As I approach the end of my counselling training this year, I have also just reached the end of more than a year of my own personal counselling. I ended my therapy with the feeling that although personal growth is a job for life, for the present, I have finished what I went there to do.
So what was my goal? Well, although it certainly wasn’t articulated or planned as such at the beginning of the work, I realised that I had gone into therapy to loosen a lifetime’s grip of shame and criticism which had begun in childhood, and culminated in the car crash ending of my marriage. I finished my counselling at a point where I gained the courage to literally close the door on my ex-husband.
For the past 6 years he had been coming to my house to spend time with the kids. At the start it was almost daily, but gradually reduced as life circumstances changed. For the past 2 years however he continued to come three times a fortnight to see the children and put them to bed at my house, in addition to the time spent with them at his own home on alternate weekends.
I had made significant inroads into setting boundaries, but they were forever being pushed by my ex-husband who started to arrive at the house increasingly earlier than the agreed time, and come inside to hang out with the children. I used to cook for him several years back when he first left, and we would eat together as a family, but I found it incredibly uncomfortable and told him I didn’t want to do that anymore. His response was to bring his own food to the house and sit and eat with us. Eventually I asked him to stop that too.
His visits to the house came with his views (frequent and strong) on what I fed the kids; a look inside the cupboards and fridge, voicing his opinions on what was “rubbish”; criticisms of the toiletries we used and the condition of their toothbrushes, how much TV time the kids had; how many chores they did in MY house; how I toilet trained our daughter and how I put her to bed. If they were ever unwell I’d be questioned on what I was feeding them and told what I should be giving them. Recently I was asked to tell him the “exact doses of paracetamol in milligrams” I’d given my son because, (he helpfully told me), it’s quite easy to over-medicate without realising. To be clear here, I hadn’t changed any aspect of parenting from when we were together. He had become interested in a different way of doing things since leaving and having subsequent children. But now he considered his way to be the only correct way, and I was deemed “arrogant” (his word after one dispute) if I didn’t agree with him.
I was feeling suffocated in my own home; the thought of his weekly visits began to instil a feeling of heaviness and dread. Although direct engagement with him was minimal, the sense of him in my space, and the feeling that my home was not fully my own when he came round, was too much. I found it easier to withdraw and stay out of his way in my own house, than face more lecturing on how I was doing things wrong; I just wanted to be left in peace downstairs while he did his thing with the children. I didn’t want to make small talk or friendly chitchat with him. But that wasn’t acceptable for him. He told me that my unwillingness to make an effort to rebuild a friendly relationship with him was hurting the kids. He told the children he wanted to be my friend, but that I hated him and that I was angry and inflexible because I was unhappy. (Yes, they told me this, and no, I never said I hated him. Because actually I don’t hate him at all, I just have no interest in being his friend.)
I needed it to stop, but a precedent had been set for the kids that daddy came to the house, which was hard to break. I felt torn. My counsellor helped me to identify how and why I was allowing this unacceptable behaviour from my ex-husband. I had spent years normalising and justifying his behaviour as being in the interests of the children, and there is truth to that; he loves them and believes in what he’s saying. But it took a while to see that there was also a fierce power struggle and a need for him to have things on his terms, whether consciously or not on his part. It became inevitable that he would have to stop coming to spend time in my home, so eventually, with a weight of guilt around changing things for the children, I put a stop to it. Now when he visits mid-week, he collects them, takes them for a few hours, drops them home and leaves. The children have adjusted amazingly quickly.
The backlash was inevitable and one of the reasons I put off making the decision for so long. I received an email from him telling me I was bitter, angry, stubborn and stuck in the past. He asserted that my life must be deeply unhappy for me to be to continue to judge him on what he did back then, and to be so unkind to him.
The irony is that my decision had nothing to do with what he did 6 years ago and everything to do with his behaviour since, and how I will no longer put up with it. In fact, 6 years ago when I was at my angriest and in most pain, I continued to allow him into my home every day because it was what I thought was best for our children. I never let my bitterness or resentment back then affect his contact or relationship with them, and I am proud of that. It took courage to close the door of my home to him after all this time, but it’s how it should have been years ago. We will always be connected through our children, and correspondence about their lives and plans will carry on as normal. But I moved on from him a long time ago and having my ex spending time in my house was, in fact, the thing that was stuck in the past.
This is what I went to counselling to achieve without even knowing it. I attended fortnightly therapy, not always conscious of what would come up each time, but being safely held while I raised a host of painful issues spanning 40 years. In those hour-long sessions I released ghosts; conditions of worth; ideas about myself, ideas about others, stuck emotions and unsaid words. I had my injustices witnessed and believed, and my feelings validated. I learned to be accepting and tolerant, but also more boundaried and able to speak up for myself. I challenged myself to see other perspectives; I was encouraged to be honest about what was my stuff, yet clear about what was most definitely not. I am so grateful for the opportunity and the therapist that helped me get there.
I’m still, and always will be, a work in progress, but I feel that through this year and a half of work (as therapy undoubtedly is!), I have achieved huge closure. My house feels lighter and I feel freer.