#1175: “My teenager says their father (my ex of 1.5 decades) is sending me a V-Day Present. Help!”

Dear Captain Awkward,

My teenager has informed me that their father told them he plans to mail me jewelry for Valentine’s Day. Their father and I have been divorced for nearly a decade and a half and I’ve been in three committed, long-term relationships in that time. I have less-than-zero interest in my ex-husband romantically (or even platonically) and while I am able to be polite/civil with him, I am quite looking forward to the day I no longer have to take his calls. He is not a nice person. (He was abusive during our marriage, used custody issues to punish me, treated our children poorly, etc. etc.)

Since he heard that I had to leave my most recent long-term relationship quite hastily for safety issues, he’s been acting far too friendly over the phone. A few months ago he told me that I’m the only woman he’s ever really loved and said he thinks we should still be together, which I responded to with “You know, life moves forward and though my path has been rocky, I’m happy with where I am now, thanks. Gotta go.” Ever since that revelation from him, I’ve made it a rule to do my best to keep any calls very short and to the point, if possible, and I always try to shift any conversations that get personal back to talking about the children we have in common.

That tactic recently backfired, leading to my teenager getting frustrated with me for talking about them with their father at all. I had told their father that they were feeling very anxious about college decisions and I’d been trying to help them feel less pressured and he turned around and told them I said they were being a “word-I-would-never-use” about going to school and that they need to stop being “that-word” and get their “expletive” together. Ugh. (I did let him know, through text, that what he did there was not okay and that was not what I meant by support, etc., and he did apologize to them eventually.) So, now since the “talk about our kids” topic no longer works, if he texts, “Hey, do you have time to talk?” I ask him if he has something pressing to discuss, as I’m quite busy, and it’s usually “No, just wanted to chat,” so I tell him I’m too busy to chat. If he calls, it goes to voicemail and I decide whether or not it’s appropriate to call back based on the content of voicemail.

Since I’ve been brushing him off, he has been reaching out to my teenager more than ever. They hate talking to him, but feel guilty not talking to him sometimes. During recent calls with them, their father told them that he really thinks we should have stayed together as a family, etc. It makes my teenager really frustrated and uncomfortable that all he seems to want to talk about with them is me and how he wishes we were still together.

I’m so irritated with him for the way he is treating me and my teenager, but not surprised, as he’s never been one to respect people’s boundaries.

[Don’t know if this is relevant or not, so I’ll add it just in case: He is in a relationship with a woman who is really kind and sweet (and a nice buffer/ally for my teenager when they visit their father), but who recently moved out of his house after having lived with him for about a year. His overly-friendliness started before she moved out. His behavior would be frustrating no matter what, but it’s even more exasperating that he’s doing this while in a relationship with another woman, no matter how rocky it may be.]

So… what do I do when he inevitably mails me jewelry? It makes me queasy just thinking about opening the box. Do I mail it back? Say thanks but no thanks? I don’t want him to get the idea that it is okay or in any way desirable for him to send me romantic gifts. Thankfully, he lives hundreds of miles away so I don’t have to worry that he’ll drop by with the gift. (Fingers crossed. Don’t want to jinx it.)

Over the years since our divorce I haven’t pushed back too hard or spoken my piece about his bad behaviors since he kept custody issues pretty contentious for some time and I never wanted anything to be misconstrued and come back to bite me. It’s been hard to break out of walking on eggshells with him and taking the step I noted above to let him know how he hurt his teenager with the nasty comments about their college fears felt good, but was terrifying.

Help, please!

(If you have some scripts for my teenager, too, for when their father starts up with his pining for me thing during their phone calls or laying on any other guilt trips that would be wonderful.)

Thank you!

My pronouns: she/her

Hello there!

Your ex is being ridiculously manipulative. He’s trying to use your teenager as his unwilling wingman. He’s putting the idea of the Valentine’s Day gift out there as bait so it can hang over you with dread and he can get off on the suspense: Will you confront him about it before it arrives (giving him an opportunity to blow up at your teenager for spilling the beans) or will you wait until you get it (giving him an opportunity to get all offended about having a gift thrown back in his face, giving him an opportunity to renew his sad, gross courtship)? He’s using a gift on purpose so he can claim he intended to be nice and make you have to push through all the socialization you and other people have received about being gracious receivers of gifts.

He’s testing this new line of backchannel communication with you he thinks he’s opened up via your teen (a strategy known as triangulation) because it gives him multiple strings of blame and control to pull if it all goes wrong. His ultimate stated “win condition” is y’all getting back together, but if he can force you and the rest of the family to center him and his feelings, that’s a win of another kind, and if he feels like he has an excuse to blow up at someone when it doesn’t work, that’s a win for him, too.

