January 4, 2010

Alienation as anticipated?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 2:46 pm by Liam

Just as anticipated, my son Sam suddenly seemed to become evasive.

He was due to fly to South Africa to spend Christmas there away from his parents. Naturally I wanted to speak to him before he went. Also, at the weekend, Penny had helped him to make candles as presents for friends and family, and I had helped too. But they hadn’t been sorted and wrapped, so I needed to ask him what he wanted to do about that too.

I sent him a text message to try to organise taking him out for some dinner or at least dropping his candles off. He said he had to speak to his mum and then declined and said he needed to call me at the weekend. Then I asked him to call me. And he simply texted:


Strange and disrespectful. Over the weekend he told me that he no longer wanted to come up to Scotland with me and Penny because he would only have just got off a flight from South Africa. The trip probably wouldn’t have been organised if we didn’t have Sam. I tried to talk him out of it. And yet I made it clear that the choice was his and that he wouldn’t be punished or judged harshly for that choice. He chose not to come. I could hear his mother coaching him in the background, very clearly. ‘Are you alright?‘, ‘remember what to say’, so there is no doubt that (whatever Sam’s feelings) she had encouraged him to decide not to come with us or at least to feel empowered and supported in his choice not to go. (And let’s not forget that this wouldn’t have happened if she had sent accurate dates for Sam’s return.)

By this point, I had become concerned that his mother was manipulating him into declining contact with me. This had happened a number of times before – in fact, some sort of nurtured alienation seemed to be a matter of course whenever Eva was upset with me.

Sam and I agreed to have a Skype video call on Christmas day and was going to give me his aunt’s phone number in South Africa so it could be arranged. While I was on the phone to him his mother refused to give him the number, telling him ‘I won’t give him the number because of the way he behaved the last time he spoke to her’. We made other arrangements and I assured him that I had not said anything untoward when I had last spoken to her.

The last time I spoke to her was face to face at Eva’s house. Everything was amicable and polite on all sides. The time before that I spoke to her about 9 years before – around the time of the divorce – when Eva and I were fighting and the future of my relationship with Sam was threatened. My conversation Eva’s sister then was entirely amicable too, even if I did speak frankly about Eva. I don’t recall much about the details of what we said, but I do remember that her sister told me that she had been worried that Eva would be unable to cope and offered to take care of Sam if we needed her to. I thanked her, but told her I hoped it would be unnecessary.

What I suspect was behind Eva’s words was the fear that I would talk to her sister about what happened and that it would make Eva look bad. Indeed, it made me wonder whether this had happened during the divorce too. Eva had certainly fallen out with her best friend Olga because Olga had heard my side of the story and ‘taken my side’ (another story for another time), so perhaps Eva’s sister had challenged her on a similar basis too.

As it turned out I discovered that my mum had Eva’s sister’s number already and her email address was included in the email about flight details that was forwarded to me. I emailed her, asking about arranging the video call. She told me that Sam had gone off with his cousin to the beach house and she’s be joining them later that day – they would be there until after Christmas. There was no phone or Internet connection. I asked her to wish my son a happy Christmas and she said she would.

I called Sam’s phone on the 31st – the day he was supposed to return – no reply. And then called the house phone. Eva answered.

Hi. Is Sam there?
He’s not back yet.
When will he be back?
He gets in tomorrow.
[I was puzzled by this since his flight was supposedly due that day – it turned out that we’d misinterpreted the date on the email. If Eva knew, she said nothing.]
Can you ask him to call me when he gets back?

I’ll ASK him.

There was something menacing about the way she said that and I felt troubled by it. What she meant was ‘I will ask him to call you, but he probably won’t want to’. The fear grew that she’d been saying things to alienate him from me and manipulate him into not wanting to speak to me or spend time with me.

It was important not to reward Eva’s behaviour by allowing myself to be ignored or rejected by my own son – if there was any alienation or upset I wanted to deal with it face-to-face rather than over the phone and if he was being pressurised by his mother I didn’t want to put him in the middle by applying pressure in another direction – so I didn’t want to chase him too much. The following day I simply left this message:

Hope u had a lovely Christmas. Have a good New Year too. We all miss you up here. lots of love, your dad xxx

The following day I had a warm and reassuring reply:

Happy new year dad I had a great time in SA can’t wait to see you

Later he called me and seemed to be in good spirits. We mostly about what we’d been doing, the snowy weather and about computers. It seemed clear that any attempted alienation by his mother on this occasion had been minimal (she hadn’t been spending much time with him after all) or simply unsuccessful.

