet, I need to do something.” As I went back and forth, and researched, I realized the apps that were available were going to be more difficult to implement than I had expected, and they really didn’t fit my situation. I kept looking for something, it didn’t come about.

I guess I shifted the concentration on the specific boundary to an internal boundary for myself, and saying, “Well, if I can’t find the exact right fit, how can I tailor my own personal boundaries to fit my situation?” I found that, as I was healing and as I’ve been healing, my internal dialogue has been different. My internal thought processes about my ex’s behavior, whether present behavior or past behavior, and it creates a space where I can feel more safe and more settled and more resilient.

Anne: Boundaries are interesting, because right after my ex’s arrest, I wanted to talk to him. It was hell to not talk to him. It was hell for me to not write him letters and for me to communicate and tell him all the things I was feeling. But I had the no-contact boundary from the judge, and I knew I needed to keep it.

There is a difference, I think, between re-evaluating what we’ve been doing in the past, and making changes that might be extremely uncomfortable—it seems like a lot of women who want to be in recovery, they feel like, “This is what I want to do, but, at the same time, it doesn’t feel right. I want to set this boundary that I’m not going to have sex with my husband, but, at the same time, that’s mean,” or “He’s going to get mad,” or, “This is going to happen and it’s going to be uncomfortable, so does that mean it’s not right? Does that mean it’s not the right thing for me?” Sarah, what are some tips that you would give our listeners for how to know if their boundaries are working for them?

Coach Sarah: First of all, you’re going to have to be intentional. If we just put boundaries out there and aren’t paying attention to how it’s affecting our lives, we might not know. We just put it out there and see what happens. But, if we put a little bit of intention around it, we’re going to know if our boundaries are working for us or not. Here’s a couple of ways.

One, is what Kate talked about with being able to see that trying to do it in this way was actually increasing anxiety for her, because it wasn’t working. Because she was trying to fit herself into this boundary that wasn’t really applicable to what she needed, “Oh, it’s stressing me out and it’s causing anxiety to actually try to make this work.”

Taking a step back, and saying, “Okay, this is what works for me about this. This is what doesn’t work for me about it,” but the key there is understanding is this decreasing or increasing my anxiety? Like trying to put this boundary, is it helping me to feel safer or is it actually making me feel more boxed in? Asking yourself those kinds of questions, I think are really important. We have to spend time reflecting on the effect of even looking into the boundary.

Like Kate said, she said, “As I looked into it,” even thinking about it caused her to, “Hmm, no, this isn’t feeling right.” Paying attention to your gut, paying attention to the anxiety levels. I would even say, for those of us like me, who might get stuck in their head, overanalyzing everything, one of the things I like to suggest for people to do is to take a step back and check in with your body. Because a lot of times our body is trying to tell us messages. If there’s a disconnect between our body and our brain, we’re not going to hear them.

When you think about this boundary, are you finding yourself being relaxed in your body, or are you finding tension in your neck and in your shoulders? Are you finding your stomach getting upset? What is happening in your body, as you’re trying to enforce this boundary, or even think about putting the boundary in effect? I think those are a couple of tips to check and see if the boundary is working for you.

Kate: Yes. I really, really identified with what Coach Sarah just talked about with checking in with my body. I have chronic illnesses, so my body is my barometer on how I’m doing in safety and in all areas of my life. I was in a lot of pain last year. I had a massage therapist, that I love, she was talking to me about my process of going through the divorce and disconnecting from a husband. She suggested that I do some dance therapy. I’d never heard of that.

When she described it, I just knew it was something I was going to do. I picked a few songs that I really identified with and I went in my basement and I turned the songs on as loud as I could and I did a lot of ugly dancing to process things through my body. I realized I was carrying so much pain and so much betrayal and trauma in my body that I wasn’t able to heal physically. The physical and the emotional were being trapped. I don’t know if that’s called a boundary, but I had to make a boundary for my own health and my own safety, physically.

As I was able to do that, using artistic expression, it became easier for my body to process the betrayal, the trauma, and get rid of pain. I’ve become healthier, and happier. Not just because I did some ugly dancing, but for a lot of reasons, connecting and checking in with my body. I think that women who are connected to men who are narcissistic or addicts are very sacrificial. They deny their own needs so much that it becomes second nature to give up physical boundaries, as well as emotional boundaries.

That’s what I have been doing for 35 years. I’ve been very disconnected with my own self. Just knowing myself, knowing my own boundaries for myself, as well as with relationships. Getting in touch with my own body has been revolutionary in my healing process.

Coach Sarah: Kate, I love what you just said. If I could use slightly different words, I think, not only did you get in touch with your own body, but you got in touch with your own needs. When we’ve been in a relationship, especially if there’s been a lot of gaslighting going on, we lose touch with our needs, with our voice. We’ve been told that we want too much, or that what we want is unnecessary. What you’re talking about there, at least what I heard, is getting in touch with your needs like, “This is what I need.”