This is what’s so frustrating, right? If you ignore it, he wins, if you call him on it, he wins, because a) he thinks all attention is good attention as long as it’s your attention and b) he doesn’t give a shit about protecting your kids from manipulation and you do.

All is not lost. There are three pretty solid tools for dealing with manipulative people. You can use them and you can teach them to your kids. They are:

  1. Remind yourself of the facts.
  2. Don’t let triangulation work.
  3. Be consistent and boring.

Fact: You don’t want to get back together with your ex. No matter what he gifts you with or throws at you, it’s never happening. He will try everything he can to drown you in feelings or distract from this fact, but as long as you know for sure that you’re done with him, the facts are on your side. He can send a troupe of dancing peacocks to your house bearing the crown jewels, he can hire a plane to skywrite his feelings over your house, and your answer will be the same: “I prefer not to.” As long as you know this, you don’t have to explain or convince anyone of anything. You’re never getting back together. His feelings, his efforts are just theatrics. They have no actual power.*

*This isn’t always the case in abusive/manipulative relationships, of course. You think he’s unlikely to escalate to physical violence and threats, and I’m glad. If you still shared a house with him, if you thought your life or safety was in danger from him, it wouldn’t change the facts (you don’t want to be with him) but it would change the power calculus in that you might have to use subterfuge or be less direct about confrontation until you could safely remove yourself from his proximity and reduce his power. You already went through this when you left the first time, and you are going to be the absolute best judge of what is safe now.

GOOD NEWS: You’re already good at keeping your interactions boring. You were so smart to start screening your ex’s calls and never, ever having Time To Chat. Keep doing that. Keep all communication about the kids about mundane logistical topics, and consider taking everything to text or email for a good six months or longer. It has the advantage of creating a documentation trail of the things he says to you (useful if things escalate or get weirder) and it also allows you to filter and respond to things selectively, when it’s convenient for you. Look into or review resources about parallel parenting (where after a contentious divorce or split, the parents work on communicating as little and as neutrally as possible.) Consider that the weirder he makes communication for you, the less access he gets to you. He’ll adjust accordingly (making things less stressful) or he won’t (and you’ll interact with him even less, making things less stressful).

Defeat triangulation by only responding to things your ex says directly to you. Just because he tries to put your teen in the middle it doesn’t mean you have to leave the kid there! Messages or trial balloons your ex tries to send through your teen won’t work if you are consistent about only responding to his direct communication.

Since you don’t want to make your teen feel responsible for this in any way (either to pass messages on OR to feel like they have to keep them a secret to protect you), a gentle hand is in order. You could try asking questions – “Did Dad ask you to tell me about [whatever it is] or did he ask you to keep it a secret?” – but that can turn into an interrogation pretty quick depending on your kid and how your ex has primed them. Maybe try a script like this:

“Hey buddy, thanks for telling me, that must have been kind of an upsetting thing to hear from your Dad!

I hope you know that I want you and your Dad to be able to talk about whatever is comfortable for you, and you don’t have to worry about me or protecting my feelings! Grownup stuff can be complicated, it’s not your job to help us figure it out. You can tell either of us to stop talking about something if it makes you feel weird.

Anyway, after 15 years, one thing I’ve learned about your Dad is that if something is really important for me to know, he’ll tell me about it himself. So I’m not going to even worry about it until he does. Sound good?” 

If your ex tries to feel you out to find out if your teen is passing on his messages, you can answer that pretty directly: “Oh yeah, weird, Teen mentioned something about that. I figured you were just blowing off steam. I told them not to worry about it and if it was that important, you’d just tell me yourself. I mean, you’d never actually try to get our kid to be your wingman, right? That’s just silly!”

I know you’re feeling a lot of dread right now and you want to head this Valentine’s Day gift thing off at the pass, but honestly, if you haven’t spoken to your ex about this already I’d use this as an opportunity to test out the “don’t respond to anything except direct communication” strategy. This thing isn’t real until it arrives or he mentions it. Whatever the gift is (I’m picturing something from the Two Butts Stuck Together line, personally), today is February 10th and it’s already in the mail. To bring it up now risks putting your teen in the crosshairs of your ex’s anger and blame. Your ex is very capable of skipping over the facts (you don’t want any presents from him and you don’t want to get back together) to blame your teen for ruining his doomed gambit somehow. If it helps, think of your ex as a Scooby Doo villain – “It would have worked if not for those meddling kids!” – Laugh at the image, and then protect your kids.