I’m looking forward to seeing him at the weekend.

December 31, 2009

How I responded

Posted in Managing unreasonable behaviour tagged , , , , , , , , , at 1:09 pm by Liam

I had to think carefully about how to respond. I had sent Eva a straightforward and polite complaint about being given the wrong dates for Sam’s return. All she needed to do was say sorry or acknowledge what had happened. I would even have accepted silence. Instead she had sent a reply that was loaded with allegations, distortion, emotional arguments, dubious logic and threats.

This kind of disruption – usually involving my relationship with Sam being held to ransom – was occurring about once a year.

While it was clear that her feelings of entitlement and resentment were real, and that this email was the boiling over of those feelings, this was all just noise – a smokescreen, a distraction from the point at hand, which was that she had made a mistake that had disrupted our holiday plans. Nothing she had said was actually up for discussion. I promised to pay her whatever the CSA determined I ought to pay and I did so. I was not responsible for her lifestyle or childcare choices. I had told her that I didn’t agree with Sam boarding at his school and couldn’t afford to pay it. The fees were over £10000 a year. She had enrolled him as a boarder without my consent. Given that she lived 5 minutes walk away from the school and she wasn’t even working, it was hardly necessary. Why couldn’t she send him to an after-school club, or arrange something with other parents, or get a child minder or simply give him his own key like everyone else? Somehow she genuinely appeared to believe that she was entitled to have her ex-husband and her separated husband pay for Sam to board while she contributed nothing financially and took part-time post-graduate courses. It was incredible.

But all this had been well-covered before. Her opinions and value judgments were besides the point. It was important not to engage with it, and yet silence might be seen as a sort of tacit defeat or acceptance. I brought it back to the original point and kept it succinct.

Hi Eva,

It is a source of astonishment to me that this is your perception of the situation.

Nevertheless, I’m sure that you would be annoyed if it was the other way around. We need to try to make sure information is as accurate and as timely as possible to avoid causing problems for each other.

I shall collect Sam on the 30th at 11am, but I’ll check on the day that his flight is on time.


December 28, 2009

Zen and the art of managing unreasonable behaviour

Posted in Managing unreasonable behaviour tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 12:00 pm by Liam

Most people in my life think of me as a calm, amicable and straightforward person. And most of my relationships are similarly calm, amicable and straightforward. Needless to say, my relationship with Eva is often not like that. And yet, because of Sam, I am chained to her at least until he reaches adulthood. Not only can I not end the relationship with her, but she sometimes holds my relationship with my son to ransom. Obviously, this situation has the potential to be frustrating and stressful for my wife and I, and psychologically harmful to my son. What’s the best way of handling a difficult and delicate situation like this? Over time I’ve evolved (with other people’s help) a strategy that minimises conflict and stress while allowing Penny and myself to remain assertive on important matters. I’ve also been able to use many of the key principles for dealing with a wide range of difficult situations. Here’s a summary:

  • Strive to understand the disruptive person better than they understand themselves
    By understanding Eva psychologically and by having as much information as possible about her life and her current state of mind I can anticipate difficult behaviour, and minimise its impact. Penny is very helpful here as she is emotionally very intelligent, she has a great memory for events and she’s very nosy. Be discreet. Don’t use a child as a ‘spy’.
  • Be consistent and resolute on fundamental matters
    Do the right thing and if necessary support yourself with legal facts. Be assertive without being unnecessarily threatening. Stick to your guns on important matters such as child support payments and access schedules. Know your legal rights and responsibilities and support your position with legal facts when this is called for.
  • Keep your cards close to your chest
    Don’t give away any information that could be distorted or used against you. I’ve had information about finances, holidays, girlfriends, getting a dog, planning a child, and even practicing Buddhism turned around, twisted and used as criticisms against me or used to undermine me/my wife in the eyes of Sam. Some information is inevitably shared by the child, but we try to give away as little as possible.
  • Get agreements and arrangements in writing
    This makes it harder for the other person to simply deny what was agreed. Written records can be used to support your position, but take care not to appear excessively pedantic.
  • Be as amicable as possible
    Be polite and friendly, but not inappropriately so, as this will come across as insincere.
  • Don’t see yourself as a helpless victim
    This is a psychologically unhealthy place to be. Even if you seem to have little direct influence over the situation, take steps such as those described here, in order to empower yourself and let go of hurtful feelings.
  • Try to maintain genuine compassion
    Holding onto anger and resentment is very unhealthy for you and for your relationships. Try to see the world as the other person sees it. But don’t allow misguided sympathy to persuade you to indulge bad behaviour or attitudes. Forgive but don’t forget.