To that point, one of the things I was thinking about, what Anne said earlier, about the confusion between she knew she needed this no-contact policy that the judge had passed down, but she still wanted to. She had conflicting things going on inside of her. That’s why I would love to point out that boundary work is not simple. It is very, very complex, because of all the different things that, as an individual, you might bring to the table.

You might be disconnected from your needs. You might have gone through a lot of gaslighting. You might be dealing with a lot of values conflicts. We get stuck when we have two really high values conflicting against each other, and how do I set this boundary, when setting that boundary conflicts with another value that I have? Which one is the priority?

I like to teach about the different messages that the different parts of us give to us. We’ve got our head, we’ve got our heart, and we’ve got our gut. What Anne was talking about earlier, her head was saying, “This is good. This is safe. This is what I need for peace and for protection,” but her heart was saying, “I want to be heard. I want this person I’ve been connected to to know how I feel.” The different parts were having different messages.

All of those things go into our ability to have clarity around our boundaries, to be able to enforce them, and to be able to stick to them. It’s not a simple thing to do boundary work. That’s one of the reasons I love working with women in my boundaries sessions. Because one of the things that’s so helpful is to get that outside perspective, somebody who’s not emotionally invested, has training, has the mindset of, “Let’s look at these conflicts. Let’s look at the head, heart, gut from the outside.” Because with our stuff, we’re so close to it, it’s hard to take that step back.

I love it. It’s one of my greatest passions, working with women about how to find their need, like Kate talked about, and be able to clearly, from a place of authentic power, tap into their needs and get their needs met through healthy boundaries.

Anne: Kate, do you feel like you’re more on your way to getting your needs met? One of your key needs being safety, right, do you feel like you’re farther down that path?

Kate: Yes, I feel like I have grown tremendously in safety and in being more in touch with my needs. When my husband and I were in the initial process of the divorce, he came to me several times and said, “I have this list of needs that I want you to consider, if we can consider a reconciliation.” The healthier I got, I was able to say to him, “Well, you know, I’m learning that my needs are important. I’m learning that I’m the best-suited person, most qualified person to meet my own needs, whether it’s asking for someone to help me meet a need, or just being in charge of it myself.”

He would get angry when I would say that because he had this list of demands that he wanted me to automatically embrace and agree to, so that we could stay married. That was a really good sign to me that I was doing the right thing, because I knew that he was going to continue to assume that I was supposed to meet his needs. I knew that I needed to meet my own needs and be in charge of that and be in tune enough to know what they were.

I found out, towards the end, that my husband was writing journals of thoughts about me. He was identifying me as a monster and talking about, “Why doesn’t she just leave? Our daughter and I would be better off without her. Why doesn’t she do the right thing and go away?” It was devastating. The reason it was so devastating—I mean, you can imagine any wife finding volumes of journals like that—but it was so devastating because I’m a writer.

Writing, to me, is an artistic expression, and it’s part of who I am. When I found these words that were really harsh and ugly, and realizing the time and energy he had put into recording these ugly thoughts about me, it took away my writing voice, somehow. I was not able to write for a couple of years. I had been writing a blog that was really popular, and it, literally, shut me down. A great barometer of knowing how I’m healing now is that I’m writing again. I’ve found my voice again. It’s a different voice, definitely, but I’m writing, and it’s a good sign that healing has taken place.

Anne: You sent me a poem, and I would like you to share it with our audience. Do you feel comfortable enough to share it?

Kate: It’s interesting. As I started to write it, it was going to be about something else. As I finished it, it was totally the right poem, but it had taken a turn and it was totally different poem than what I had expected. This is called The Road Home:

The Road Home

I followed the ice crusted bear tracks north,
Ready to face my doomsday fear and
Dispatch the cruel beast once and for all,
But as the tsunami-like winds dissipated,
Hope glimmered desperately under the wreckage of my snow cave.

That’s when the thaw began.
So as the icicles dripped grieving tears,
I took some hesitant steps toward the sun,
Even though it was just a distant vacation memory
From a trip I never quite took.

As I picked my way through a desolate landscape
Filled with broken mirrors, rusty bed frames, and shredded books,
The splintered forest turned verdant and fresh.
My feet fell on moss-covered stones as I discovered new territory
Where all distant paths lead home.

Then, as if on cue, the leaf bed below revealed the tiniest of bread crumbs.
Leading into the horizon where all maps turn to dust.
So even though I was no longer lost, I stooped to pick them up
One by one for nourishment along the way.
Yes, I followed the ice crusted bear tracks north,

And they led me safely back to myself.

Anne: Thank you for sharing that. Sarah, why is introspection and writing and assessing your values such an important part of boundaries work? Kate is processing her emotions through dance and through poetry. Why is that essential to setting boundaries that will work for you?

Coach Sarah: In order to survive a relationship where there is a betrayal and, typically, ongoing gaslighting and things that could be labeled abusive, in order to survive those things, we disconnect from our feelings. If we’re disconnected from our feelings, how do we know what we need? If we don’t know what we need, how do we set healthy boundaries? Reverse engineering that, where we have to start is we have to be connected to our feelings, whether that’s through dance or painting or journaling.

