Teens mentioned their dad's new GF -> I get flashbacks of his abuse
January 4, 2019 9:55 AM   Subscribe

Please help me to continue to talk sense and calm to myself. I thought I was in a pretty good place mentally already, having escaped my neglectful, verbally abusive and financially exploiting ex-husband a few years ago. However, last week my older teen and young adult children exchanged some words that revealed that their bio-dad = my ex has a new woman in his life. I happened to overhear them (they did not intend that) and to my dismay I have fairly quickly descended into what feels like anxiety revving up towards a PTSD flare.

I don't have an active counselor or therapist relationship at the moment, though I have had such in the past. Then again, my medication is awesome (it has been unchanged for over four years and does exactly what it needs to do). I have also spent almost two decades working on myself, first due to childhood trauma and later processing my awful marriage: solo counseling, group therapy, meditation, body work / therapeutic dancing, Internet support groups, etc. so I can tolerably well grasp and word what might be going on inside my head.

I am not having full-out flashbacks, the kind I have had in the past (think Star Trek TNG holodeck-like realism), it's more like watching a non-stop movie about my early days with the ex. Red flags that I missed or explained away stand out painfully clearly now. His offhand "accidental" lies, wishful thinking, subtly warped reality claims, repeated pushing at my boundaries... It's as if I can't stop distressing movie scenes from repeating in my head over and over again.

One part of me (which I thankfully recognize and have preemptively discussed in a support group) is having a pretty full blown anxiety attack over that I cannot* warn the new girlfriend (the first one since the divorce AFAIK). That part of me is screaming internally, nearly non-stop, "RUN!! It's all an act! And he feels convincing because he believes in his act himself! GTFO NOW!!!" And some part of that internal screaming feels like it is directed back in time, towards my younger self, whom I most definitely cannot help / save. So maybe there is some kind of transference at play here?

* a) I do not want to touch anything that has to do with the ex with a ten foot pole, unless I absolutely have to -- knowing that he is in my children's life is quite enough (it is their choice, and they are handling it independently and well)

* b) I don't know even the new girlfriend's name, so without turning into a pretty serious spy / stalker (which is so not on my bucket list) I don't have practical possibilities of even identifying, let alone communicating with her

* c) I did not believe my own sister when she warned me about the ex, in the very early days of my relationship with him, so the chances that anyone, the very least someone who is likely still in the honeymoon phase with him, would believe "the crazy / bitter ex-wife" are extremely slim

Another part of me worries that a new relationship might cement the ex's stubborn resistance to selling the house (he still lives there). And yet another part kinda hopes but also tries to not hope that he might finally lose at least some of the energy that he has attempted to direct at sabotaging me, especially my finances, because he now has the attention he craves from the new girlfriend.

And then I feel like a terrible person, because I am hoping to get my financial interests, and thus also those of my children, furthered by what most likely will eventually develop into a bad situation for the new girlfriend and her kid(s).

So it looks like I have multiple conflicting thoughts and emotions, for sure. Which is not very surprising.

I am doing mindful breathing and relaxation exercises, and poured some of my nervous energy into washing a buttload of laundry today (it's my day off, so my brain has uncomfortably much time and space to spin in). Writing all this down is already helping, too.

Words of calm and sensibility would be deeply appreciated. Especially: help me believe myself about that it is not my place -- and would be exceedingly unwise -- to meddle in the ex's [love]life in any way. Based on what I heard, his girlfriend is a grown woman, with at least one kid of her own: she is responsible for her own choices.

What I perhaps most need to hear is that I am not an utterly horrible person for hoping that her turning up in the ex's life might help me cut my last remaining economic ties with him.

Thank you for listening!
posted by AthenaErdmann to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You are not an utterly horrible person for hoping to be rid of him.

I understand the urge to warn so very, very well. But you've laid out the reasons not to do it. It may take a whole lot of time to let that go - it did for me, and I never had legal ties to my intimate abuser. But it's not your responsibility to help her; it IS your responsibility to help yourself and make sure you can take care of your kids. Your safety is #1. Sending strength!!
posted by wellred at 10:05 AM on January 4 [6 favorites]

1. You're not a horrible person for hoping that your ex's girlfriend might in some sense occupy his attention and help you finally break free of him. You're not. You are allowed to have the relief and the hope that perhaps you are feeling. You're allowed to feel this even if it turns out very badly for the new girlfriend.