Some strategies for dealing with this (and future) awkward gifts:

First things first: An unwanted gift obligates you to nothing. Once it’s in your possession, it’s yours. You can accept it, refuse it, regift it, sell it, or set it on fire.

The giver can feel some kind of way about that, and your ex specifically can probably manufacture infinite grievances out of whatever you do, but the facts are the facts: You don’t love this dude or want to be with him. If he wants to send you gifts, that’s not your fault or your problem.

You can rip the bandaid off. Send it back. Send a text or a note that says “WTF is this supposed to be? I don’t want it” or “Nope!” 

When he bugs you about it, try “I didn’t want it so I sent it back. Is there something that would spell it out for you more clearly? Cool, let me know and I’ll do that.” 

We talk about “returning awkwardness to sender” a lot here, how often do you get to literally do that.

Alternately, you can make logistics & time work for you. You’re dreading this package’s arrival right now, but as soon as it’s “supposed” to arrive the dread and anticipation are all his – Did you get it? Did you like it? Is it working? Should he say something? Should he wait?

Did you know that you can refuse delivery of a UPS package?

And one sent through US Postal Mail? Generally, as long as you don’t open whatever it is (it must remain Schrödinger’s unwanted pendant made of butts that is somehow also an angel), you can refuse delivery. You don’t have to sign for things (it’s earrings that looks like a bunch of rear ends stuck together, not a subpoena) and you don’t have to ever pick packages up from the post office. It will most likely get sent back to him or wherever he ordered it from…eventually.

And, no worries if you do open it or sign for it, you can still most likely return it to the vendor. He gets a refund, you don’t have it in your house anymore.

And if it lives in the trunk of your car for the next 9 months or collects dust on the mantel in the lobby of your apartment building for the rest of time because you keep forgetting to take it to the post office to ship it back, oh well! You get to do whatever is most convenient and comfortable for you.

Your line when he asks about it could be “Oh, was that from you? I wasn’t expecting a package, so I figured it was a mistake. Did you know that if you don’t open the package, they send it back where it came from for free?” 

If he reminds you that he told the teenager? If you can bring yourself to joke about it, do so. Sunlight and humor disinfect.“Oh, right, Teen mentioned that, but I thought it was a joke! You weren’t serious about sending me a piece of jewelry in the mail, right? WTF would I do with something like that? LOL, next time just send it directly to the Museum of Broken Relationships, it will save on the shipping fees.” 

Whatever you do, please don’t worry about finding the perfect solution. As far as your ex is concerned, any choice that isn’t you fainting with desire and gratitude is the wrong one and a reason to punish or harass you. If he acts like a jerk, it’s ’cause he’s a jerk, not because of whatever you did or didn’t do. He will likely try to claim that you owe him something (money, time, attention, hassle). Resist this framing. Don’t argue with him or give him attention. Be boring, stick with facts: “I didn’t want it so I sent it back.” He can wrangle with the postal service until the rest of time, it’s not your problem.

Make him do all the work. As discussed, this gift doesn’t exist until it arrives or he tells you about it directly, and it doesn’t mean anything until your ex spells it out, in words.

Maybe this is just petty of me, but if he tries to put you on the spot, I want you to make him say it. Like, ask: “Wait, you sent me a Valentine’s day present? Why?” and see if he’ll own up.

If he tries the “you’re the only woman I ever really loved and I think we should still be together” line again, it’s an opportunity to be direct.

“I thought I made it clear the last time you brought this up that I don’t feel the same way. You seem confused about that, so let me say it again: I don’t feel that way about you and I don’t want us to ever get back together. I want to do a good job parenting our kids. That’s it. What can I say so that we never have to talk about this again?” 

Prediction: He is too much of a coward to risk this amount of directness, so he’ll either try to gaslight you that he never meant it That Way (it was just a general statement of regret at how things worked out with you, he wasn’t actually trying to get back together, how can you be so conceited, you misunderstood him, can’t he send you a simple present, etc.) or he’ll try a “I can’t help how I feel” gambit.

The gaslighting is a win for you, strangely enough. If he tries to pretend it was all a mistake and backtracks in order to save face, let him! You can say “Oh, it was all a misunderstanding? I’m so relieved! Hahahaha! Close call! Thank goodness, let’s put this embarrassing episode behind us and never speak of it again!” 

The “I can’t help how I feel” strategy is a little harder to deal with because he might try to stack more feelings on top of the first in an attempt to wall you in with them. You don’t give a crap about his feelings, so, if he goes with this strategy, think of it as a dare. He doesn’t think you’ll have the guts to squish his feelings if he can make the pile deep enough. But you totally can! The way around this is to remember the facts (You don’t want him) and also remind yourself that he has a variety of appropriate choices about who he can talk to about his feelings: a therapist, a friend, a pastor, his actual girlfriend, the other people in the line to buy movie tickets, his diary, his telephone psychic. It doesn’t have to be you, it definitely should not be his kids!