I know a lot of people are a big proponent of journaling because you access a different part of your brain when you’re actually writing things out. Not even typing, but writing things out, you access a different part of your brain. The important thing here is getting connected to your feelings.

If we’re connected to our feelings, then we can start saying, “Oh, I don’t like the way I was just talked to. I need him to stop calling me names. I am going to put a boundary around if you call me names, I’m going to remove myself from the conversation.” How do we do that, if we’re disconnected from the feeling of, “I don’t like when he calls me names.” I think it’s crucial that we do whatever we need to do to safely reengage with our feelings.

Anne: In that poem, Kate, you went on a journey. You thought you were looking for something, but you found out that that’s not really what the journey was about, and that you came back to yourself. The feeling that that poem gave at the end is so peaceful and calm. What did you learn from the process of writing that poem?

Kate: I think I learned that I am responding to my own needs and I’m in my own corner, for the first time in my life. When I grew up, I had a narcissistic mother and I was always on alert as to how to behave so that I wouldn’t get pushed aside or blamed. I transferred to my husband and I had the same dynamic. I’ve not had any practice advocating for myself and my own needs.

I’ve realized, as I wrote the poem, I was taking a journey. I thought I was looking for another person in this journey. Yet, I was the person that I needed to find, and I still am in the process of doing that. As I find myself and validate my own needs, and then advocate to get those needs met in some healthy way, I know that I’m becoming my own best friend, and my own advocate. In a world that can be very harsh and disturbing sometimes.

The relationship I have with myself is the primary relationship in my life now. Not to say that I push others out, but it’s to say that I validate who I am and my needs, so that I can bring and embrace other people into my circle and have real true connections. That’s a boundary that I have never had in my life.

I’ve always felt like I’ve had to sacrifice my own needs in order to connect with others in an intimate way, whether it’s a friend or a relative or a significant other. It’s always been a lose-win situation. For the first time in my life now, I can choose relationships according to a win-win situation.

Anne: Sarah, that type of relationship, where you’re disconnecting from your own needs in order to connect to someone else, my assumption is that’s not a real connection anyway?

Coach Sarah: I don’t know that I would even say that it’s disconnecting to your own needs to connect with someone else. I think it’s disconnecting from your own needs just to survive. I think the implication there is that, if we’re disconnecting from our own self, how do we truly connect with anyone? Let alone the person that is our potential abuser, because, if we’re disconnected, how do we bring our full selves? If we don’t have self-intimacy, how are we intimate with anybody else?

Kate, it looks like you have done a really great job of assessing what you needed. Everything from the dancing that you needed to do to be in touch with your body, to brainstorming things that we had done to think about what might be helpful boundaries for you, in the past, and being like, “No, that doesn’t quite work. What I really need here is this.” You’ve done a real good job. What I would ask right now, is there a place that you still have a need around boundaries, specifically with your ex?

Kate: Recently, my ex texted me something about my daughter and her frequent flyer miles. He’d heard from her that we were planning a vacation. He texted me, and he named our daughter, and said, “She wanted me to check with you, because she’s not sure she wants to use her frequent flyer miles for this vacation you’re planning.” The minute I saw the text, I knew something was off.

Thankfully, I took a breath before I responded and thought, “You know, that doesn’t sound like my daughter. I don’t even know if she knows we have frequent flyer miles.” Luckily, I was able to take a breath and then I thought, “I need to just ask her what’s going on.” So I asked her, and she said, “No, that’s not what I talked to him about. I said I think you and mom should talk about frequent flyer miles.”

When I responded, I knew what she had said, and so I was armed with accurate information. I was able to respond instead of react. I find that when there is any kind of contact, in the past I’ve just reacted. I’ve tried to throw up some kind of barrier to protect myself, when it really wasn’t the right barrier. What I needed was a response, and thinking things through instead of hurrying to deflect his interjections into my life. I needed to actually have accurate information and then respond as clinically, and as detached, as possible so that it doesn’t fuel any interaction.

What happened is I just said, “I asked our daughter what was said and she told me this, so it sounds to me more like you might be the one that doesn’t want me to use the frequent flyer miles. If that’s true, I need to know that now, before I plan the vacation.” It just defused whatever he wanted to stir up and he was able to just say, “I have no problem with you using the frequent flyer miles, and, yes, I give my permission for her to go on this vacation.” Just by him all of a sudden agreeing for that to happen, I thought, “That’s so weird. Why would he start this conversation?” I was very confused.

Coach Sarah: What I hear you voicing in there, because you came up with that answer, based on what I asked, “What is your need?” You didn’t really state one, but if I’m hearing, it was kind of the confusion of, “Why? What was the whole point of this?” That maybe your need around that is for some clarity. Am I hearing you right?

Kate: Yes. I needed to know why he was all of a sudden texting me about frequent flyer miles.