2. While it would be nice if somebody would warn everybody who starts dating an abuser, narcissist, whatever, there is no possible scenario in which you get to be that person for the new girlfriend. You are just not the right person to deliver that message. I'm sorry, but those are the breaks. The good thing about this is that you are also freed from any theoretical obligation that you might feel to warn her. You can't be obliged to do things that you can't do, and you can't do this: therefore, you are not obliged to do it.

3. It sounds to me like you have a good handle on your own emotions and reactions. It sounds like you've done a lot of work to understand and deal with the hand that you were dealt, and you should feel good about this and about yourself for getting to where you are. You are in an emotionally complicated situation right now, and that is stressful. But I think you know what you need, which is to be kind to yourself, to let your feelings be visitors to the house that is you, and to support yourself in having these feelings and going through this complicated time. I hope that you have access to resources that will give you support: maybe a phone call with a close friend, or a long walk, or a bath and some soothing music.

Take care of yourself. Breathe. This too will pass.
posted by gauche at 10:16 AM on January 4 [9 favorites]

You are doing so good!! You're really self-aware of the situation, your emotional reactions, and have a good rational grasp of what you should and should not do as a result of listening to your feelings. If your finances are being affected due to your ex's whims, then it is a natural reaction to be hopeful that a development in his life will benefit yours. You are not a bad person for thinking that.

Some other things to try that might help...
- Journal. If writing this question made you feel better, writing out your feelings in a journal format may as well. Personally, I hate writing, but journalling is so helpful when I'm stuck in an anxiety-driven thought spiral.
- Call a friend, ask to go out for coffee or whatever. Tell them what's going on. This is precisely what friends are for.

You can't change the past, you cannot change the new girlfriend's future. What you can do with all of your knowledge and growth is avoid toxic relationships in your future.

You got this!
posted by Fig at 10:21 AM on January 4 [3 favorites]

Wishes don't make things happen - right? So, there is nothing wrong with hoping that maybe this news might result in some little bit of good for someone (in this case you). You need to bystander here - what is going to happen will happen.

Your analysis of why you shouldn't try to warn her sounds spot on. You didn't even listen to your SISTER, why would she listen to an ex-wife? So trying to do anything would be a high cost to you of getting involved versus zero gain to other person.

Maybe there is a possibility of returning to a therapist who already know you to help with processing this? Or Maybe there is something that you can do for younger self, maybe write her a compassionate letter explaining what she didnt/couldn't see and offer her love and compassion for having to learn some painful lessons in such a hard way?
posted by metahawk at 10:24 AM on January 4 [2 favorites]

It's OK. You're OK. And please try to be kind to yourself -- I kind of get this feeling that you think you should be over this by now. We might not ever be 100% healed over in all those places, and it's surprising and feels kind of like a betrayal sometimes when those feelings come back.

You're right that it's not your place to warn current GF. And at the same time, I know just how you feel. I try to think back to my ex's ex (!) warning everyone about them, and how I took it at the time, as "just a bitter ex." If you don't think she is in imminent bodily danger, please give yourself permission to let it go.

And it's natural to have those thoughts that maybe this would work in your benefit. It might make you feel bad, but we all have those thoughts. It's OK. Some things might work in your benefit, some might not, it doesn't make you a terrible person.

I'm sorry that you're dealing with this and that you've joined this, the shittiest club. But there's lots of us here to help.

posted by fiercecupcake at 12:35 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

I don't know that I have any answers for you, I just want to say that I am blown away by your self-awareness and just how well you can spell out your thoughts and anxieties in such a difficult situation. You are not just "not a horrible" person; from this internet stranger's viewpoint, you are a truly impressive person & someone I would want as a role model.
posted by mosst at 1:30 PM on January 4 [8 favorites]

If it ends up positively effecting your finances, maybe take some small portion of that and make a symbolic donation to a local women’s shelter or something else that supports women in your community?
posted by delezzo at 1:10 AM on January 5 [1 favorite]

Some people are more likely to leave at the first sign of a red flag. Don't feel bad about someone else's decisions. It's entirely possible that your ex still has his mask on with this woman and that she'll leave when she realizes he's going to be bad news. Unless this other woman somehow directly interferes in your life in the future, do not get involved and just trust that she's a strong woman who can fend for herself.

You were strong enough to leave and take care of yourself and it's likely she will be, too.
posted by Penguin48 at 8:59 AM on January 5 [2 favorites]

https://www.chumplady.com/ is the number one source for advice on this crap you are going through. It is so hard, and it will take several years. Send your question to her, she is full of compassion and common sense. She and her followers have been there, done that, and somehow survived with their sanity intact. You can, too.
Best wishes.
posted by Enid Lareg at 2:57 PM on January 5 [2 favorites]

N.B. I have no children of my own but I am a former child of messy divorce with one abusive parent who was also an abusive spouse, so adjust your grain of salt accordingly.

