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I have been divorced from my husband for several years. We have two daughters together, aged 14 and 10.

My problem is that he wants contact with our youngest daughter but not our eldest. Since their father remarried, our eldest has struggled to have a relationship with him. By his own admission, his new wife treats both our daughters badly and he says he remarried because he was afraid of being alone.

Just this week, our eldest sent him a text explaining that she wanted a relationship with him but was unsure if she could trust him. He replied curtly, ‘I won’t message you again’. This has really affected her. She has been struggling with anxiety and confidence issues over the past two years, and now as she concentrates on her GCSEs, she is feeling stressed even more. I’m really concerned about her mental health.

However, what is even more alarming right now is that my ex-husband is seeking contact with our youngest daughter. I'm concerned that he will behave in exactly the same way with her and this will have a knock-on effect on our eldest. What should I do? Do I prevent him from contacting them so he can’t treat them differently? I've tried so many times to try and get him to see how badly he is treating our eldest, but he just doesn't listen.

Ammanda says...

What a sad and desperate problem. Situations like this are the stuff of nightmares for the parent who is trying to keep key relationships on track. You say that you’ve tried many times to get your ex to see the error of his ways but he’s not open to discussion. Inevitably, not even having the reason for his actions makes things seem even more bizarre. I would hazard a guess here that your ex finds himself caught between the wishes of his new wife and his own yearning to be the dad your eldest needs. It’s not uncommon for people to get caught in the middle of (what are seen as) competing priorities. In this case, perhaps he thinks he can only please his wife by completely alienating your eldest and vice versa, especially as it seems to be the case here that his new partner is giving both your daughters a hard time. Sometimes new partners feel very threatened by close relationships that they see as belonging to the past. They make it difficult for everyone by making demands that result in painful choices. There are no winners in situations like this. Everyone is worse off and unfortunately, in my experience, the legacy of rejection and often guilt can be significant.

So, what to do? There are no easy answers. Until your ex can accept his children in a way which involves helping them to understand they are both much loved - even though he himself has moved on to a new life with someone else - not much is likely to change. In the meantime and difficult though this is, I would suggest you keep open what is on offer from him. If your youngest is OK with seeing him, then let that happen. In time, she may decide for herself that his treatment of her sister means that she cannot stay in touch. That is for her to decide. As far as your eldest is concerned, make sure your reassure her all the time that her father’s behaviour says so much more about him than anything else. Her distress is natural and deeply upsetting and of course, therefore a significant worry for you. Make sure that you get help to manage the stress this causes for you. If you can remain emotionally present and strong then you’ll be in a position to support your eldest to weather what’s happening now. In time, things may change. Hard though it is to believe, there may be a resolution waiting in the wings. The problem is that you don’t know and can’t count on it.

Your daughter’s mental and emotional health is paramount. Currently, someone who should be important in her life is probably allowing other people’s needs to cloud his judgement. This is as much a tragedy for him as it is for both your daughters. From a practical position, are there any other people in his life who may be able to advance the discussion that seems so difficult for the two of you to have at the moment? Perhaps a parent, sibling or friend might be able to take the conversation in a new and more helpful direction? You can’t escape from the legacy of your own relationship with your husband and it’s always possible that the circumstances of whatever happened to end your own marriage to him are alive and well and preventing either of you from being able to speak together in helpful ways. That’s not a criticism of either of you by the way – it’s simply one of the things that can happen post relationship break down. Obviously, the best thing would be if you, he and his new partner could talk together about what is in the best interests of the children. Children often get caught up in the unfinished discussions between adults, often with very painful results. Maybe that’s happening here. But whatever else you do, keep reassuring both your daughters equally that they are important and worthwhile people. The trick here is not to over compensate with your eldest and end up inadvertently treating your daughters differently as your husband is doing. Of course, another way of seeing this (and certainly a point for your husband to consider) is that through his treatment of your eldest, he is also wounding the youngest by potentially making her feel guilty that she seems to be the chosen one at the moment. In time, he may realise the problems he causes by doing this and decide on a restorative approach with both of them.

Ammanda Major is a Relationship Counsellor and Sex Therapist and Head of Clinical Practice at Relate.

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