Coach Sarah: This has a little bit less to do with boundaries, a little bit more to do with the effect of gaslighting. It has something to do with boundaries, because, “How am I going to put boundaries around myself for talking with someone who’s trying to gaslight me?” One of the things that we can get hooked in on, when someone’s trying to gaslight us, some of the traps.

When I talk about the traps, I tell people to think of quicksand. The more you start to walk in towards it, the more you get sucked in. Our brain wants to understand, because it thinks if it can understand then it can have information it needs to protect itself. But, in this situation, what we want to do is we want to actually not get sucked into what we call the Explanation Trap. What we want to pay attention to is, one, “How do I feel about the way that this happened? One, I don’t like that he dragged my daughter into this.”

In order for you to be able to just let that go, is be like, “You know, I don’t have to understand why he brought this up, and then when I confronted him, he basically just dropped it.” He’s not healthy. He’s not necessarily going to be thinking about things in a logical way. What I need to know is did I do things in a way where I felt peace and where I stayed in line with the boundaries of the way that I want to engage with him?

That’s where you can find peace. Peace doesn’t come from actually understanding the why. Peace comes from understanding did I get what I needed out of this interaction. If not, what do I need to do to get what I needed? That helps us not get sucked into the gaslighting.

Kate: Would you restate what you said? Peace doesn’t come from finding out the why. I really like that.

Coach Sarah: Peace comes when we take a step back and we’re able to say, what do I really need in this situation? Do I really need the answers from him, or do I need to know that I took the steps that I needed to take, that I said my truth where I felt it was important for me to say, that I didn’t get caught up in his gaslighting.

That’s where we find peace, is by connecting with the truth and the boundaries that we need, that we can find within ourselves, because we’re not going to get it from them. They’re an unreliable source. Refocusing on how can I get my needs met from within my wheelhouse, within my truth and my reality, and not letting them distort that. I unpack all of these things in my sessions on boundaries and gaslighting.

Anne: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast again, Kate, and for letting us know how you are doing.

Kate: Thanks so much, Anne.

Anne: For those of you interested in a no-contact boundary, or exploring your boundaries and seeing what you need, like Coach Sarah said, she has awesome sessions on boundaries and on gaslighting, to see “Is gaslighting happening in my relationship? If it is what kind of boundaries do I need to set around it?” Schedule an individual session with Coach Sarah on our website, btr.org.

As you know, we’ve been testing the website and seeing what women need and how we can help women better. One of the things we’ve noticed is the word “Club” for Betrayal Trauma Recovery Club, it was a little difficult. People were like, “What is this?” Right now, we’re actually testing the word “Group.”

If you just started listening to this podcast and you listened to all the podcasts that come before this, you’ll hear us say Betrayal Trauma Recovery Club. But we are testing Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, because everybody knows what a support group is, and that’s what it is. It’s daily sessions with Coach Sarah, Coach Gaelyn, and Coach Laura, and Coach Cat. They’re online every day to help you. There are two sessions on Tuesdays, and two on Wednesdays.

If you join Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, you’ll get access to all of the sessions. You never have to wait for an appointment. You always know that, if you have an abuse episode happen, or a disclosure and you’re in trauma, and you’re hyperventilating, that you can immediately get assistance, from a professional, to process what has happened, and also the support from other women who are going through your situation. That group is confidential.We have some women who have been in the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group for a year. That is their network of safety. We really recommend that.

A lot of the words have changed on the website. I appreciate your patience. We’re just trying to make sure it’s extremely clear for women and that they get the help they need. Our services haven’t changed at all, it’s just the way that we’ve described them to make sure that women understand what they are and how to get help, because we have found that so many women are desperate for help. When you’re in trauma, it’s difficult to process information. Anyway, just trying to make that simple.

If this podcast is helpful to you, we would really appreciate your recurring donation. Go to btr.org/donate, or just scroll down at btr.org, at the bottom of every page. There is a button that says Make a Donation. Will you please make a monthly donation to support this podcast?

Each podcast takes me hours and hours of time to set up and edit and all of the things that go into doing the podcast. There’s also technology, and website costs, so we would really appreciate your $10 recurring donation every month. We provide the podcast for free for everyone, and the website for free for everyone, because we know that so many women are struggling financially through these difficult, difficult times. If you can, and you’re able to make a donation, we really appreciate it.

Also, every single time you rate our podcast on your podcasting app, either iTunes or Google Play, it helps women who are isolated find us, because it bumps up our rankings in search engines. We really appreciate that, because we want to make sure that women find solid, helpful information, rather than going to therapists, or clergy, or other people that they’re trying to get help from and they just end up re-traumatized by their experience.

Coach Sarah covers detecting and confronting gaslighting and setting and holding healthy boundaries in her individual sessions with clients. If you want to learn more about how to schedule a session with her, go to btr.org and click on the tab that says Individual Sessions, or you can go to our website and click on her picture that will take you to her bio, to get a detailed description of what happens during those sessions.

Until next week, stay safe out there.

