Ask a counsellor: ‘My teenage sons have sided with my abusive ex – what should I do?’

Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine offers guidance to a woman who managed to leave an abusive marriage but is missing her sons.

The problem…

“My husband abused me for many years, both mentally and physically, and six months ago I finally plucked up the courage to leave him. I know it was the best thing I ever did for myself; I have a place to live and I’m retraining to, hopefully, get a job. My problem is that my two sons, who are 18 and 17, have sided with their father and refuse to see me.

“I miss them dreadfully and although I write to them often, they never reply. I’ve tried calling them but although they don’t actually hang up on me, they won’t have a conversation and my eldest has said he doesn’t understand why I left.

“When he said that, I felt really guilty about leaving their father, but honestly, I couldn’t take any more. I want a new life for myself, but does that have to be at the expense of losing my children?”

Fiona says…

“You absolutely did the right thing in leaving your husband – any woman who leaves an abusive man is doing the right thing. It took a huge amount of courage and strength to leave and make a new life for yourself – you clearly have reserves that perhaps you’re not even aware of yourself.

“To your sons, you must seem like a completely different person, and they may be having difficulties relating to the new you. You don’t say whether or not they ever saw the way your husband mistreated you – perhaps they did and grew up thinking it was normal behaviour? Or perhaps he has dominated them to such an extent that they are too afraid to stand up to him? You also don’t mention how your husband has reacted to the break – and it may be he has been saying things to them about you that has made them reluctant to engage with you.

“The important thing, though, is that you stay in touch with them. Writing letters may be something you’re comfortable with but, for many teenagers, they are an alien means of communication (sadly). They are probably more comfortable with texts to their mobiles, or communication through some of the social media chat services. Get familiar with such things and drop them regular short messages that don’t require long answers from them.

“The important thing is to make them understand that the split is not their fault and that you love them. They are old enough to begin to understand that there are two sides to every argument.

“I am concerned that they may have grown up to think violence against women is normal behaviour. If that’s the case, anything you can do to teach them that it’s wrong will help them.

“It’s important that they understand the violence is not, in any way, their fault, but they also need to understand that they can still love their father whilst hating his behaviour. That means you need to be careful about what you say to them about him. They have, almost certainly, been affected by the abuse in some way or other. Even if they never witnessed it, they will have sensed an atmosphere, overheard something, or seen the effect it has on you.

“In time, they may need support and counselling to help sort out and identify their feelings and I’m sure they will want to see you and have a relationship with you once more. However, you may need to be patient, with your sons and yourself.

“There are also charities and support organisations you can turn to for advice and guidance through their websites and helplines, such as Women’s Aid. There will be lots of other women who have gone through similar things, and it can be very helpful to connect with advice from people who have lots of experience in these matters.”

:: If you have a problem you need help with, email Fiona by writing to help@askfiona.net for advice. All letters are treated in complete confidence and, to protect this privacy, Fiona is unable to pass on your messages to other readers. Fiona regrets that she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

- Press Association

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