If he goes with this tack, try: “Let me stop you there – I don’t feel the same way about you, and it’s never gonna happen. If this is really bothering you, maybe you should talk to a counselor about it. In the meantime, let’s agree: No more discussion about this, and definitely no more gifts!” 

GIANT ROMANTIC GESTURES that try to do an end-run around the desires and feelings of the person you are trying to romance are doomed. So doomed.

I hope that solves it, to the extent situations with people like this can be solved. You can’t control this guy’s feelings or what he does about them, but I think you can actually do a lot to interrupt the cycle of dread and the cycle of rewarding this behavior and see if he adjusts.

Empower your kids. You asked for scripts for your teenager, and I have some. If they can pull it off, humor goes a long way, since there’s nothing like the scorn of an adolescent to wither the romantic inklings of an adult.

  • “Dad, if that’s how you feel, you should talk to Mom directly. I’m not getting in the middle of the two of you!”
  • “Dad, are you trying to make me your wingman? GROSS.”
  • “If you’re going to keep talking to me about Mom like this, my allowance is going to need a boost to cover the Years of Therapy™”
  • “If I like someone I pass them a note between Trig and Chemistry. Maybe try that?”
  • “Dad, don’t you have any friends to talk to about this? Maybe ones who could talk you out of the whole thing? I’m your kid, not your therapist!”
  • “Yaaaaaayyyyyy just what every kid wants to think about: Their parents boning. Thanks for scarring me for life!”
  • [for younger kids] “Quit being silly, Daddy!” or “Ew, that’s grownup stuff!”

As discussed earlier, one goal of the scripts is to make talking about you with your kids very boring for your ex, to teach him that they won’t really engage or take him seriously on this topic. And more important than any particular script is empowering them to tell their dad they don’t want to hear about this, empowering them to change the subject with him, and empowering them to get off the phone if they want to. “You don’t have to talk to your dad on the phone every time he wants to, you know.” “You can get off the phone if someone is making you uncomfortable; I do it all the time – sometimes texting is better!” 

I hope this lessens your anxiety about this somewhat. You are clocking everything about this situation correctly, you totally have your ex’s number, and it sounds like you are a great mom. May your February 14 be completely uneventful and free of wearable butt-sculptures!

P.S. I left the part in about your ex having a girlfriend (Maybe? They’re still together but she moved out?) in the letter but left her out in my scripts for you, and that was completely deliberate. 

If he’s trying to win you back behind someone else’s back, that’s gross, but everything about the situation is already gross. In your shoes, I’d stick with “Whoa, but I’m not interested in you that way” and I wouldn’t mention her at all. The point isn’t that he’s potentially cheating on somebody, the point is that you wouldn’t date him again if he were the last man alive. Mentioning her – “Does your girlfriend know that you’re sending me Valentine’s Day presents?” – allows him to manufacture more drama from the situation, like, maybe if he were single, you’d go for it, or “Ladies, ladies, please don’t fight!” Don’t let him ego-stroke by setting this up as a situation where he’s torn between two women. He’s not. She’s halfway out the door, you don’t even remember where the door is. If you did, a key that is also a diamond-encrusted ass-cluster has zero chance of unlocking it.



112 thoughts on “#1175: “My teenager says their father (my ex of 1.5 decades) is sending me a V-Day Present. Help!”

  1. I’m sorry this is happening to you, LW. You’ve completely got his number, and you’re handling this exactly right. To the Captain’s suggestions, I’d suggest the easiest one of all if the package actually arrives: throw it directly in the garbage. If he asks you about it, just say you didn’t want it so you threw it away. Good luck!

    1. I definitely agree with doing the easiest thing to get rid of any gross unwanted present.
      In addition to throwing it in the garbage, if you have a friend who is good at decluttering perhaps you can call in a favour and give them the package to dispose of however they see fit and then to never speak of it again. (I for one would be happy to do this for a friend).

    2. Seconding throwing it in the trash! None of the emotional labor of mailing it back, all of the dismissiveness if you feel you have to give an answer regarding what happened to it.

    3. When a business sends you unsolicited stuff, it’s yours to keep, toss, give away, whatever you want to do with it. It’s a law. You never have to return it or pay for it. I’d apply that principle here.
      Personally, I’d sell it for the kid’s college fund.