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” – Buddha

  • Be flexible on minor matters
    A degree of flexibility about childcare arrangements is likely to be reciprocated. Offering some extra money for trips, school uniforms etc is fair and may be appreciated. There may be times, however, when even minor negotiations are difficult.
  • Establish and maintain a schedule of contact and child support payments to minimise negotiation
  • Don’t reward manipulative behaviour with success.
    Stick to your guns – don’t be held to ransom. (There may have to be exceptions where the child’s welfare needs to be protected in the short-term).
  • Don’t get involved in tit-for-tat arguments
    They can be endless. Ask yourself if this person is really open to reasonable discussion.
  • Be constructive not personal
    If negative feedback needs to be given, present it as constructively and impersonally as possible
  • Only fight battles you can win
    In my case that means battles where I’m clearly supported by the law or where (in spite of what she says or does) I know that cooperating with me is in her own interest (e.g. maintaining the contact schedule) – I know that her self-interest will out-live her acute feelings of anger and resentment.
  • Set a good example
    Behave courteously, constructively and considerately to the other person. Don’t allow yourself to act out passive-aggressive behaviour.
  • If you need to let off steam…
    Dealing with a person like this can be very stressful and frustrating. Vent your anger, frustration and resentment in private. I sometimes write a draft of what I would really like to say and then start again, trying instead to be as skillful as possible (using the principles above).

Later, I’ll go into the story of how this strategy evolved over time.

December 19, 2009

A reasonable request?

Posted in Managing unreasonable behaviour tagged , , , , , at 8:48 pm by Liam

So what outrage had I committed to deserve this outburst?

It had been our turn to have Sam for Christmas, but I had agreed to let Eva take him to visit her relatives in South Africa this year. We then agreed that I could have him for New Year when he got back. I always tried to get these agreements in writing because of a long history of disruptive behaviour.

At the beginning of November I had sent her an email to remind her to send me the dates of Sam’s trip so that we could make our own plans. Since she rarely seemed to read her email, I followed up with a text message.

Liam, 02-11-09: Hi. I need to organise things. Could you read and respond to my email asap. Many thanks.

Liam, 12-11-09: Hi Eva. I didn’t get those xmas dates u promised. Could you confirm them so we can finalise out plans? Thanks

Eva, 12-11-09: Sorry babes I did’t send them as under a lot of pressure but I think they are the 14-28th xx [yes, she can turn on the charm]

Liam, 12-11-09: OK thanks. We’ll make our plans on that basis

Liam, 16.11-09: Can I pick Sam up on the 29th then we will go to Scotland, returning on the 3rd?

Eva, 16-11-09: Sure x

So, after making these plans and some further arrangements to meet friends up north, on the 2nd of December Eva forwarded me flight details (booked on the 28th of September) and showing Sam as traveling alone and returning not on the 28th but the 30th of December. It was accompanied only by the following message:

Herewith the flight details for Sam. He will be flying on his own in a meet and greet service offered by the staff.

I responded:

Hi Eva,

Thanks. Can you explain this to me? I thought he was traveling with you. This seems to show that he is arriving on the 30th Dec. Please confirm. You told me he was back on the 28th and we based our plans on that. Who is picking him up from the airport on the 30th?


Call me old-fashioned but as Sam’s dad I believe I ought to be know that my 12-year-old son is flying to South Africa on his own and to be given accurate dates as to when I can take him to visit his Scottish relatives. And then she responded:

Hi Liam,

He is travelling on his own what would you like me to explain? Let me know and I will try my best to explain it to you.

I have very little money so no I am not going with him. My sister paid for him.

Re dates: I said that I couldn’t find the reference with the dates so when I found it I sent it immediately, hence the email yesterday.

Re pick up: I was going to pick him up.

I had to think carefully about my next move. I knew how unreasonable she could be, and how defensive, but it seemed inappropriate to let this go unchallenged. Sam was mature for his age in many ways and had more air-miles than I did, but I still wasn’t entirely comfortable with him flying on his own. On the other hand, he was travelling over because he had missed out on an opportunity to fly over when his granddad had passed away three months earlier. He really wanted to go over and pay his last respects. He’d be looked after by the airline and met by his cousin at the airport.

