She's afraid her ex will hurt me

All Woman

Dear Counsellor,

I have been with my current girlfriend for six months, and we have lived together for five of those. Her divorce was recently finalised. She has a three-year-old daughter with her ex-husband and an eight-year-old son with an ex-boyfriend. I connect well with the kids and they love me very much. She is also finally letting me assume a stepfather type of role in their lives.

Although we are very deeply in love, there is a problem. She still doesn't have the guts to confess to her ex-husband that she has a new lover and is living with him. Her ex is built like a Mack truck and weighs 240 pounds. I'm no wimp myself: I'm 200 pounds at 6 feet 3 inches, but when I was at my peak of working out I weighed 250 pounds. Recent events have sparked my will to work out again so I can have a chance to defend myself if necessary.

My girlfriend experienced severe emotional abuse from this man, and whenever we talk about him I will say things like, “I want to get physical with him for what he did to you.” However, she usually responds, “Oh, I wouldn't do that,” in a voice that sounds like she's sticking up for him or that I should be scared of him. I'm not. This is also affecting our relationship as she's afraid to put any pictures of me on social media, and her status is still single/separated. This hurts me deeply, as I think that since the divorce is final she should have no problem revealing our relationship to the world, especially considering how great it's going and how deeply in love we are. Should I back off or stick up for what I believe? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Relationships are a complex phenomenon, and sometimes the people involved can't even explain why they do the things they do. So even though your girlfriend is physically and legally separated from her ex-husband, she is still emotionally connected and psychologically dependent on him. When people are in an abusive relationship, one of the partners — usually the woman — is brainwashed to believe that the abuser has full control over them even when they are no longer involved.

So even though your girlfriend is technically separated from her ex-husband, they still have to co-parent a child, and so she must communicate with him regularly. Being the manipulative and abusive person that he is, she is reluctant to do anything that may cause trouble for her, for you, or for the child. The ex-husband may even insist that he does not want his daughter to have a stepdad, and so she is very cautious as she tries to maintain a harmonious relationship between all the persons concerned.

You therefore must appreciate her emotional state and be patient as she negotiates the dynamics in her life. Putting undue pressure on her would only complicate matters and cause her to withdraw. What she needs more than anything else right now is a partner who is understanding and who will be emotionally supportive. If you are as deeply in love with her as you say, you must demonstrate that you will walk with her patiently during this transition in her life.

Your girlfriend is moving into her third serious relationship, and is very cautious about commitment after the failure of the previous ones. After all, her relationship with you is just six months old, and so she will need time to process her past relationships and determine what she may have contributed to them that may have caused the break-ups.

Although I understand your concern regarding her slow pace of making the transition, it is not necessarily a poor reflection on you. It's just that she wants to be careful not to make the same mistake thrice. The onus is on you to work with the programme. Don't harbour any thoughts of confronting her ex-husband, as this will only cause more stress for her. In time she will disclose her status and do what is necessary for the growth and development of your relationship. Do maintain the bonds you have established with the children, and appreciate that she has opened that door for you. This is a good sign. Remember that love is not only kind, but patient as well. All the best.

Wayne Powell is a relationship counsellor. Write to agapemft@gmail.com; check out his work overseas on www.seekingshalom.org, e-mail powellw@seekingshalom.org.

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