  2. Categorically incorrect, Captain, categorically incorrect.

    It’s a dickhead and balls, not an ass-cluster.

  3. I haven’t been in this situation exactly, but I have had an ex who was big on drama and kept trying to pull me back into it. As the cliché goes, the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. The best thing you can do is to avoid engaging as much as possible. It’s frustrating, and I can imagine that there’s torrent of [completely deserved] invective that you’d like to release at this ex, but remember that as frustrating as it is for you, it is orders of magnitude worse for him. There is also a quiet power in not engaging. He’s trying to elicit a response from you and you are not giving him one—at least not one he can see.

  4. I like it… but some of your scripts still leave the door open for him to have power in the relationship. “What can I say so that we never have to talk about this again?” and “In the meantime, let’s agree to…” both require him to play along, and he has zero reason to do so honestly. Instead, TELL him what you are doing (once) and then don’t acknowledge it again: “Now that I’ve told you this, I’m considering the matter closed” or “For now, I am only willing to do X.”

    As for the kid – a teenager is old enough to understand that relationships have nuances. You don’t have to pretend everything is perfect, but there’s a middle ground: “Your dad misses the days you were little and we were all still living together. And that’s okay, everyone gets nostalgic sometimes, but I don’t want you to get caught in the middle of your parents’ conversations. I’m never going to ask you to relay messages to your dad or to tell me what he’s up to because if I need to know, I’ll ask him. He can do the same for me, so please don’t feel like you have to pass notes for us. Anything the two of you talk about can stay between you and I’m fine not knowing, okay?”

    1. I wonder if the teen, by not keeping their conversations with Dad to themselves, is crying for Mom’s help dealing with Dad drawing them into playing therapist, here. If Dad won’t behave appropriately maybe Mom can fix it? A bit of magical thinking from a teen caught in a bad spot, looking to the one consistent parent to behave like a parent and protect them from harm, even though Mom doesn’t really control Dad’s behavior.

      Dad’s use of the teen as substitute sounding board as regards his feelings for Mom isn’t something a teen can really keep to themselves and carry as a secret, you know? That’s heavy shit and they might need to relieve that burden somehow let it eat them up. I think they’re telling the parent they trust in hopes that parent can do something about the parent who’s acting inappropriately. I feel for them so much.

      1. I think this is a possibility, and if so, it may help to talk directly to the teen, both to let them know (per the captain’s suggestions) that it is OK for them push back at Dad’s oversharing, but also to encourage them to speak to someone else about how they feel – does their school have any form of pastoral support, for instance? Being able to talk to someone who isn’t involved can be really helpful, and explicitly giving the child permission to talk about this stuff can be very powerful, particularly as they may be feeling uncomfortable due to conflicted loyalties, or feeling they need to be protecting mom.

        A really explicit conversation where you tell your child that they aren’t, and don’t have to be, responsible for keeping the peace of for taking messages between their parents can be really helpful, as well.

        1. also, it might be useful to make the kid feel FREE from any responsibility to relay conversations.

          So the kid can tell Mom or not tell Mom–whatever makes the kid feel good.
          And the kid can then be told their involvement is over, they don’t have any responsibility to shape anything now. They vented whatever pressure they needed to, and all is done.

          Mom will take it from here, and Mom will do all the responding that’s necessary.

          And in interacting w/ Dad, kid can listen with half an ear and completely forget it; kid can push back; kid can do whatever makes kid comfortable in the moment. And it’s OK for kid to blow Dad off–either right then, or later after Dad has done all the “attempt at triangulation.”

          I’d also vote for discussing the concept of triangulation with the kid, and coming to a mutual agreement with Mom about how those attempts will be handled, whether Kid will announce to Dad, “I’m not carrying messages”; whether Kid won’t tell Dad that but also won’t carry messages; or whether Kid will tell Mom, and Mom will say, “I’m not reacting to messages, of course, but I hope you feel better after letting that out.”

      2. Hi LW, I suggest giving your teen a bunch of phone conversation enders to use after the Captain’s scripts. Make them super boring, for instance:
        – well anyways, I need to get back to my English essay
        – look at the time, I need to get to soccer practice
        – oh, Sam (bff) just arrived, gotta go
        – my phone’s about to die, I should let you go

        If your teen needs some support, have an agreement with your teen that they can go into a room where you are and give you a signal; then you can start telling them loudly to “get off the phone and do the dishes right now”.

        Good luck!

    2. “Anything the two of you talk about can stay between you and I’m fine not knowing, okay?”

