Ask Fiona: My partner's ex-wife is making life difficult
Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine answers another set of reader dilemmas...
I AM very much in love with the man I live with, and he is with me. The problem is his ex-wife. She calls at least every other day with some problem or another, and spends ages agonising over this issue or that. She isn't trying to persuade him to come back – as least, I don't think she is – but it's as if she is so used to relying on him, she can't make any decisions without him.
She seems to have just about managed to convince him that all her problems are his fault. It's got to the point that he's thinking things would be better off if he didn't see his children at all. I'm sure that's not the right thing to do, but I don't know how to help and advise him. He is determined to go ahead with the divorce though, and says he knows he couldn't ever live with her again.
I wish I knew what to do for the best for him and for his children.
FIONA SAYS: Like you, I am sure that staying away from his children would be the wrong thing to do. Indeed, I cannot help but wonder if this isn't a very manipulative tactic on her part to make him feel guilty, and use the children to persuade him to come back. You don't say what the problems are, but if it's with the children's behaviour, cutting off his connection to them will make things worse, not better. It's quite possible that they are confused, and severing the connection will make them feel more vulnerable and rejected than ever.
It may not make sense to adults, but children often assume that, when their parents separate, they are in some way to blame. If they are currently feeling guilty about the marriage break-up, it could be why his wife is having such difficulties with them – if indeed she really is.
You don't say how the children behave when they see him, or how they react to you. If they are angry and resentful with you, then they could be blaming you for ‘taking their father away', but if they're not, then his wife may be exaggerating the issues. If there is resentment though, then staying away could make things even worse. His marriage may be over, but his responsibilities as a father are not.
Please encourage him to see his children, and to do so as often as necessary.
Perhaps if they felt supported, they would cause fewer problems, and his wife might not feel the need to unburden herself so often. You say he is determined to go ahead with the divorce, and if that's what he plans to do then delaying things won't help. In time, as she learns to manage alone, she probably won't feel the need to call as often anyway.
I'm sure it is difficult for you and for him. If he can continue to keep the relationship with his ex on a friendly basis though, it will make both the divorce and the post-divorce arrangements that much easier. Especially where the children are concerned. He will always have a responsibility for them – emotionally and financially – and if you are in a relationship with him, that is something you will have to deal with.
The role of a step-parent is never easy, there's a fine line to be trodden along the way. The charity Family Lives (familylives.org.uk) have an excellent website with advice on all manner of issues that you're going to have to deal with. I'd strongly encourage you to take a look at it, and encourage your partner to do the same, as he may well find some help with some of the problems his ex is facing.
I DON'T TRUST MUM'S NEW HUSBAND
WHEN my dad died six years ago, my mum went to pieces. She was completely devastated and said, regularly, that she didn't know how she would manage without him. It wasn't a complete surprise, therefore, when mum decided to remarry – and the man she chose had us all worried. He seemed very manipulative and domineering to me, but she seemed happy, so we didn't say anything.
That was about a year ago now and it didn't take long before he'd persuaded her to sell the home she'd shared with our dad, and buy a smaller bungalow. That freed up some capital, which he then persuaded her to invest in his business. That's when alarm bells started to ring, but as I said, she seemed happy, so it was difficult to express our concerns.
We started to see less of her, as she was always ‘busy'. And when we did see her, we noticed he'd made her change the way she dressed and wore her hair.
She was becoming a different person – one we didn't recognise. The dog, which she got for companionship when dad died, seems to have become a nervous wreck – apparently her new husband doesn't like it and shouts at it all the time.
When I hadn't heard from her for a couple of weeks, I went round to see her and found her new husband had ‘gone away for a few days'. Well, he is still not back, and although my mum is getting increasingly upset, I can't help hoping he has gone for good. What can I do to help my mother though, as she really doesn't seem to understand what's happening?