How To Educate And Empower Kids

How To Educate And Empower Kids

Dina Alexander is the founder and president of Educate and Empower Kids, organization determined to strengthen families by teaching digital citizenship, media literacy, and healthy sexuality education, including education about the dangers of online porn. She is creator of Noah’s New Phone, a story about using technology for good, Petra’s Power to See, a media literacy adventure, Messages About Me, a journey to healthy body image, How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography, and the 30 Days of Sex Talks and 30 Days to a Stronger Child programs.

She received her master’s degree in Recreation Therapy from the University of Utah, and her bachelor’s from Brigham Young University. She’s an amazing mom and loves spending time with her husband and three kids. Together, they live in Texas.

How To Empower Kids As Parents

Anne: We used your books in our home. They’ve been floating around. I leave them out. My 8-year-old has read all of them. He just picks them up and starts reading them, and then I try to process the information with him, and read them together, as well. I’m really grateful for the work that you do. What motivated you to start your non-profit, Educate and Empower Kids?

Dina: A few years ago, I was reading a Facebook article about teen porn consumption. I couldn’t believe it, it was so shocking and just so surprising to me, the accessibility, the level of pathetic sexual knowledge that these teenagers had a huge lack of intimacy education that they had received, the inability to talk to their parents, that it just shocked me into action.

I started researching, I started looking for parent resources. I felt like there wasn’t a lot out there, if anything. I felt like most of it was either very fear-based, very shame-based, and just not practical. At that time, my oldest was in middle school, I had two in elementary, and I just felt like, “I gotta do something. I just gotta talk to every parent I can.” I made this promise with myself, I was going to do anything I could, even embarrass myself, do things I’ve never done before. That’s just snowballed into our part of this movement in helping people understand what true, healthy sexuality is, warning parents, but also empowering them with simple tools.

Use Words To Empower Kids

Anne: I appreciate that about your books, especially 30 Days of Sex Talks. I’ve actually done 30 Days of Sex Talks with my two sons. They are eight and five now. But, at the time that I did it, they were six and three. It was awesome. They loved it. Just the fact that my kids can say sex, I’m really proud of that. Also, the other morning, my five-year-old got up really early. I was just sitting with him and talking, and I said, “We can talk about anything. We could talk about sex. We could talk about baseball. We could talk about the sandbox. We could talk about your friends at school. We could talk about masturbation.”

I just threw in random different words, but, from the look on his face, and his body language, he was completely relaxed as I went through every single one of those topics. He decided he wanted to talk about Legos, which is fine.

I just loved that he had heard those words before, it’s an ongoing conversation in our home. It’s that way, thanks to the work that you’ve done, and the fact that I’ve been able to use some of your programs in my home, so thank you.

Dina: That’s exactly how it should be. It should be that simple. Having a conversation about masturbation should be as simple as talking about Legos. That’s a really helpful frame for a lot of parents, who just haven’t even conceived of that. Our parents were not taught to teach us that way, so it’s a little bit of a leap for a lot of parents to realize that, “You know what, this doesn’t have to be awkward. This can actually be a great conversation.”

Empowering Kids Through Conversation

When we first started writing the books, all of our board members were trying them with their kids. Every board called me, “We cannot believe the conversations we’re having. We’re planning for five and ten minutes, and this is turning into a 45-minute, amazing discussion.” That was a reconfirmation to us that we were doing what we were supposed to do and that it was a needed resource.

Anne: The other thing I like about it is that you can talk about it at any time. You can talk about it in the car. You can talk about it while you’re walking down the street. You can talk about it while you’re folding laundry. It gives the impression that this is something that we can talk about at any time.

It doesn’t have to be this particular set, perfect time to have a talk with our kids about sex. Which means that they would also be like, “When can I ask these questions?” or, “When can I talk to my mom? Is now the right time? I don’t know.” In our house, it’s always the right time. Any time is fine.

Dina:   We do encourage people if they want, and if they can, to plan ahead for, maybe, a few minutes, but to not create an event, because it needs to be simple enough that our kids can recreate it. Yeah, maybe it does happen in the car on the way to dance practice, or maybe it is on the way home from school, maybe it’s walking to the park, maybe it’s family night.

Addressing Difficult Topics Can Help Empower Kids

Maybe it’s at bedtime, maybe it’s at dinner, but it should be something that they can do, that they can bring up, because they realize it’s just as casual as talking about what shoes to buy, or this new Lego set I want to buy. It should be that simple to bring up with mom and dad.

Anne: I don’t think that makes sex casual. I think it means that it’s a super important topic that we can bring up at any time, right? It’s not to say that it’s a casual thing.

Dina: They’re not going to remember everything we teach. They’re going to remember our tone, and our level of care. I cannot remember a word my mother said about sex, but I just remember how positive she was, and how she’s able to talk about it in just such an excited way, even after my parents were divorced. They had a very ugly divorce, but my mom was able to still talk about sex with her values that she wanted us to wait for it, that it was worth waiting for, that it was something awesome and special.

That was something that I was able to take with me my whole life, and use as, basically, the backdrop, so when I did get sex education at school, I still had this balance of how positive that she had been about different things, and that I also knew that I could come and ask her any question.