      In general, I think your advice is great, but I would counsel against any suggestion that in any way might (particularly in a teenage brain) come across as “You can’t talk to me about Dad Things”. Even long after my parents divorced, there were things that, as a teenager, I worried about, or was angry about, or wanted to change, and you can’t necessarily talk to the parent involved about that – and it sounds like it might be particularly the case for LW’s children. Having an open channel for the kids to raise worries or concerns I think is more important here, and I know that saying something like that would have made me as a teenager feel like I couldn’t talk to that parent about things that were happening with the other parent, even if it’s the kind of thing where I needed to.

      I am not a parent, so take the next paragraph with appropriate amounts of salt. One thing I wish now that my parents had done, and which they never did, was to distinguish between the different situations. If I was feeling something, being able to talk to the other parent knowing I would get support (and definitely not have them tell the other parent this without really good reason) was what I needed. Where I wanted something to change, or some action was required, once I was old enough (and I think the teenager probably is) what would have been much more useful to me long term was support and advice on how I could handle it and try to navigate the situation – that leaves the kid in control because they know their relationship with each parent better than the parents do, it teaches them how to handle emotionally tricky situations in a healthy way, and it maintains boundaries between parents. For dad, the Captain’s scripts are great, but I think it’s also still important for LW to make sure she can hear about things happening with dad that her kids want her support with, and know that that doesn’t have to mean her getting involved with ex-drama again.

      (It’s also a great way of helping teenager to figure out where something is gossip/drama/best just ignored, and where something is a legitimate concern that they should absolutely be speaking up about in a safe and supportive way – if teenager can raise anything with LW, and LW is able to go “That goes in the ‘Oh, cool, well, dad’s gonna dad, I’m sorry if he’s making you feel caught up in stuff – perhaps you’d like to just text him for the next couple of weeks?’ box” or “You’re right to be concerned, here’s [advice]” box, that lets them start getting a good guide in life for navigating these situations)

  5. I will never see heart-shaped jewelry the same way again.
    Also, Return to Sender. Don’t even let that thing inside your living space.

    1. I can no longer see that jewelry as anything but butts.

      On the plus side I have hated heart-shaped jewelry since time immemorial so this is just giving me more excuses for my actually-totally-non-rational hate rather than ruining something for me.

      1. Haha, I love all the Open Hearts jokes! Partner and I have been mocking the Kay’s “Open Butts”–I mean, “Open Hearts” jewelry line for yeeeeaaaaars. We have a whiteboard in our kitchen. Every year on Valentine’s Day, whoever wakes up first will draw a crude rendition of a piece of Open Butts jewelry on the board…crude in more ways than one, hairy naughty bits are often involved LOL…and write underneath it, “Open Your Butt And Let The Love In.” (For those in regions without this jewelry line, a sentence used in the first TV ad was “If your heart is open, love will always find its way in.”)

        We’re…not traditionally romantic in this house. XD

        I sadly don’t have any good advice for LW; I’m just hoping that seeing all the sniggering in the comments will brighten the ol’ day a bit, since the ex-husband sure isn’t being a ray of sunshine.

  6. I was in my late teens when I finally had the courage to tell my acrimoniously divorced parents I didn’t want to talk about the other one with either of them. Both of them tried to complain to me about the ‘bad’ things the other one was doing or had done (like adultery, or demanding alimony, or having bad eating habits, etc etc forever) and I was so effing done. Thankfully once I set the boundary with them they more or less kept it, but I went through YEARS as a young teen feeling miserable because I was caught in the middle and didn’t feel empowered to say anything. Acknowledging to your kid that you know it isn’t fair for them to have to deal with this and giving them permission to push back would be huge and I wish my parents had done it for me.

  7. The wonderful thing about being a teen is that they have their own ways of deflecting awkward/terrible conversations as boring as possible. Use the “aloof, unattentative teen” stereotype to its advantage.

    “Sure whatever.”
    “I wasn’t paying attention. Did you say something?”
    “I’m busy, Dad.”

    Bring out the bulky headphones, earbuds, cell phone, young adult novels, and gaming devices. Make it so communication a big chore on ex.

    1. You burned Kay Jewelers so bad they took the page down out of shame. (Which is to say, I clicked through to see the monstrosity, and it’s no longer there. Or else something’s messed up with the link)

  8. Ugh I had an ex slide back into the old DMs when things were looking squiffy between him and his next partner. We’d broken up maybe a year before and THAT was tragic. A decade and a half later? Dude needs to get a grip.

    Presumably his sadfeels about his relationship breaking down are something he wants to paper over with a social media worthy 15-years-later reunion love story, but he hasn’t considered the finer details like “does ex still love me?” and quite possibly “do I actually still love ex or am I just feeling unwanted?” What a bellend.

