I recently separated from my husband after 20 years. We have two teenage children. My daughter has chosen to live with me; my son with his dad. It was all fairly amicable although the marriage was borderline abusive as my ex is quite controlling.
Towards the end of the marriage, I met a lovely man online and after I decided to leave my husband, we met and started a relationship. We were careful not to make it known.
She demanded that I tell my husband about it. I refused as it would just upset him and make our divorce even harder, but after a week of her crying, raging and telling me she couldn’t see her dad again now she knew about this other man, the next time I saw my husband I told him.
Predictably, he was hurt, angry and has barely spoken to me since, not even to sort out childcare arrangements or let me know my son is all right. I wish I hadn’t told him, although I believe my daughter would have spilled the beans if I hadn’t – she had already told her brother (he is fairly calm about it all). Basically, I was blackmailed by my daughter.
When my new partner heard about this, he was horrified. He doesn’t want any trouble or drama and can no longer imagine a life with me that involves my daughter. He has ended things.
My life with my daughter is now very difficult as I don’t trust her an inch and find all this very difficult to forgive. Her snooping and blackmail has cost me an amicable divorce and my new relationship. However, she is still only young and is my daughter. I have already made her life very hard by leaving the family home and don’t want to make things even worse by making her go back to live with her dad. She doesn’t want to do that.
I’m going to concentrate on the daughter angle of your letter, which I have edited to protect identities.
On first reading of your longer letter, your daughter’s behaviour does seem shocking. But then I mused on it a while and thought about how her life must have been these past few years: you in a “borderline abusive” marriage, her family home split up, her brother living somewhere else, her mother conducting a relationship in secret, which she clearly suspected. And she is still a child. I strongly believe people should be responsible for their actions, but I also believe they should be allowed to grow into those responsibilities first.
If you forget, for a moment, about the way your daughter has gone about things, and concentrate on what you think she might be trying to communicate to you, what do you think that might be? Behind all behaviour there is a message, which we shouldn’t lose sight of.
You want to mend bridges with your daughter, which is good. But stop sending your friends messages calling your daughter names (edited out of your letter here). That is not going to help anyone and does not reflect well on you.
The psychotherapist Naomi Stadlen thinks that your daughter “hasn’t lost hope [in having a relationship with you], her anger shows she hasn’t withdrawn”. Stadlen feels that “this crisis is an opportunity to turn things around for both of you and to find a way to talk to one another” – rather than the extremes of behaviour you both have at the moment.
“Your daughter is desperate. She is trying to find out the worst [hence the snooping] because this tells her how bad it is. She is snooping because she doesn’t feel safe.”
When we don’t feel safe, when we feel that information is being withheld, most of us will try to find out what’s going on. The not knowing makes us insecure. “However,” says Stadlen, “you can’t ensure privacy until you’ve restored a certain amount of trust.”
You are, of course, entitled to a private life, and I would suggest taking control of this: change the password on your phone, don’t give it to your daughter again (presumably you did the first time, otherwise your daughter should apply for a job with the FBI).
“It is vital that you listen to your daughter,” advises Stadlen. “Her behaviour shows that she doesn’t feel heard. Sit with her either by yourself or with a mediator, and ask her to tell you what is wrong. Try not to justify or defend yourself. Give her time to shout, calm down, and finally tell you her real concerns. That will help you to rebuild the trust between you. There may be no quick answers to her problems, but knowing she can confide in you will help. Your first task is to steady this rocking boat.”
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 13 August 2016.