The dilemma I split with my husband when my son was three – he was selfish and did not enjoy being a father. But we parted amicably and agreed to co-parent our son. I hoped for another relationship and another child.
Twelve years later and I have had one relationship, which caused my ex-husband to threaten suicide. He has constantly been in and out of my life – at first I thought he wanted to reconcile, but I realised he wants to cherry-pick the parts of marriage that suit him (mostly sex) and then go to his own house when he “needs space”. Whenever I put my foot down he threatens to take our son away. Even going to a solicitor didn’t help.
I feel like his mother. He turns up whenever he wants advice, and I help him (to my own detriment, as he is very depressive and pessimistic). He is on the autism spectrum and his family really don’t care about him. Other times he turns up for the evening with alcohol, wanting to stay the night and I let him, to save another argument. Our son is now 15 and my ex is still trying to get him to live with him, despite the fact that he works shifts and is out of the house for hours. Our son is tired of the situation and so am I, but I can’t see a way out. How will I ever have my own life?
Mariella replies It sounds simplistic, but where many of us go wrong is in refusing to take agency of our own lives – instead allowing others to make subservient our personal desires. It’s very hard, stuck in one form of reality, to conceive and create another, but it’s important that you dream up a vision for the future that’s realistic and achievable.
Your husband has maintained control over both you and his son for more than a decade, cynically placing his emotional needs and desires above both of yours. As you observe, it’s high time that you freed yourself from that bind, but this sense that you are doing it for your son is really a cover for your fear of taking your life in your own hands. Desperately holding on to your boy is neither necessary nor the answer. And I can reassure you that no court is going to significantly alter custody arrangements just because you put your foot down about your ex-husband’s overnight stays. Any fears over the custody of your son can be addressed through family mediation (try the Family Mediation Council or National Family Mediation).
I’m sad to hear that you haven’t found another partner or had the second child you desired, but you have to see how the perpetual helicoptering presence of your ex will have put people off.
While this situation continues you’re not free or available. Instead, you’re enabling your husband to stay in the driving seat of your life. I’m glad that you’ve managed to co-parent with him amicably, but at what cost? It really does sound as if your husband is a manipulative presence who has ensured that you’ve never enjoyed the freedom that should have been yours when you made the hard choice to move out.
Up until now he seems very much to have had his cake and eaten it with little opposition from you. He can’t take your boy away – that is an empty threat – and, very shortly, your son will be able to make his own choice. If he decides to hang out with his dad through his A-levels, good luck to him! You need to stop loading the responsibility for your entrapment on the fragile shoulders of your teenage son. What will make him want to stick around is the sight of you grasping your life with both hands and freeing him from his confusing position as a prize in a competition between his parents. You can get help in escaping from your husband’s manipulative behaviour – organisations such as Women’s Aid (womensaid.org.uk) or Refuge (refuge.org.uk; 0808 2000 247) can advise you over what is, essentially, a kind of coercive control. And it goes without saying that if you are concerned about his threats of suicide, start a dialogue with him and suggest he seeks help (stayingsafe.net).
Your ex has used you as an emotional crutch, handy booty-call and as a way to access his son without any responsibilities. Why would you give so much away for so little return? These are questions you need to ask yourself because, without understanding your impulses, you are unlikely to be able to change them.
The bargaining chip in all this seems to be your son, and your ex will have been aware of that. In three years he will be free to strike out on his own and if you and his father are still locked in this dance, he’ll want to put as much distance between himself and both of you as possible.
Now is your last chance to enhance his still formative life experience by making some adult choices – ideally together with his father. A clear position and a voice at the table are the least he should be equipped with as he steps towards his own destiny.
If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1