How Do I Get a Controller Out of My Life, Once and for All?

Reader’s Question

I read with much interest your article on the Stockholm Syndrome. I was married to a controlling and manipulative man for 17 years, during the last 7 of which he was openly cheating on me with his present wife. The divorce didn’t stop his interference and control in my life. His intrusiveness, either directly or through our two daughters, was a big cause of my second marriage breaking up, as well as the relationship that just ended between a truly wonderful man and myself. I just didn’t get the extent and effect of the intrusiveness until now. Now, my daughters, who are 19 and 20, have even taken on some of his tactics and traits. I think this is a direct result of my not standing up to him 30 years ago and every year along the way since then. Things need to change drastically if I’m ever going to have a happy life, not to mention a lasting relationship with another man. I’m focusing my efforts right now on “really divorcing” my ex from my life.

One of the pervasive ways he has interfered is financially. He would just refuse to pay for things for our daughters, and since it was for the kids, I usually did the right thing and picked up the things he didn’t. Obviously, now that my daughters are adults, there are no custody or support agreements anymore. Some have suggested that I conduct my life and finances as if he weren’t there, paying for whatever I can afford when it comes to my daughters. Others have suggested that I sue my ex for what he has failed to pay for over the years so he will finally take notice and stop taking advantage of me. My problem with that is that I’d have to continue to be engaged with someone I want out of my life, and there’s no guarantee that I would win the suit.

Could you give me some guidance in this situation?

Psychologist’s Reply

Leading an emotionally independent life is not easy, but it’s a prerequisite to having a mature, healthy relationship with another. Your daughters will always have some sort of relationship with their father. There’s nothing you could or should do about that. They will also always have a relationship with you. You have a lot to say about what the character of that relationship might be. If you fret beyond what you feel truly obliged to do and can reasonably afford for your daughters, and worry about what he may or may not do, you only enable the control you say you want to break away from. That said, it’s hard to imagine that the better relationships you have tried to cultivate with other men have been ruined by your ex, unless to some degree the old pattern of not setting limits and boundaries was still going on.

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Ultimately, the lesson of the of the Stockholm Syndrome is that people will identify with their abusers and vilify their potential helpers when they feel a total inability to escape, fear misery or even death if they don’t comply with the abuser, and lack the resources to change the situation. These factors are no longer at play in your life. You can set all the boundaries and limits that you need and want to set. And you can determine your own destiny as well as the character of your future relationships. Because he is the father of your children, you will always have some kind of relationship with your ex. The character of that relationship you can define to a great extent. But if you’re concerning yourself with how he might influence your daughters, how he might try to make you look, what he managed to get away with over the years, etc., you will likely always be a “prisoner” to some degree.

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