    1. Yeah, the my-other-relationship-didn’t-work-out nostalgia is real. “Woe is me, all alone – and I wonder what my ex is up to.” It may be a blessing if this the proximate cause of his sudden emergence, because in my experience it tends to be briefer than other fixations – the minute he finds someone else, or things are going better with his current lady, the feelings may disappear again. My fingers are crossed for you, OP.

  9. Many divorced couples who are co-parenting have a rule that they only talk to each other about the kids. One option to deal with his behaviour may be to re-direct the conversation constantly back to the one topic that you actually have to speak to him about. Him: “I LOOOOOVE YOU!” You: “Is there something you need to tell me about the kids? Otherwise, I need to go.” It happens a lot in strained co-parenting arrangements.

    1. Yes, exactly! *Chatting* about the kids–volunteering random information to get him off Other Topic–backfired, but treating this as a Kid-Related Business Meeting, Do We Have Anything More On The Agenda would not backfire in the same way.

    2. LW said she tried that. All that happened was her ex started using anything she said about the kid against the kid.

  10. Great advice, Captain! Something I would like to add, though, regarding communication between parents about Teenager (and likely other children too). It has to do with this line from LW’s letter:

    “I had told their father that they were feeling very anxious about college decisions and I’d been trying to help them feel less pressured and he turned around and told them I said they were being a “word-I-would-never-use” about going to school and that they need to stop being “that-word” and get their “expletive” together.”

    Based on this exchange, I think it would be a good idea to refrain from discussing Teenager’s private feelings with their dad, especially if Teenager hasn’t explicitly told you it’s okay to do so. He didn’t just twist your words here: he introduced language that likely hurt Teenager’s feelings very much. You said that ex was abusive to you, and this whole episode strikes me as abusive towards Teenager. ‘Cause, like, even if you HAD said that, what kind of dad would then relay that to Teenager? This was calculated to hurt, not just you, but your kid as well. Ergo, he cannot be trusted with sensitive information about Teenager’s inner thoughts and feelings without Teenager’s prior consent.

    1. Agreed, though I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Teenager probably has a pretty clear view of who their father is by now. And if they don’t, they will very soon.

      1. As someone who grew up with emotionally abusive parents, I want to point out two important things:

        1) The teenager might actually _NOT_ have a clear view of what their parent is. In my case, I largely blamed myself for my parents’ abuse and internalized their hatred and contempt for me. Only now in my 30s am I starting to undo some of what they did to me.

        2) Even if the teenager does have a clear view of the parent, that doesn’t mean that the parent’s abuse doesn’t or can’t hurt them. I recognized some of my parents’ behaviour as abnormal and disproportional, but it still completely gutted me.

        By the way, I find everyone’s belief that this teenager (or any teenager) can just shut down their father’s bad behaviour with some sort of “stereotypically teenager-ish” remark completely bizarre. At that age I was excruciatingly well-behaved and terrified of my parents. I was terrified of everyone else, too, because I expected them to see me and treat me the same way my parents did. I was horrified at the idea of hurting other people’s feelings, even by accident, and as a result I could never stand up for myself. I ended up in several friendships with people who were my friends 50% of the time, and then bullied me for their own amusement the other 50% of the time. I was a perpetually anxious, withdrawn doormat. This whole cultural notion of the flippant, callous “dirt-bag teen” is not true, not helpful, and was frequently used as the figurative stick to beat me.

    2. Yeah tbh I would understand if Teenager never wanted to see the Dad again, sounds like they don’t like him very much anyway. As a teen they’re old enough to make they decision right? The courts can’t force a teen to adhere to custody agreements they don’t want?

    3. Good point. All you need to convey are the most basic, boring facts. “Teen is researching college options. Teen is meeting with guidance counselor. Teen is looking forward to graduation”, etc.

    4. Yes, though the LW has already addressed this and isn’t sharing teen’s emotional stuff with Dad anymore, leaving them even less to talk about.

  11. the day my daughter turned 18 and I could officially stop dealing with my ex was the best day and I promise, you can make it that far. I agree with not including him on your struggles with your kids. He will triangulate the HELL out of this, when all you meant was to keep him in the loop. I learned this the hard way. She sees him clearly now (she’s 24), but there WAS a period in her teen years when she couldn’t, and those times were really hurtful for both of us in different ways. I wish I’d recognized that period as a developmental phase, and a totally right one. I tried hard not to be negative about him in front of her, but I did not always succeed. Like when she manifested some of his faults, it was really hard not to totally freak out. She DOES have some of his faults as an adult now; there are some things parenting can’t (and shouldn’t, actually) overcome. Also, she’s STILL not good at math. I had to learn, no matter how much I work at it, some things are just not in my control and my child is not going to be my version of perfect. And a good thing, too, because who she is now is way better than what I even COULD have visioned… Fortunately, it also turns out that I’m only part of the universe. My daughter turned out great, for a number of reasons: because some of what she inherited from him ISN’T shit; some of what she got from me WAS really good; and because she also has her OWN karma, strengths, challenges, abilities, experiences. Also we DID work through some of what he did to her, and to me, with the help of good therapy over the years.

