Can I contact my kids, 18 years after a really toxic divorce? | Dear Mariella | Life and style

The dilemma Eighteen years ago my marriage broke up in a disastrous way. She was not the person she led me to believe during our 20 years together. She had been having a relationship with my sister and many other men, both before and during our marriage. She tricked me and others into believing she was an “angel”, the perfect mother, wife and professional. The divorce was horrific, and I decided to step back from trying to see my three children and give them time and space to settle (my ex had done her best to paint me as the “monster”). My ex was, and I believe still is, terrified I will tell my children, now adults, the truth about her. I would never do that. It nearly broke me, I could not risk it damaging them. I want to try to be friends and the good father I have always been. I’ve written letters, sent presents, but never had a reply and don’t know if they ever received anything. Should I attempt to make contact again, or leave well alone? I have no intention of stirring up the old memories. I just want to get to know my children again.

Mariella replies What’s stopping you? It sounds to me like the only mistake you made was to let go of your children in the first place. I appreciate you were involved in the worst of separations and walking away from that distressing scenario must have appeared the only route to self-preservation. No matter how much their fate formed part of your consideration at the time, your children will judge you by your actions and also by your inaction. Appearing uninterested in their fate, or even worse having abandoned them, is the most likely impression they have been left with. No wonder they haven’t responded to cards and presents. When one parent has entirely absented themselves from their lives, such missives will have seemed the easiest of options. Even as children they’ll have had a sense that you can’t send love via the Royal Mail.

Your wife may have betrayed you terribly and made an amicable separation and custody plans incredibly difficult to negotiate, but you are the one who walked away. Your children will not have witnessed the torturous thought processes that led you to that decision and trinkets through the letterbox will certainly not assuage them of their sense that when the going got tough you took the easy way out. No matter how badly your wife behaved, and how toxic the relationship became, your children should have come first and, whether initiated by you or not, you are both responsible for the ugliness of your separation and divorce. Your ex may have made life very painful and remaining in touch with your children hugely challenging, but she didn’t have it in her power to prevent you from seeing them, unless there are issues you haven’t revealed.

That doesn’t mean all is lost, but it does suggest that your present conflict needs to be resolved before you can move things forward. You spend most of your letter elaborating on their mother’s crimes against you, committed 18 years ago, before asking whether you should get in touch with your kids or not.

If you have no intention of illuminating them on their mother’s misdemeanours, you should stop using her as justification for your actions and shoulder your share of the blame. If you’re still refusing to take responsibility for your own evasive action, then I don’t see how you can expect to convince your children of anything other than your lack of emotional responsibility. Whatever your wife did, you are a parent, and whether it seemed so at the time or not, your children will have needed you in their lives. Taking responsibility for the decision you made to step away is the only way to create the emotional conditions in which to make progress.

Your initial communication with them must not be a stream of self-justification but an apology, heartfelt and unambiguous. Your ex wife may have broken every promise she made in committing to your marriage, but she can’t shoulder the blame for your choice to walk away from your kids. Take that on board – understand how your absence will have appeared to those too young to fully comprehend the complexities of your adult relationship. By walking away you escaped the trials and tribulations of raising children into adulthood and missed out on much of their formative lives. Assume responsibility for the legacy of insecurity that walking away will have created and appreciate that they need to be allowed to articulate their feelings without you leaping in to defend your actions. That way you stand a really good chance of rekindling a connection.

I’m glad to see you suggesting you offer the hand of friendship. I imagine that will be a lot more palatable to these young adults than simply trying to reassume your parenting position. It’s a long and rocky road to rehabilitation in their eyes, but it’s certainly worth your investment. Don’t expect open arms or ready hearts, but a slow journey, full of setbacks and small triumphs that will eventually lead to a happier place for you all. You’ll need courage, humility and patience in your arsenal.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1

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