It would be different with younger kids, but with older teens I do not think it would be an unreasonable policy to have no discussion of Parent A when with Parent B, and vice versa, unless it's necessary for the sake of logistics.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:01 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]

I work for a domestic abuse agency, and while we can only help people in our two-county area, I can tell you that this is something that our counselors would be able to help someone with, provided the person lived in our service area. So maybe try calling your local domestic abuse agency? If you need help finding one, try DomesticShelters.org. Note: Abuse doesn’t have to be physical for you to receive help. Both emotional and financial abuse are recognized as legitimate forms of abuse and most agencies take them very seriously.

If you need further help connecting with resources, feel free to email me or @ me on Twitter (it’s in my profile.)
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:37 AM on January 6 [2 favorites]

I don't know how to even begin thanking y'all. I just needed confirmation that my instincts to not meddle were correct, so the warm support has been slightly overwhelming, in a good way.

For clarity, I'm American and have lived in Western Europe for a long time and 99.9% sure to stay here (I'm not in the UK or Ireland, though). Also, here's the discussion I overheard from Firstborn's room while folding towels into the linen closet (not precisely verbatim, but close):

Twin 1: "So are our New Year's plans still on?"

Firstborn: "Yep, as far as I know."

Twin 1: "Do you think her daughter will be there?"

Twin 2: "Dad said she was coming. I wonder what she's like?"

Twin 1: "Oh I'm sure she'll be great, too."

Firstborn: "Yeah, I don't doubt that. I'm just not sure how I should be feeling about that."

[at this point I let the towels be and tiptoed away from the hallway]

I'll write more when I can take the time -- life has been very busy in a good way since New Year.

Thank you all!
posted by AthenaErdmann at 9:24 PM on January 7 [2 favorites]

Is your sister someone you can talk to about these feelings? She can talk about how it felt to be the person who tries to warn someone who won't listen.
posted by CathyG at 6:37 AM on January 8

Sadly, the sister who warned me about the ex died all too young several years ago, so she did not live to see how right she had been. Neither my other sister nor my brother (both are alive and well) had spent any time with the college freshman/sophomore friend group where my late sister got to observe the ex's behavior before I even knew he existed.
posted by AthenaErdmann at 11:55 PM on January 9


TL;DR: Ex-MIL died. No drama at least thus far. I kept my distance and have supported my young adults & teens in their genuine sorrow. I'm not going to the funeral but will send a short and sufficiently bland condolence letter, signed also by my sister and my fiance, who both knew ex-MIL slightly. In a few months, when ex-MIL's estate gets divided, the ex should have little reason to claim that he cannot afford to buy my share of the house. I do not expect completely smooth sailing, but it may well be smoother than it could have been at worst. Please keep your fingers crossed for me!

Some detail:

I have made no initiations of any kind towards the ex yet, because his mother, my children's grandmother, had a heart-attack in mid-January and was admitted to the ICU. It wasn't a big surprise for anyone considering her advanced age, but knowing that someone is old is one thing -- learning that their doctors think that they only have days left to live is quite another.

My kids were able to visit her in the hospital a few times, and though she could not really communicate the vigil was clearly important for all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren (my kids' cousins' kids). I drove my offspring to and from the hospital, listened to them, made them tea and mac&cheese, and stayed well clear of the ex's family.

Now ex-MIL has died. I feel no regret and quite a lot of relief, some of it on her part, too (dying is no picknick when it takes days to do, even when in a good hospital and surrounded by family).

I think my going to the funeral would be a bad idea, as I have not been in almost any contact with the ex's family members since the divorce. Moreover, I would not want to go without any support, my sister can't make it and taking my fiance with me would likely raise the ex's hackles. I think a short, somewhat impersonal concolence letter jointly from myself, my sister and my fiance (they both knew my ex-MIL socially) should be the wisest gesture.

I have no idea how much of ex-MIL's estate may have been taxed by her stay in a care home for some time and this last hospital stay, but her ownings were substantial when my ex-FIL died and this country has single payer health care = not super expensive. So it would be astonishing if her net worth had completely vanished.

I'll do my best to be patient now. Some two weeks after the funeral might be a good enough time to approach the house issue.

Reactions and questions are very welcome!
posted by AthenaErdmann at 7:53 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]

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