Educating Kids Helps Empower Kids

At that time, the ‘90s, when I was a teenager, you just usually didn’t ask your parents about oral sex. I remember asking both my parents about it, and they were both very casual, but that didn’t make it seem like it was sneezing or shaking hands. Their tone, and the level of discussion it was, I could realize, “Okay, this is not something I’m going to readily do at the end of the date.” I understood the importance of different types of sex.

We can still have that impact in a casual conversation. If it’s an important topic, you can pull the car over and turn around and look at your kids, and let them know, “This is really important,” or, “This is something amazing and special,” or, “You are amazing and special.” Maybe you’re going to be talking about bodily integrity. You’re not going to do anything that makes you uncomfortable, or because somebody pressures you.

I’ve had conversations with my kids—and I remember when I told them, “Some day it is not something you’re just going to do lightly. It is a privilege. To be able to share that part of yourself with somebody, they should feel privileged.” This was just over dinner. This was not a planned discussion, but it came where I was like, “I need them to know that they’re special people, and that this is a special act.”

Again, it was not planned. But I remember the surprise on their face, because it had never been framed in that way to them, obviously, at school. They were already having different levels of sex ed at school, because they were a little bit older at that time. You can make that impact, even in a casual setting.

Increasing Self-Esteem Can Empower Kids

Anne: Educate and Empower Kids has several new books out. Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write the new books?

Dina:   We have two books on body image, one for boys, one for girls. That’s the Messages About Me book. Then, plus the Petra’s Power to See, that’s about media literacy. Those were being formulated together.

We started out as an anti-pornography, healthy sexuality organization only. That’s all we talked about the first year. We saw the needs of parents and the questions, the fears that were coming with apps, social media bombarding our kids, that we realized, “Okay, we need to address more.”

But then, we were also realizing how these are totally connected to pornography, and the dangers of pornography. How pornography and other media damage our body image, how they just make us feel so terrible about ourselves. Even when we haven’t seen it, what our partners might say to us that can threaten or harm our body image.

The Petra’s Power to See, that one is about reading images and media in the culture. It addresses social media. It addresses pornography briefly, talks about advertising, and books and movies, and what media is, how we can deconstruct it. These are critical, critical skills for kids. One, because we’re living in an image-based culture. We’re no longer living in a print-based culture.

Empower By Encouraging Healthy Discussion

We’re getting most of our information from videos, from images. Our kids need to be able to read those just as readily as they might read a book, or read a comic book, or read a picture book. They need to be able to quickly and concisely break those messages apart.

This is a really tough skill for most of us, because, again, for adults, because we were raised in a print-based culture, our brains are trying so hard to make that magazine ad seem real. We see the woman with no pores, no lines on her face, and we start comparing ourselves to her, even though our intellect, our brains know that is a fake, computerized image, we’re still comparing ourselves and falling short.

That is also what is happening with our kids as they scroll through social media. All the increased depression, the increased suicide, the increased loneliness, the lack of interpersonal skills, these are all part of that parenting in the digital age that we need to deal with.

Empower Kids By Showing Them

These books are really important so that when kids are exposed to pornography later on, as well, they can deconstruct it. They can take the power away from pornography by saying, “Okay, wait a second, that’s not real. That’s not really what women want. That’s not really how sex goes down,” because we’ve had those conversations and, also, because they have learned to deconstruct media.

Also, with the body image books, we’re hoping that they’ve built up their own positive body image. All of our books have discussion questions. We’re huge on discussion questions. These discussions, that we can reiterate over and over again, about what makes us beautiful, what makes us special and important, again, so that, as we’re getting bombarded throughout our lives, we’ve had that foundation with our families, with our parents, with our mothers, of building that positive body image, addressing the needs that we see from the parents that we interact with.

All of us have been affected with negative body image concerns, and that we all are, again, trying to make sense of all this media that is just surrounding us. That is the impetus of those books.

Using Technology To Empower Kids

The other book, Noah’s New Phone, we wanted to take a more positive approach, because we have done a lot of work in warning parents of online dangers. We don’t want people to be scared. We want people to realize, as we’re practicing these things, and as I, myself, am practicing these things with my family, that it’s not enough to just warn people. It’s not enough to just say, “No, don’t go to that website. Don’t download this app.”

It’s time for us to turn this tide. We have got to start thinking about and instilling in our kids that these phones are not just toys and pacifiers, but that these are tools. That these are agents of change. I, recently, went to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, and I saw this amazing speaker from Iran.

In Iran, it’s mandatory for women to wear the hijab. They have to wear it all the time, so one of her movements is, basically, to try to get that changed. It’s a symbol of a lot of different things, of a lot of the oppression that the women have there. She held up her smartphone, and she said, “This is my weapon.” She came from a town of 200 families, and now she has 2 million Twitter followers.

