My ex is using my boys to get to me

Dear Suzie,

Firstly I could cry when I found this site! I am having a really bad time at the moment. I have been separated from my husband coming up to 2 years we have 3 wonderful boys. The marriage broke down due to unresonable behaviour. The boys have reguarly contact with their Dad.

I have met new partner who has no children and only sees my boys once a week thought we would take it slowly. The boys are great with him when he is here, but unfortunately my ex is using the boys to get to me by saying they don’t have to see him and to tell me that they hate him. My eldest one is 10 taking it the worst talking to me like his father did and telling me what I can and can’t do. He is very confused and insecure. I have done the usual by spending time with him on his own. Talking to him and doing behaviour charts to aim for a treat of his choice. This hasn’t worked and I am really at my wits end and spend a lot of time getting upset. My new partner wants to support me he is lovely but feel if he came round more upsets my 10 year old more….

Please help feel like I can’t go on any longer.
I am currently arranging mediation for all

Thanks in advance x

I know how despairing you can feel in such a situation and how stuck. Your husband was unreasonable, which is why the marriage broke down. Now it seems that not only is he continuing his unreasonable behaviour but he has bequeathed it to your children. It must feel so unfair and such hard, painful work!

But stop a moment. Look at all the helpful things you have done so far.

You’ve taken yourself and your children out of an untenable situation. Kids hate losing full time access with both parents but the reality is that however much it hurts to be at a distance, it would hurt far more to have to see and experience conflict day after day. It’s bad enough that they go on seeing him manipulate and bad mouth you when you don’t live together – it would be passing on much worse messages to them if they saw it every day, and saw you lie down and accept it.

You continue to support them in seeing their Dad. That’s a triumph and a continuing comfort to them and you should credit yourself with holding to that, however difficult it might be.

You have recognised how confusing the situation must be for your children and the mixed messages they must be getting. You can see how they value and like your new partner and how any difficult behaviour around this relationship is due to their fathers’ struggle in accepting it.

I think you can also see how hard it must be for him. Whatever he might say about it I would imagine he feels that he has failed as a partner and a father and his anxiety and jealousy of how much better this new man seems to be doing both jobs would make him bitter and guilty and thus wish to be a saboteur.

And lastly but far from leastly not only have you started working with your eldest son in dealing with his behaviour, you have seen that some sort of outside help would really help.

So bravo, bravo to you! Dry your tears for now and let’s see how we can come up with even more ideas to make this better.

For a start, don’t think you can clear it all up, happy ever after, overnight. Dealing with separation and new relationships is really, really complex and really, really hard. It all needs to be done a bit at a time and with an eye to so many aspects of what is a very complex situation.

Your son, being the eldest, probably feels he has to stand in for his Dad now. He shows this by talking to you like his Dad – becoming, in a sense, the Dad in the house now. Sons get their idea of what being a man and a Dad is all about from their own fathers so if he’s got the idea that ‘real’ men shout and leave, that may be what he thinks he has to do to be a real man, and of course to earn his fathers affection.

He may also have quite mixed feelings about his Dad – a man, after all, who has left him. Your son would feel angry at him but guilty of such anger because you ‘should’ love your Dad. So somebody has to take the brunt of the anger and pain, and the newcomer is the obvious one to dump it on. Your son may also be struggling to make sense of why his Dad left and kids often think it’s their own fault – if they’d been ‘good’ maybe Dad wouldn’t have left. So he’d have that to deal with.

More than treat charts what he may need is an acknowledgment of how he feels and help to sort out what he’s thinking. He may be most confused by the fact that he likes your new man – and then has to deal with his father demanding that to show he loves him, he must be antagonistic to this newcomer. That can give a child trouble in trusting his own feelings and instincts. Your ex needs help to see that his own understandable feelings about the breakdown of his relationship with you and your new relationships need to be dealt with separately from his dealings with his children.

Mediation sounds an excellent idea. You may also find the help offered by Parentlineplus on their website and through their freephone 24/7 confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222 invaluable. I’d also suggest you have a look at my own book Stepfamilies – surviving and thriving in a new family – I really do cover all these issues and more.

And the fact I do should tell you something; you’re not alone, you’re not being uniquely incompetent and neither your son nor your ex are being uniquely perverse. All of you are struggling with a very difficult and complicated situation with loads of buried emotions and conflicting needs. With some support and help, and the confidence to recognise you have actually made a very good start, you can manage it. Good luck!!

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