The dilemma My eldest daughter, now 20, was unfortunately witness to an unhappy marriage between me and her mother. Prior to me moving out of the family home, my daughter had firmly taken the side of my wife and there was no pleasant communication between us. My wife and I are now divorced.
Recently, though, our communication has improved and she requested to visit me for two weeks as she needed a quiet place to study and sit her online exams. I was delighted. However, almost immediately on arrival, she objected to me speaking to my girlfriend and complained that I was too noisy, that the workmen outside were disturbing her, etc.
On the sixth day she wrote a list of instructions on how I should behave during her exams, including remaining downstairs and keeping the volume on the TV low. I told her this was unacceptable and next thing I know she had asked her aunt to pick her up. When I tried to reconcile with her, I got a mouthful of abuse against my girlfriend, who she hasn’t even met. I will be grateful if you can tell me what may be happening here.
Mariella replies That’s a tall order. I don’t mean to pass the buck, but knowing what’s going on in your child’s head or at least making an effort to try to understand her should be your priority. I appreciate that’s not always easy. A stressed 20-year-old on an exam countdown isn’t going to be the most rational or rewarding of companions, and neither are they likely to offer much in the way of quality time, either. Then again, for her to choose your home as a potential oasis of calm in order to study is a compliment. I’m not sure if you accepted that olive branch in the spirit in which it was intended.
If I read your timeline correctly, you’ve had little communication over the past few years until suddenly, a few weeks ago, you were offered this reprieve. You don’t tell me what prompted your daughter’s change of heart, but perhaps you’ve found, as I have with my own kids, that it’s best not to ask too many questions on the rare occasions when the benevolence of their company is bestowed. Instead, I try not to look too grateful and attempt to enjoy whatever they condescend to offer.
After the difficulties of your marriage, for your girl to make such a gesture suggests you were doing something right or that she really needed to escape her environment. Either way, it was a golden opportunity to rehabilitate your relationship with your fast-maturing child. As such, it might have been a good idea to halt all normal business and get down to repairing past damage. Instead, the impression I get from your letter is that you continued with life as usual, including what might be considered contentious and – if she was aware of them enough to complain – rather too public phone conversations with your girlfriend. Naturally, you are entitled to your own life but, then again, what’s two weeks of creeping around when a renewed alliance with your daughter is the prize on offer?
There are quite a few parts of your email that point to continued resentment over your marriage. And talking about your then-teenage girl “taking the side” of your ex-wife is not a good indication of a reconstructed divorcee. That does little to convince me that you have made big inroads in terms of moving on. When you are dragging that much baggage around it’s a definite obstacle to any possibility of moving forward. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if that’s why your recent chance of a rapprochement with your daughter came unstuck. If the adults in her life are still playing the same old record, your daughter is likely to be trapped in that same groove. You can’t just skim over what’s gone before; you need to learn how to navigate differently and, as the parent, the onus is on you to do that work if you want the reward of a reconciliation with your daughter.
Instead of asking a stranger to explain your daughter’s behaviour, employing a different approach might get you the answers you are after. You can’t expect her to enthusiastically embrace the new life you prefer over your old one without walking her through it slowly and gently. Insisting she accepts your new partner and failing to value her determination to study over your TV habits are both red signals.
I do hope I’ve read you correctly. It’s difficult to make judgments based on the slim details of your letter, so you will have to forgive me for relying on my instincts and perhaps jumping to conclusions. For professional and qualified expertise there are plenty of family therapists who could no doubt throw more helpful light on the dysfunction that’s still festering in the heart of your family. Start by asking your GP to recommend a local one. Mine are just rough guesses with the hope that one or two might hit the mark and prompt behavioural change. There certainly do seem to be a few historical issues that need ironing out before you both move on.
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