I recently received a letter from a man who described living in a “very lonely marriage” for almost two decades. Because his wife apparently had been withdrawn and emotionally unavailable, he took on the role of primary caretaker for their 13-year-old daughter. After years of trying to communicate his loneliness with his wife, he finally moved out of the bedroom.
A year later, he fell in love with a coworker and began having an affair. This led to a very ugly divorce in which the affair became public information, and his wife gained primary custody.
Two years later, as he plans to marry this new woman, he is exposed almost daily to his daughter’s hatred. Sometimes it takes the form of vicious language; sometimes the hatred turns physical. He goes on to say that he is finally with a woman he finds caring and loving – something he had not experienced in many years. But at the same time, he feels he is dying on the inside for the apparent loss of his only natural child.
Any loving father in this man’s position would have concerns. Here are his:
She has had two years to accept this. Does my child have any responsibility in making an independent decision of treating me with respect?
I love my daughter with all my heart, and I let her know that; but the verbal and sometimes physical abuse she places on me makes it difficult for me to see any future of her in my life. My ex is a big part of this, but the courts will do very little to stop it. Have I lost my child? Do I watch and wait for her to grow up? What should I expect of my daughter in relation to my new wife and her children? I will not accept physical or verbal disrespect. How should I approach this situation in my battle to bring my child back into my life, or is all lost? Is there hope for my relationship with my child, or do I have to wait until she is 24 years old to understand that I wasn’t such a bad guy?
The most important question you raise is whether you have lost your daughter. The hatred is about betrayed love. So as long as she hates you, she still cares – even loves you. Since you were her primary caretaker for all those years, I would imagine she adored and trusted you. And, despite the fact that what you did may be a very human reaction to great suffering, you still betrayed your daughter (and your wife). This is a fact. It does not mean you are a bad person, nor does it mean that you necessarily made the wrong decision. It also does not mean that you should subject yourself to disrespect and abuse. But it does mean that you have brought pain to this child.
You said that she had two years to accept this and wonder if your daughter should take responsibility to treat you with respect. Average recovery time from divorce is about five years. That’s average; sometimes the bitterness lasts for many years thereafter. And that is for adults! You should also know that broken skin heals at a rate of 1 millimeter a day, but what about your daughter’s broken heart? So two years is only the beginning.
And yes, your daughter should treat you with respect. But I think that is almost too much to ask for. A child her age needs safety after trauma, and right now she is apparently finding that with her mother. Until things settle down (preferably with counseling), she probably will think like her mother, also.
So what can you do?
Because you hurt her, eventually you must make amends. The first step is to make a genuine effort to understand her agony and rage.
Try to understand what it must be like for her to have lost what she once considered the only stability in her life. Understand that her rage probably protects her from deeper loss, suffering and emptiness – emotions she will feel as the rage dissipates. Understand how frightened she must be now that she has lost her primary caretaker and is living with a woman who may have been withdrawn and unreliable most of her life.
Give yourself plenty of time to understand her pain. Although this might take a long time, when (or if) she is willing, ask her questions that convey your genuine interest in her experience and not your effort to change her thinking.
On the other hand, this does not give her permission to behave in a way that harms people. Every time she hurts you, she feels worse about herself. (See my last column.)
Explain to her that she can hate you but still must not hurt you. Explain to her that she can hate you for 1,000 years, but your love for her will always be greater than her hatred for you. If need be, tell her that every day. But she will need more than your words. You must behave in a way that communicates love.
I am sure you understand that even if you do all of these things, there are no guarantees. The only guarantee is that your daughter and you will continue to feel the pain of alienation until she feels safe enough to look you in the eye and open her heart.
[My last column was about how most of us hurt others and have been hurt by words. Among the letters I received were several from people who called themselves chronic complainers or pessimists and wanted to know how to change. It is important to know that chronic pessimism, cynicism or even sarcasm could be signs of low-grade depression, which might be quite treatable. Please consult a mental-health professional.]