Empowerment Can Be A Skill

That is what I want. That is what I want all of our kids to do, is to see these phones as tools, that they, literally, can change the world, that they can reach thousands and millions of people, and make this world a better place. To me, again, that’s what the focus of Noah’s New Phone, he has a simple experience at school that’s negative, and how he turns that around.

Then, of course, there’s discussions in there are about like, “What are the things that we can create online? How can we turn the tides?” It’s not just like, “Okay, I know how to avoid pornography. I know how to avoid bad apps,” but now it needs to be, “Okay, how am I going to lighten someone’s day? How am I going to make someone happy? How am I going to build somebody up? How am I going to show support and love and kindness?”

I, recently, even just was telling my kids about the BTR Facebook page, how this is such an amazing place for women to talk, give each other advice, share their pain. Imagine if we could have more of that authenticity everywhere on social media, that we could have that level of care and concern and community. This is what I’m hoping that we can start creating within the movement.

Three Things Parents Can Do To Empower Children

  1. Safety first always. We must teach safety.
  2. Start inspiring our kids to turn this around for themselves, for their future.
  3. Teach doing good. There’s just so much good out there that we can be doing.     

 Anne: I read Noah’s New Phone to my 5-year-old, who, literally, has zero access to devices. We are very locked down at our house. I thought, “This is so cool. I’m having this discussion with my 5-year-old long before he ever gets a phone.” I also talked to him about when I’m on the phone, what am I doing? I explained to him that, most of the time, I’m working.

Pretty much, about 80 percent of the time I’m on the phone, I’m working. Then, 20 percent of the time, I’m connecting with friends or family, or other people that I care about. Zero percent of that time is looking at pornography or surfing the internet. I do read the news every day, and I talked to him about that too, just so I can be informed.

Empowerment Is Necessary For Children

I thought, “What a good conversation,” because, when he looks at me on my phone—and I am conscientiously trying to reduce the amount of time I spend on my phone when I am in his presence—he doesn’t know what I’m doing on my phone. He can’t see my phone. He doesn’t know. So I realized, “Wait a minute, I also need to tell him, these are the productive things that I use my phone for. This is how I use my phone as a tool.”

It struck me that I was so grateful for that book, because I don’t think I would’ve been having that conversation with my 5-year-old otherwise, because he doesn’t have a phone and doesn’t have access to a phone.

Dina: That is exactly right. That is exactly what I want for parents, because how are they going to know, unless we’ve shown them. I love that you’re like, “This is what I’m looking at. I’m helping people by doing A, B, and C,” or, “Look, I’m having an argument with somebody on Facebook right now, I’m still being polite.” How are they going to know how to have an argument, unless we’ve shown them? How are they going to know how to be positive or to be respectful of people, unless, again, we show them? It’s like when my kids were little, I remember I would mop the floor, and I would be like, “Do you see the beautiful job that mom just did on the floor? Now, we’re all going to be real careful, right, and we’re not going to mess up the floor. We are going to do our best to keep this clean.” 

How Can Parents Teach Empowerment?

It’s the same thing on my phone when I can show them, “Look at what I did.” I can also say, “Look at the mistake I made,” or, “Look at how I thought that this is what the person was saying, but I really misunderstood,” and, “Hey, do you see how misunderstandings happen? So maybe this is a conversation I need to have face-to-face?”

We take it for granted where we just don’t even think about all those steps that it takes to behave well online. They need to see us doing it. They need to see us using it deliberately, that you’re showing them, “This is the point of this tool. It’s not just to play Candy Crush, or to watch a movie, or to watch a YouTube video. It is to be helpful. It is to get work done.” I think that is super helpful.

I’ve been talking with a couple friends who were talking, basically, about just how bad they felt, or how they were sick of seeing certain hypocrisies in their friends and their church friends on social media, just that they were comparing themselves. I remember, at first, I thought, “I don’t relate to this,” or, “I haven’t felt that way in such a long time,” like that frustration with social media. Then, I had to think on that. I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s because I’ve been using it deliberately.”

When I first was on social media, yeah, I was scrolling through. I was saying dumb things. There’s nothing wrong with sharing silly things. Because I wasn’t spending so much time scrolling and comparing, I don’t have those negative feelings anymore. Showing them the difference between when we have too much screen-time and when we use it deliberately.

Empowering By Example

Anne: I only use social media now for work. I still connect with people that way, and I still have personal conversations. When I say work, I mean my life’s mission of helping women. I don’t mean just, specifically, like, “What will help BTR?” I mean my life’s mission of how to help bring wives of porn users the truth. In whatever element I’m using it, that’s my purpose in being on social media.

I think having a purpose is very helpful, especially when the purpose is not to look good. Especially if your purpose isn’t, “I just want everyone to think I’m awesome.” If your purpose is about someone else, how can I help someone else, or how can I help an organization, or how can I progress this truth that I think other people need to know? It makes it a tool. I agree with you. I haven’t had negative feelings about social media in a really long time.

Dina: Yeah, like you said, having a purpose, having a mission, having a reason for going on. That’s something that all of us, every couple of months, we need to think and re-evaluate for ourselves. What am I doing? I have a 17-, nearly 15-, nearly 12-year-old right now. We re-evaluate our media habits all the time.

