Richard writes: I am 54 and, after many years of feeling desperately unhappy, I finally left my wife 18 months ago.
The price I have had to pay for this seems unbearable. I have two beautiful daughters, aged 14 and 12. Before my marriage broke up, I had a really good bond with them. We were very close. In the first months after I left, my wife did all she could to prevent me seeing them, but I was determined to maintain my relationship with the girls and I thought we had worked through our difficulties.
She tells them that I have left them, when I only left her. She has told them that if I loved them I would never have left
I met someone else nine months ago and I’m happier than I have been for a long time. Since I began seeing my girlfriend, however, my ex-wife has ramped up her campaign against me and has sabotaged any relationship I had left with the girls.
She tells them that I have left them, when I only left her. She has told them that I am more interested in my own life than theirs, and that if I loved them I would never have left.
I understand what’s going on. I think they are terrified of seeing me because they know it will upset her and they don’t want to do that. So they don’t answer my calls or respond to emails, and when I have succeeded in contacting them, they say they don’t want to see me.
My ex has put them in an impossible position. They are unable to show how they really feel and I think they are beginning to believe they don’t need me.
I have had court contact orders but the children are old enough to decide for themselves and they are certainly not encouraged to keep me in their lives. The court can’t help and I can’t keep bringing them back to court. What can I do?
Charlotte Friedman replies: I am sorry to hear about this situation. Unfortunately, it is all too common and the courts have a name for what your ex has done to the children. It’s called ‘parental alienation’.
When children live primarily with one parent, it is hard for them to break ranks and appear to be disloyal, for fear of that parent abandoning them, and because it is too distressing to see an upset parent. Court orders in respect of contact have no sanctions attached that really affect the outcome.
If your ex breaks a court order, she will be reprimanded and the court will try again. But if the situation continues, the choice for the court is stark. They might remove the children and give them to you, because they might say she is emotionally abusing them by alienating them from you.
However, before they do that, they will carry out a balancing exercise, asking: is it more abusive to take them away from a parent with whom they are settled and happy in a stable home than to leave them where they are without a relationship with their father? Unfortunately, the courts mostly opt in favour of leaving settled children where they are, even though the consequences for you are devastating.
Your children need you. And they need to know that, despite everything, you continue to love them. The most you can do right now is to write to them and tell them that you do love them, you are always available for them when they are ready to see you, and you are sorry they feel they can’t do that right now.
To guard against interception of a letter, you might also want to repeat this message by text and email, or (privately) through a social media site.
I believe that, in time, they will make their own decisions and seek you out. They will come to understand as they grow in independence and experience that, in aligning themselves with their mother, they have forfeited something they are entitled to and that belongs to them: a father who loves them.
I know this is a frustrating and distressing time. If you can hold them in mind so that, despite their apparent wish not to see you, they know you are there, it will make a difference over time.
One other option that you may have tried is to give your ex-wife a voice, so she can let you know – not through the children but directly from her to you – how angry and bereaved she feels. That may then free her up from punishing you with the only weapon she feels she has: your children.
Perhaps take her out for a drink, tell her you are sorry and say you will listen to whatever she has to say. Slowly, if she feels heard, she may come round.
Charlotte Friedman runs the Divorce Support Group
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