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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Estranged Ex Keeps Sending Me Abusive Texts

I never answer, as much as I want to. Permission to be mean back? (metromani/flickr)
I never answer, as much as I want to. Permission to be mean back? (metromani/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

My dilemma concerns my not-yet-ex-husband, who left me over the summer, after 20 years of marriage, to move in with his mistress. We have two children. He took our 17-year-old, “Jenny,” with him, and the 9-year-old, “Elaine,” stayed with me in the family home. Even though he lives less than a half-mile away, I have no contact with my husband other than through texts and e-mails, primarily about financial arrangements and the girls’ schedules.

My problem is that my husband sometimes sends me nasty texts/e-mails, questioning my judgment about my daughters. The latest was this past Friday night (it was my weekend with both girls). Elaine was at a sleepover at a classmate’s house, and Jenny had made plans with friends but they fell through. Thinking I would be alone, I had made plans to go out with my friends. I told Jenny I’d rather see her, but she told me to go out. I thought that she was a little annoyed with me (because I had refused to leave work to chauffeur her and her friends around earlier that day), but I took her at her word and went out. Jenny stayed at her father’s house rather than be by herself at mine. There was an abusive text waiting for me at 10:30 p.m. when I got home, my husband saying I’d chosen [derogatory term for lesbians] over my daughter, “what the hell is wrong with you,” that I “obviously don’t have my priorities straight,” and “just give a [expletive] about anyone but yourself” (sic).

Intellectually I know he’s not worth grieving, and I’m trying really hard to be okay, but I’m mostly a blubbering mess.

For the most part, it isn’t the text that’s upsetting me. (I am angry about it, but angry is at least better than heartbroken.) It’s the fact that everyone has told me not to respond. I know he thinks that when I don’t respond it’s because I can’t. It is killing me that he thinks he’s won. What is the point of being exponentially smarter than he is if I am not allowed to grind him into the dirt in an argument?! It’s been a few days now and I am still gritting my teeth to avoid diving in. I guess I’m just looking for permission to be mean back. Can’t I even post it on Facebook, and expose him to public ridicule? This is not the first, or the worst, nasty communication I’ve had from him, and I never answer, as much as I want to. I know it will eventually stop scratching at me, and that I shouldn’t get into it when I’m spoiling for a fight. But that’s not helping right now!

While I’ve got you, any tips on how I can get over this whole thing? Intellectually I know he’s not worth grieving, and I’m trying really hard to be okay, but I’m mostly a blubbering mess. When I get over my anger I expect to be really hurt that Jenny apparently takes her grievances with me to her father, and that she and my husband apparently bond over how awful I am, or something.

Signed,
Sad & Disgusted

PHOTO

Dear S&D,

The first thing I want to say is this: what a truly wrenching situation. Given what’s been happening in your life, you have every right to whatever sorrow and rage you feel. I can’t begin to imagine how painful it must be to have a 20 year marriage fail, to have it fail in such a manner, to have your ex sending emotionally abusive notes, and now to see your children dragged into the crossfire.

I don’t know the full story here, and I don’t know your estranged husband’s version of events. So that’s a big caveat. But I’m going to trust that you’re giving me a reliable version of the basic events. If I had to guess as to the motives flying around here, I’d say that, deep down, your ex is feeling guilty about the fact that he betrayed you and his daughters by getting involved with another woman, and leaving the marriage. Rather than deal with that guilt and offer contrition, he’s decided to try to make you the guilty party. He’s also trying to drag you down to his level, to turn you into a combatant rather than a victim. Because if you’re a victim, what does that make him? It’s not especially subtle.

So I completely understand your desire to lash out at your ex. But you know as well as I do that this is exactly what he wants. He’s counting on you to take the bait, to buy into the fallacy you articulate so succinctly in your letter: angry is at least better than heartbroken.

Angry is not better than heartbroken. It is easier than heartbroken. It is more convenient. It is a powerful getaway car that leads right to ruin. Think about all the people in this world who are full of rage. Is any one of them genuinely happy? Is any one of them being a good parent to their children? Is any one of them moving on from a wrenching misfortune?

I completely understand your desire to lash out at your ex. But you know as well as I do that this is exactly what he wants.

Because that’s what you’re up against right now, S&D. It’s not showing up your ex, or currying the favor of your daughters. It’s rebuilding your life, and your identity, in the wake of massive disappointment and disequilibrium.

You should by all mean tell your ex to stop sending abusive texts. You can even make it clear to him that his manipulative bullying is going to cripple your chances for an amicable divorce. But don’t do so because you want to humiliate him or win some argument. Do so as a loving mother who knows that the only path to successful co-parenting is mutual respect.

The marital breakup — and likely the unhappiness that preceded it — has clearly upset your daughters. So it’s no surprise that an adolescent such as Jenny is testing loyalties and taking sides. (The very cleaving of the family evidences these tensions.) But for the sake of Jenny and, even more so, Elaine, your job in these hard months ahead is to be the grown-up in the room. I don’t mean by this that you should put up with your husband’s crap, or fake being “alright” for the kids. I mean only that you should resist the siren call of your worst impulses, tempting as they might be.

If it helps, conduct this little thought experiment: imagine one of your daughters came home and announced that her best friend in the world had dumped her and was now sending her nasty, undermining texts. Would you advise that daughter to post these notes on Facebook in an attempt to show up her ex-best friend? Or would you wrap her in a hug and tell her that any friend who would treat her that way isn’t worth having?

You describe yourself as a blubbering mess, and I’m sure that’s how it feels. But what I see is a woman struggling to get through her grief, rather than hiding from it under a seething pile of grievance. I can’t think of a more heroic example to set for your daughters.

My thoughts are with you,
Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

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