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I've changed massively but my ex wife still sees me as weak and pathetic - I'm feeling lost, what can I do?


heart to heart The questioner's philosophy
Be the change I wish to see in my life. I believe in a higher power that directs us, not necessarily a God.
The questioner's hopes and aspirations
To be a fantastic father and role model for my daughter.
Question
In July 2000, I met a woman who was amazing in many ways. We started going out together in a committed relationship and everything was great. Happily we started a family together, were engaged to be married and moving forward in life.

Then in 2001 a bombshell hit. I came clean that I had been lying to her. I was overstretched financially, not dealing with issues in my personal life and basically not being authentic and truthful with her. After a time apart, I moved to the US to work, then I came home. I realized I was running away from my responsibilities and was not being the man she wanted me to be. After a breakdown where I spent time in hospital, I have been TRYING to be the man that she and my daughter needs. I kept running away and eventually last year I changed massively and am back in my daughter's life.

I now realize all the mistakes I made. I have said sorry - a lot. I am now working, debts paid off, supporting my family financially and moving forward with my life.

Here's the thing. I realize how much I have lost and how much I have gained over the past 2 years. I have the love of my daughter! The thing that I need to complete on though is my feelings for my ex, who I still love very deeply - I have let her know that by my actions and my words. It's like she's living in the past and still sees me as being week and pathetic (her words). I seem to take things very personally. I know it's not my place to change her and all I want is to love her and support her.

Please help, I am feeling a little lost at the moment and I am sure that your words of wisdom will give me a different perspective. What can I do?

Wallace's reply
Wallace My own view is that you need to challenge your wife to see this "massive" change for the better in your character, which you have demonstrated by pulling your life together. I have some idea what it is like to change for the better and for that change to be ignored by the people closest to me. In my own case I became very ill with schizophrenia and depression - in truth for a period I was crippled psychologically and emotionally. However with a lot of hard work on my part and with the support of my family I went beyond the crippling effects of my condition to lead a happy and fulfilling life - and, like you, changed for the better in the process. (There is nothing like a bit of suffering to awaken empathy and compassion in a hardened heart).

Eventually over time my whole life was transformed and, like you, I had "Metamorphosed" into a different person, nearly unrecognizable from the one I left behind. This was brought home to me when I met a friend, connected with the Landmark Forum, who knew me when I was unwell. He could not believe how I had changed when he met me again 10 years later. He was just flabbergasted! Interestingly my family, the very ones who were there for me when I was in that black hole, and who supported me through my darkest days, changed very little in the way they regarded me. I always felt they lacked confidence in me and continued to relate to me as if I were weak and vulnerable, instead of relating to me as the psychologically and emotionally strong person I had become. Like you I found this frustrating.

I really didn't know how to handle my relationship with my family. I found their way of relating to me debilitating, disempowering and at times patronizing. Eventually I met the woman who was to become my wife. She had never known me when I was unwell and she was always challenging me to be the best that I could be. At times this too created problems because she was too unaware, in my view, of my vulnerable side and sometimes set me challenges to which I felt I could not respond. However through my relationship and then marriage to my wife and by moving to join her family in Dublin, (in Ireland), who also see me as strong and powerful, I have definitely been hugely empowered. (My wife and I now have an understanding about one another's strengths and weaknesses that is close to how they really are. This makes married life easier and more straightforward).

However despite all these further changes for the better in my life and circumstances my family of origin continued (and still continue at times) to relate to me in the same disempowering manner. This was brought into sharp relief for me when I was invited two years ago to give the keynote address at the annual conference of Rethink, a UK charity for people with mental conditions. The conference hall was filled with people who were living with different kinds of mental conditions, and their health care support staff - people like psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists, etc.

Although for several years I had been unable to even carry on a conversation, and although I still have a very real vulnerability to stress brought on by my mental condition, I was able, through my spiritual training, to transcend the debilitating effects of my condition and stood in that conference hall, filled with people, and spoke for an hour without any notes or preparation on the subject of having excellent mental health. Many of the people in the audience also had schizophrenia and other mental conditions and understood just what an achievement that was.

I was, by my actions, demonstrating that I was in a place of emotional, psychological and spiritual strength - a place many members of the audience were trying to reach. As a result I had the audience in the palm of my hand. They were riveted. You could have heard a pin drop. My mother and sister were present, listening to this demonstration of creative power. When my talk was over, the host asked for questions. The first question that came up was, "If you have suffered from the debilitating effects of a mental illness and improved dramatically, but your family still treat you as if you were sick and vulnerable, what do you do to change this?" In truth I don't remember giving the answer and I didn't give a very convincing one, because I hadn't found the answer myself. That question stuck with me though - and has made me reflect more deeply on my relationship with my family of origin. I have come to the following conclusions:

  1. I am not defined by how others see me but by how I see myself.
  2. I now challenge people, including my family, who relate to me in a disempowering or patronizing way.
  3. I do this by giving them feedback about the effect relating to me in this disempowering manner has on my sense of well being.
  4. I have now done this often with family members - mostly it makes no difference to how they relate to me.
  5. I accept that.
  6. When I challenge them in this way I am not so inclined to feel disempowered and take their comments or their way of relating to me personally.
I have sought to answer your question by sharing with you a story from my own life. In truth I cannot answer your question with conviction because I have not managed to solve a very similar situation in my own life. I am also aware that you realize that you cannot change your ex wife's way of relating to you and you are right - but if you challenge her misperceptions, even if it doesn't make any difference to her, it will make a difference to you - you will not take it so personally and you will feel powerful instead of disempowered and that, in my opinion, is the best you can do.

Further Help and Resources
To assist you with your issue of taking your wife's comments personally I suggest you take a look at Peter Shepherd's first exercise on his Communication and Relationship course. Exercise 1: To Be & To Accept That Which IS. You may not be able (or willing) to do this exercise with your ex wife but reading and reflecting on it will help. To assist you to challenge your ex wife's faulty perceptions of your character, I suggest you also take a look at Exercise 4: Ask Closed & Open Questions. Using this exercise as your guide you could ask questions like, "In what ways do my recent actions demonstrate that I have fundamentally changed as a person?"

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