Do you think it is possible to reconnect with two daughters in their early twenties, from whom I have been estranged for at least five years? The trouble is that I have tried to put the past behind me emotionally, and do not want to open myself up to be hurt again.
I'll try to summarise events. I divorced their mother when the girls were 12 and 14 because she was having an affair with a colleague and our home life was a mess. The divorce itself was uncontested. I obtained joint custody, bought a home and attempted to rebuild a relationship with my daughters. Naively, I believed their mother would support me in this, but instead she constantly disparaged me to my daughters and to others. Later I came to learn that this phenomenon is called Parental Alienation Syndrome.
I attempted family counselling but my efforts were undermined, both by my ex and by my daughters, who were getting out of hand. When they left school, they both moved away to go to college and carried on seeing their mother, but in all this time I have seen them only once. Over the years, I continued to send them birthday and Christmas cards and occasional emails. However, much as I wanted a good relationship with my daughters, I distanced myself from them emotionally and financially. I was not willing to accept a one-sided relationship, nor would I allow myself to be disrespected or used.
Recently, the door between my daughters and me has been opened slightly. But I take the view that, much as I would like a relationship with them, I will not attend any function at which their mother is present. I know this sounds selfish and immature but I cannot describe the emotional damage this woman has caused. My daughters have interpreted this attitude as a direct rejection of them. Can you see any opportunity for me to have a meaningful relationship with my daughters without changing my position?
I have a picture in my head of you walking backwards from your daughters, draped in silver crosses and garlic to ward them off. They are not vampires. They are young women. It is very clear to me that you long for a good relationship with them and I am going to encourage you in that. A short answer to your final question is that I do see an opportunity for a meaningful relationship with your daughters but I also think you have to consider changing your position. You can drop some of the defensive control, without opening yourself up to be badly hurt again.
It may surprise you to learn that I don't believe in happy endings. I am on the side of Solon the Lawgiver, who famously said: "Call no man happy until he is dead". He wasn't being gloomy, simply acknowledging the fact that every human life is full of twists, turns and surprises. I am not going to encourage you to believe that your family past can be completely forgotten and that you can walk off into the sunset with a loving daughter on each arm. Life is much more complex than that.
However, I do believe in redemption. I believe that human beings have the ability to take a step back, adjust their behaviour and get different results. I believe in the power of growing adults to mature and gain new understanding. I believe that if you lower your expectations, lighten up and take the long view, you can protect yourself from a lot of pain. I think you are right to shield yourself as far as possible from the caprices of your wife, but your daughters are still a work-in-progress, and so is your relationship with them.
There is so much to gain here. Last week in this column, I published letters from step-parents and stepchildren who testified to the reconciliations that come with maturity. When your daughters find partners and have children of their own, they will tap into mature emotions and may become more forgiving themselves. They will certainly welcome the contribution of a loving and tolerant grandfather. Your question is, how do you get to there from here?
You say that the door between yourself and your daughters "has been opened slightly." I'm intrigued by the passive voice. Who opened it? Was it you? Was it them? I have a picture of a half-open door with people standing warily on either side of it, looking but not daring to step. They've been hurt, too. When you say you won't be in the same room as their mother, it looks to them as if you are putting your hurt feelings above theirs.
I don't know how you have been approaching the question of a meeting, but I think it might be easier for everyone, and carry a lot less emotional weight, if you were to start with something pretty small – a lunch, say. You can't walk slap-bang into a meaningful relationship with them after so long a gap, but you could manage an hour together – an hour in which you listen, without preconceptions, to what is going on in their lives. An hour in which you drop any attempt to be in control. An hour in which you take a deep breath and acknowledge that you don't really know the girls (or girl – you could do it one at a time) very well, and you need to observe the good in them. You are the grown-up. You can afford to be patient.
If they want to bring their mother along, keep your cool and refuse gently. Say something along the lines of, "Sweetheart, I can see why you'd want to get your mother and me together, but we have a difficult history. Maybe one day we'll be friends but, just for now, I'd like to catch up with you on your own and get to know you a bit better. Let's take things slowly, one step at a time."
What do you really know about them? Not a lot if your relationship rests on birthday cards and the odd email, and your primary emotion is fear of being used and exploited. I can see that they were difficult teenagers, but they are young adults now. I repeat that you will build a much better relationship with them if you meet without preconceptions.
And what is wrong with helping them out if they really need help? Nobody wants to be exploited, but if, after an hour in their company, you pick up on the fact that they need help furnishing an apartment or paying for education, then offer to help if you can. It feels good. It's what fathers do – and it reinforces what is good in them.
An easier relationship with your daughters won't happen overnight. But you have the rest of your lives and, on a timescale like that, I do believe miracles can happen. Who knows, a few years down the line you might even be able, for your daughters' sake, to be in the same room as your ex-wife for the length of a wedding or a christening. Once you have healed some of your wounds, she won't be able to hurt you as she used to
By Lesley Garner at the Telgraph.