Hi Eva,

I see – I didn’t realise that you weren’t going.

In terms of the dates, I don’t want to fall out with you about this, but it would be wrong to say nothing. It has created problems for our Christmas arrangements. Our holiday to Scotland has had to be shortened, social visits have been cancelled, and Sam will have to go on a very long car journey almost immediately after getting off the plane from SA. We probably wouldn’t have made this arrangement at all if we had known Sam wasn’t back until the 30th.

I asked you for the dates on the 2nd of November and again on the 12th. You gave us some dates that you expressed slight uncertainty about (you said ‘I think’). And yet you were quite happy for me to base our plans on those dates. And of course it turns out they were wrong. This information has been available to you since at least September 28th. Even if, as you say, you lost the information, you could have got it from your sister. I was entirely dependent on you for the information. It’s not reasonable for you to expect me to wait until early December to make plans for Christmas.

And don’t forget that we were due to have Sam this year and we changed our plans as a favour to you. The main impression I’m left with is that I can’t trust you to give me reliable information and that you don’t care whether our plans are spoiled or not. So, I’m a bit upset.



It was at that point that she claimed my beliefs and dramas about being hurt in these paradigms were paradoxical.

A dichotomy of paradoxical paradigms

Posted in Unreasonable behaviour tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:06 pm by Liam

“What a bitch…” I muttered to myself as, eating my breakfast, I scanned the content of the email that had arrived in my inbox.

“Try not to have a view that is so dichotomous?…these paradigms are paradoxical?…what?!”. I laughed at the pretentious language my ex-wife had used and called Penny over to have a look. Eva’s unsuccessful efforts to look intelligent and educated took the edge off the usual menacing content and extreme unreasonableness of her message and made it seem ridiculous. How we laughed.

We tried really hard to handle her very carefully, sometimes taking days to write her a letter or email. And it wasn’t as if we had no compassion for her, she was clearly unhappy. Yet freely laughing at her was incredibly liberating and therapeutic right then, given her tendency to abuse us and undermine our relationship with Sam.

I’m sorry to hear your narrative of the events.

It is your interpretations of the events that you: 1.“can’t trust you to give me reliable information” and 2.“that you don’t care whether our plans are spoiled or not.” It is not surprising that you feel upset. Try not to take it so personally or have a view that is so dichotomous. Maybe in the future you could tell me what you are intending and inform me that it is important to get the dates.

I would like to point out that you are not the only person that is accommodating to a change in arrangements and there is no evidence of your second statement bar your misinterpretation.

Also, you and your wife pay a tiny amount of money toward Sam and I continue to stay in this expensive country which benefits you and your relationship with Sam and not me. Based on this we will not hesitate to move to another country as soon as we can and since you don’t help pay towards boarding school and it is apparently a lifestyle choice for me to work (according to you) I will take Sam with me.

You see Liam, I too have my views of your and your wife’s behaviour. I also have opinions about who behaves like a Dad to Sam.

I tolerate your relationship with Sam for his sake but if he drops you again in the future I will not help to repair your relationship as I have tried in the past only to receive correspondence that is contrived and distorted in a similar vein to this one.

Your beliefs and dramas about being hurt in these paradigms are paradoxical.

Almost ten years had passed since we divorced. All hope that she would settle down and genuinely cooperate had faded. Eight years of training to be counsellor did not seem to have significantly enhanced her self-awareness, although she had learned some big new words. Perhaps she could learn what they meant.

Perhaps most ironic of all was her reference to a time when Sam had struggled to accept Penny in his life (as so many children struggle to accept step-parents). Instead of supporting us or working with us to form a united front on parenting, she had upheld his perceptions of unfair treatment at face-value rather than challenging them, and had thus amplified and reinforced them, leaving Sam alienated from both Penny and me. Eva then ambushed us with a sort of ‘kangaroo court’ where we were made to answer to such alleged crimes as ‘insisting that he eats his vegetables’. In spite of our polite criticism of her behaviour then, she still apparently believed that she had helped us. (More about that another time.)

Well, one thing more ironic or hypocritical perhaps would be her reference to the reasonable and polite email I sent her as ‘drama’ – given her reaction.