Tell Me About It: Why do adult offspring bully parents who have formed new relationships?

I know men who have bravely left unhappy marriages, and are being prevented from having a second chance by their children. What is wrong with these bitter offspring?

Illustration: Thinkstock

Illustration: Thinkstock

Tue, Jan 28, 2014, 01:00

Q Men have been telling me horrendous stories about their daughters bullying them. One father was threatened by his twentysomething daughter that if he dated a certain woman, she would never speak to him again, and would ensure his son didn’t either. This girl is well-educated, in a great job, yet she bullies her father. Worse still, he allows it.

Another man I know has been separated for years, and dating someone he really loves for the past two. His partner has introduced him all around, and he shares her family life. Yet he is being punished severely by his adult daughters – they refuse to meet his new partner, and one has terrified him with threats of suicide if he does not drop her. They say he has no right to “party”. After leaving their mother, he should be living a quiet life, they say.

Yet another man I know has been out in the cold with his daughter, now over 40, since he left his marriage more than 30 years ago. He lives with his new partner within 10 miles of her, and she has never spoken to him despite his best efforts.

This bullying is happening – and I haven’t even mentioned inheritance rights. In cases where money that children see as theirs is to be diverted to a new partner, it can escalate hugely.

Someone needs to call a halt to this. I know men (and maybe women too) who are racked with guilt and shame for bravely leaving unhappy marriages, and are being prevented from having a second chance. What is wrong with these bitter offspring?

A When a marriage breaks down, the intense anger and hurt often drives people to look for a scapegoat. Adult offspring justify their appalling behaviour by saying it’s what the “guilty” parent deserves. Out for revenge, they become determined to inflict as much pain as possible.

“From my own experience in the counselling room, I can tell you without hesitation this form of bullying is very common,” says Tony Moore of Relationships Ireland. His most recent case involved a father being ostracised by his daughters, who treated him so badly his health was broken, physically and psychologically. “This man, by the way, had provided an excellent lifestyle for his family. Unfortunately, as can happen in any marriage, love drifted away and the marriage broke down. The man involved wanted to support his adult children but they have not spoken to him or contacted him since the day he left the house, behaviour aided and abetted by his ex-wife.”

Men, CSO statistics show, are more likely to enter a new relationship after separation and divorce: 39 per cent compared with 28 per cent of women. Indecent haste isn’t uncommon, and Moore encourages men who are considering leaving the family home, or who are separating, to take their time before starting a new relationship. “They must try and heal the hurt that has been caused before they even think of starting a new relationship, or introducing a new person into the lives of their children.”

Many adult children bear the scars of their parents’ unhappy union, and if a relationship isn’t ended with care – and communication – the children may want to hurt the parent they see as the architect of the break-up. Having a woman in reserve before even leaving the marriage is an awful thing to do to your children, whose emotional world is based on their parents’ marriage.

This is why counselling is so important in preventing family war and solicitors’ fees. “Women are often seen as the victims in a marriage breakdown, and that is often the case. It does not follow, however, that the wrath of God must be brought down on the head of the man,” says Moore.

It may only be later in life when the offspring start to understand how difficult intimate relationships are to sustain. They need to find compassion for both parents. It’s never black and white, villains and victims, and seeing it this way can have a devastating impact.

Your men friends must confront the bullies. It’s in their children’s interest to examine their own behaviour and end the war.

Email your questions for Kate to tellmeaboutit@irishtimes.com or contact Kate on Twitter, @kateholmquist. We regret that personal correspondence cannot be entered into

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