My daughters hate my second wife (their step-mom). Now what?

This is a story about sorrow, hope, despair and finally, acceptance.

Chapter 1: Sorrow

It starts as most divorces do, with sorrow. After 17 years in a verbally abusive relationship, 3 "couple's therapists" and two children, I finally came to the realization that I could not survive as a person with my wife.

She had learned from an early age that you must be the verbal aggressor and 'winner' in any relationship. This was passed onto her by watching her own mother and father fight. Her father would frequently bring her mother to tears by tearing into her for little things - like being friendly to a high school sweetheart at a town fair (while they were both in their 60's) or getting road marker line paint onto the mud flaps of his pickup truck. These transgressions were cause for verbal beat downs and days of silence and anger. Her father truly loved his wife - but he had also learned (probably from his parents) that this was how you treated a partner. This in turn was how my ex treated me. The turning point for me was watching my older daughter's face (who was 9 at the time) while her mother was once again demonstrating how useless and inherently stupid was was for bringing home the wrong brand of peas (true story). In that moment I realized that in spite of years of therapy and me begging her to stop it, I was never going to be free. Moreover I was allowing my daughter's view of me to be controlled by my ex.

The most difficult part of this story was that verbal abuse leaves no mark. It leaves no scar that friends and family can see. The wounds are there, but they are hidden from view. Easily forgotten by the abuser (and her children). They are also easily dismissed by the abuser.

 "he deserved it", "he was always late", "it wasn't that bad", "everyone fights"
This leaves the victim suffering in silence with no evidence to garner support from friends and family.

Against this backdrop I finally decided that life had to have something more in store for me - even if it required upending life to get there. Moving out was one of the hardest things I've ever done. In retrospect I should have stayed in the house during the divorce (lawyers would all tell you this) but I needed to get out as quick as possible after the decision was made. Taking nothing with me beyond a sleeping pad/bag and spare clothes I still remember sleeping soundly on the floor of my rented apartment.

Chapter 2: Hope

I can still remember the strange combination of elation (free, able to sleep in a house without the fear of being attacked), sorrow (loss of my house, belonging and children) and hope (maybe there was someone out there would I could be with) that filled me during the first few months. The pain of my youngest daughter (who had to sleep on a sleeping bag because I couldn't afford furniture) looking up at me before going to sleep and saying "I remember when you used to live with us".

Hope didn't come about until I met my current wife - who was an active climber, skier and outdoors person. After years of flying solo I finally had a partner in crime - someone who could share my love of adrenaline and... more importantly... I could interact with as a partner and not be treated as a subsevient moron every few weeks. She was nervous about dating someone with kids. I was nervous about dating someone period.

Chapter 3: Despair

In the state of Vermont child custody is assigned to an individual (as opposed to jointly) unless both parties agree to joint custody. This means that in the majority of situations, children end up being controlled/owned by a single party. In a male/female relationship this means that in the absence of abuse allegation or other factors, the woman will have full control over your children. The state kindly gives you visitation rights but after losing joint custody you will quickly find that:
1. you can't sign permission slips for your kids' athletic events
2. you are not supposed to pick them up after school outside your scheduled times.
3. you can not take them to the Dr.
4. your ex doesn't have to ask for permission or even discuss dr visits or counseling sessions.
5. you can't take your child out of state or country without a note
6. lastly... and most importantly in my case, you can not take your children to a family therapist.

In my case I quickly realized that without an outsider helping manage the delicate and tricky relationship between my new wife and children, I was going to end up with a distant and pained child - starting with my oldest. To try to make a go of it, my wife and I started to go to a family therapist and over the next year spent hours talking through how to manage the creation of a functional 'blended family'. My wife started going to a support group for step moms and I continued to go to talk about my relationship with my daughter. After a year, it was time to bring my oldest daughter into the conversation. My daughter and I each met with the therapist for about a 1/2 hour and then together for a few minutes. The 15 minutes we spent in front of the therapist were the first (and only time) that we have had a productive conversation about the divorce and life with my new wife. For the first time in years I felt a glimmer of hope that the happy concept of a blended family might come true.

The next day my ex sent a cease and desist letter to the therapist. Since she had sole legal and physical custody - I would from then on not be able to engage my own daughter in the family therapy process.

Four months later my daughter moved out of the house and in the 3 years since, I have spoken to her maybe 6 times. As I type this, my youngest daughter is now on course to do the same.

Chapter 4: Acceptance

When I talk about this with friends I usually either get a useless "I'm sorry to hear that" or the equally useless "They will come around". At the end of the day I can only hope that there is a future in which I have a relationship with my daughters. Until then life goes on and acceptance means being able to appreciate the days we have and what we have. Until the laws of Vermont change to give both parents equal rights I suspect that there will be similar stories like this written often.

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