As things change, as the semester changes, as habits change, as homework, etcetera. I have to really think about, “Well, what am I doing?” If I expect my kids to live a certain way, then I better be doing it as well. What is my purpose? You’re right, it is so important to just have a true connection.

Instilling Responsibility Is Important For Empowerment

I talk to my kids, “It’s not just about scrolling through and like, like, liking people’s post. Maybe somebody really needs our support, and to go ahead and write a private message, or to share a sincere compliment.” We don’t have to change the world in a day. Nobody expects that from us, but it is these—by small and simple needs that change can happen.

Anne: It just came to me to have it be your prayer list. Be like, “Who am I going to pray for today? Let me check my Facebook feed. Oh, I’ll pray for her, and I’ll pray for her. Her makeup is too perfect, something must not be quite right with her. I’m going to pray.” Like I said in the beginning, 30 Days of Sex Talks is one of my favorite series that you have. Tell me about some of the success stories that have come out of 30 Days of Sex Talks.

Dina: Some of the big things that we are hearing from parents is, again, how simple it makes it. That has been my huge thing. Even as we wrote these, there were so many things that I take for granted in my manner and in the way I run my household, that I wanted to give to other people. One of those was breaking it down and making it super simple.

I think, sometimes, people look at the cover, or they see the title, and they’re like, “30 days, oh my gosh. I don’t want to talk about sex for 30 days with my kids,” until they open it, and they’re like, “Oh, oh, that’s simple. Oh, I can do this.” That is exactly what I want people to feel. I want people to look at a few of the layouts and go, “Oh, my gosh, I can totally do this.”

Parents Can Do Many Things To Empower Children

That is how you should feel. That is how we should feel about sex talks, or, “I hadn’t thought about that. That is an important topic to cover.” That is what I wanted from the beginning, and that is what I hoped, what I prayed for, what we focused on. That, I feel like has been a huge blessing that that is what we have heard back from a lot of people. It made it so simple.

I wasn’t sure where to start, because, again, we have so many parents that they think they have to start right with the mechanics. They have to talk about the penis or the vagina right away. For a lot of parents, that’s really intimidating, or they’re just not sure how to do that with a 5-year-old.

Then, we have all these other simple discussions that, basically, help lead up to that, where it is discussions about safety, or a discussion about what does a healthy relationship look like. These are all parts of a sex talk. Helping a child know, “When is it okay to say no?” Okay, you don’t say no to mom when she asks you to do the dishes, but, you can say no to the creepy neighbor that wants to give you a hug. Those can be some of the first conversations, if we are intimidated.

A lot of parents come back to us with, “I was so scared to talk about masturbation, but then I just saw that I can just start with a few simple questions,” because that’s how we framed it in the 8 to 11 and the 12+ book. You just start out with some basic questions, and then you lead with your own values in your home. If you don’t like masturbation, then you let your kids know that.

Empower Kids By Having Open Dialogue

We also have other resources on the website that address some of these topics more in-depth. That happens to be a topic that a lot of parents are freaked out about. We wrote a couple articles on our Don’t Freak Out Page about talking to kids about masturbation and then talking to girls about masturbation.

That’s been the best success was just seeing that it’s simple, that it really doesn’t have to awkward, that this can be a great experience to bond you and your kids, because you’re letting them know, “You can talk to mom about anything.” That’s huge. That’s what we all want as parents, is to know that our kids are close to us, that they are comfortable asking us, and that they know that we care about them.

Anne: One of the days that’s about consent, and it’s been really interesting because I’ve weaved in the issue of consent with things like Legos, with things like, “Did you eat your brother’s chocolate?” Obviously, consent is a sex issue, but it’s also just a general interpersonal issue. I appreciated that about the 30 Days of Sex Talks, too, in that healthy people ask other people for their consent, and they give them all of the information that they need to make a good choice.

For example, with sex addicts, they do not give their partners the ability to give them full consent, because, often, they don’t give them all the information. They don’t say, “I sleep with prostitutes, and I view porn once a week, and I masturbate six times a week. Will you have sex with me now?”

Teaching Consent As Empowerment

Anne: It’s a consent issue. They’re not giving them all the information that they need to make a wise choice. I’m trying to teach my children, and my sons, when you want someone’s consent, “Do you want to come over and play?” give them all the information that they need. “When you come over to play, I would really like to play Legos. That’s what I really want to do. Do you want to come over and play Legos with me?”

Something like that, so they get this idea that, when you’re in a relationship with someone, making sure that they have all the information that they need to make a good choice, is an important part of keeping it a healthy relationship.

Dina: I love that, because you’re not making consent less important, you’re just making it more a part of their everyday life. So it’s obvious when their older, “Well, of course, I’m going to get a for sure, 100 percent.” I don’t know that they understand that, because they’ve had that foundation built throughout their whole lives. It should be really simple to understand what yes means and what no means.

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