FIONA SAYS: If your mother hasn't heard anything at all from him in three weeks, it does sound as if perhaps he has disappeared. I would also suggest that it's time to contact the police too and report him as a missing person. She probably knows him better than you, and if she thinks he's vulnerable or has mental health issues, she should do this without delay, calling 999 and asking for the police. You may not like him, but three weeks is a long time for him to go missing, so do please act without further delay.
If it is found that he is away on business or something, then I wouldn't let yourself take too active a part in trying to get rid of him – not whilst your mother still seems to care for him. If you try and influence her and they stay together, you could find he resents you and tries to stop you from seeing your mum at all. Having said that, your mum needs all the support and love you can give her – you need to be a listener without passing judgements. It might be an idea to take the dog out of the equation though – could you or another member of the family look after it perhaps?
Three weeks is a long time to disappear without telling your mum where he is though, and I would definitely start to be anxious in her shoes. If he has left her then, from the behaviour you describe, I would suggest your mum checks her finances. If they have savings, are these still intact? What about a joint bank account – is the money in that still there? If this man has disappeared and the money is missing, the sooner she acts, the better the chance of finding and retrieving the cash.
SHOULD I STOP SEEING MY MEAN DAD?
YOU would have thought that at 27 and married with three kids, my father could accept that I am no longer a wild teenage. Add to which I hold down a very responsible job and manage 30 staff – yet my dad still reduces me to an angry, quivering wreck.
He delights in putting me down in front of my husband and family, he criticises me constantly, and although I want to go on visiting my mother, if I could avoid him, I think I would. Perhaps I should just stop visiting him. What do you think?
FIONA SAYS: As all your father ever seems to do is hurt you, I can quite understand why you might want to stop visiting him. Some people seem to delight in finding the buttons to push to wind people up, and your father knows you well enough to know just which buttons have the greatest effect. Unless you make an attempt to try to change his behaviour towards you though, you will never know if he can act differently.
Have you tried talking to him, as an adult, and telling him that the way he behaves towards you is no longer appropriate? Point out to him how much you have changed and tell him that his constant criticism is hurtful – then ask him quite gently but very firmly to stop. Try to remain calm, even if he blusters, as he almost certainly will.
If doing this make no difference, then explain to your mother that she is welcome to come and see you at your own home, but that you won't visit until your father is willing to change towards you. Hopefully he will soon realise something is missing and understand that either he changes, or he risks losing his daughter and her family.
WE PAID FOR DAUGHTER'S WEDDING – NOW SHE SAYS IT'S OVER
IT IS just six months since we held a huge wedding for our daughter, which we went into debt to afford. Now she says the marriage is over and won't tell us why. She wants to leave her husband (who is distraught and doesn't understand either) and come back to live with us.
My husband has dug his heels in and says she can't come home unless either she pays off the wedding debt, or else gives us an explanation. He believes this is the only way she will face up to her responsibilities. I know she doesn't earn much and if he forces this, she will just run up debts herself that she can't repay. Who is right here, and what do we do to help her?
FIONA SAYS: I think it is important to find out what has gone wrong in her marriage, but I don't think threatening her is the way to do it. It could be that the fairy-tale wedding didn't properly prepare her for the realities of married life. It could be she has a sexual problem, which is why she is reluctant to talk to her father about it. It could be all manner of things, and talking about it might be very hard for her.
Rather than make the debt a condition of her homecoming, why not push for counselling? If she could speak to a Relate counsellor (relate.org.uk), it might help her to work through this.
I, too, think she owes you something for the help and support you have given her, but I suspect she may be a little fragile right now. Her fairy-tale has shattered, but she does have to learn that her actions carry consequences. She must understand that by entering a contract of marriage with her husband, she owes him an explanation as well.
If you have a problem you need help with, email Fiona by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org for advice. All letters are treated in complete confidence and, to protect this privacy, Fiona is unable to pass on your messages to other readers. Fiona regrets that she cannot enter into personal correspondence.