The dilemma I have been in a relationship with my partner for 10 years and she has a daughter in her mid-teens. My partner broke up with the father of their daughter due to gaslighting and physical abuse, including head-butting her and claiming it was by accident. Two years later I came on to the scene. I’ve never called him out about the abuse, and her daughter doesn’t know about it. The problem is that he has been manipulating his daughter for years. He buys her big gifts and gives her pocket money, but rarely gives my partner financial assistance. We have heard him saying negative things about my partner to his daughter.
Her daughter can be nice, but often tells my partner that she prefers her father, and is rude and obnoxious. This is more than a teenager’s sniping. We find ourselves walking on eggshells – which was just like how my partner felt when living with her ex.
The strange thing is that she will not stay over at her father’s and won’t give a direct answer why. We think she might be frightened of him, but as she loves him cannot admit it. It puts a strain on us – we hardly get a break and he just comes around to our house making us feel uncomfortable. As a man I feel castrated – I want to tell him what I really think of him, but know I can’t.
Mariella replies Feeling “castrated” and wanting to do the “manly” thing and confront him are probably your least helpful impulses at present. How you’re feeling is of interest only to you and me. While I’m pleased you’ve told me, it shouldn’t be a further factor in this conversation. Instead, I’d like to congratulate you on the fortitude and emotional reserve you’ve displayed more recently and also for the many years, as mentioned in your longer letter, when you were just a weekend visitor, for the sake of your now step-daughter.
Despite our increased awareness of the damage caused by adult love affairs going awry, we still fail to respect how traumatic separation can be for children. In a situation like this, where deeper damage has been sustained, you can’t keep a lid on the cauldron forever. In this case your partner took the only route possible and if she hasn’t already I’d encourage her to contact one of the many organisations, such as Refuge, which are trained to assist with domestic violence and its aftermath. As they’ll tell you, the words “accidental” and “head-butt” are not an acceptable pairing. You, on the other hand, seem to have behaved in exemplary fashion.
The incidents of domestic violence, sporadic though they may have been, inflicted on your partner during her past relationship, are of real concern. They ring an even louder warning bell when you say this girl then began refusing to stay with her father. That would have coincided with the moment when she moved from childhood into the earliest stirrings of puberty, and I think it’s important you get to the bottom of why she made that choice at that time.
You clearly don’t trust her father with his ex and there’s no reason to think his behavioural patterns have altered just because they split up. Indeed, there is no reason to presume he hasn’t transferred his abusive ways on to his daughter. Keep safeguarding her and ensure she isn’t left alone with him until you get to the bottom of things. Continuing to show her love, warmth and a healthy male role model is incredibly important.
What seems imperative is that her mother begins to open up to her child about the past so that her daughter can come to understand that her father’s behaviour isn’t normal and that she has a safe place where she, too, can open up. There’s a difference between shielding someone from brutal facts and burying them altogether, and as she enters her teens she needs to be told the bare bones of the past to mitigate the impact it may have on her future.
I can assure you that comparing your parents and finding fault with the one who spends most time and energy on you is a perennial teenage pursuit. My worry is more about what continues to be hidden in plain sight in terms of her unstable relationship with her damaged and damaging dad.
You definitely need to seek professional help to support mother and child as they attempt to delve into the past. You could start by calling the charity Family Lives (0808 800 2222). This man is still a danger and needs to be treated as such, and his growing girl has a right to know that – and also how to maintain a relationship with him, if possible. You need the assistance of someone trained to help negotiate the trickiest of emotional terrain and support these victims of domestic violence who may otherwise spend their whole lives silenced by fear. Thankfully rather than “feel castrated” there is much you can do to support them on this difficult journey.