    It doesn’t sound like you are falling into the “overresponsible for everything” trap I did, but I wanted to share my experience in case that was part of the stress. The times I could be less reactive were so much the best. They are few enough that I can count them, but they remain shining beacons of hope. It would have been worse without all the therapy, friends, advice columns, etc., for sure. I remember when she was about 6 me being worried about custody (because I had so little money and had lost like the 4th job for childcare reasons) and my neighbor said, offhand, “that guy couldn’t get custody of a lima bean”. Hee hee. Sometimes a little perspective helps. The law DOES favor men, especially solvent ones, but also the law favors keeping things as they are, stable, when possible. Mine has said to me he is sad that he doesn’t have a better relationship with the daughter we made, but I am clear that that isn’t MY fault. He knows it too. He DOES love her, and he DID give it what he could, which, it turns out, wasn’t too solid. Mine lives about 8 miles away, and shows up here from time to time still, but YAY! I don’t have to deal with it any more! “She’s not here, you have your number and she has yours, bye!” Or, if she’s here, she comes out and either spends a little polite time with him or makes a plan to do so, and sends him on.

    I do have a strong lawyer as executor of my Will, with instructions to protect anything she inherits. He will do it, because he has known us for decades, and he knows how to do this kind of thing.

    Stuff you have to think about that’s hard… sigh…

    1. I tried hard not to be negative about him in front of her, but I did not always succeed. Like when she manifested some of his faults, it was really hard not to totally freak out. She DOES have some of his faults as an adult now; there are some things parenting can’t (and shouldn’t, actually) overcome.

      As someone who experienced emotional parentification* I’m so glad you were aware of the problem and did your best to avoid doing it. It majorly EFFED.ME.UP to be the main person my mom vented to about my dad and right after seething about whatever had pissed her off, having her say, “and you do the same thing!” Or, “and you’re just like him!”

      * and thank you so much, Captain, for talking about that in one post. I had never heard of it but it’s exactly what my mom did. Talking about it with a therapist has helped so much.

  12. My theory is that, as your kids have gotten older and are closer to leaving home, he’s feeling what little control he has on you slipping away, LW, so this sudden “I am in loooove with you, we need to get back together” is his tactic for trying to get you back under his thumb.

    1. This feels awfully accurate to me. If the LW’s child is choosing colleges, so it’s likely that they are either close to or have reached their 18th birthday, so the ex may feel they’re losing that hold over the LW.

  13. I wonder… what would happen if you threw the package out (or sold the item, or whatever) and pretended like you never got it? This might not work with delivery confirmation… but on the other hand, people steal packages off of porches/doorsteps/etc. all the time. So you just never respond until he (inevitably) calls and asks about it, but there’s a lot of anxious waiting on his end first, and then you can claim utter ignorance. So then he’s forced to explain himself fully over the phone, at which point you can use all of those ‘not interested in you’ scripts.

    1. I was going to say this! I would get it, sell it, buy myself something awesome with his wasted cash, laugh to myself and then never mention the package to anyone ever again.

  14. Can you empower your kid to not have to deal with dad anymore? I don’t know what your custody arrangements mandate but can a teenager have other things to do that preclude spending time with dad? Can you give your teenager the space to be too busy to talk to him?

    Not to say that you should -prevent- your kid and their dad from talking, but it sounds like kid is not enjoying this relationship so giving them the same tools you use w/r/t being too busy to talk to him or other ways out may help you both.

    Empower your kid to set boundaries by making it clear that they are allowed to have them. Even and especially around manipulative Bad Ex.

  15. “They hate talking to him, but feel guilty not talking to him sometimes.”

    Man. If you haven’t, you might try telling your teen explicitly that it’s up to them whether they want to talk to him or not, and they don’t have to have conversations with him that they don’t want. That they can cut calls short or say they’re busy. Whenever school’s in session, a bland “well, gotta go, I have homework” is usually a quick exit from any unwanted socializing. Or a “can’t talk now, I have homework”. (This has the benefit that it’s practically always true, and thus usable even if they’re uncomfortable with lying.) When it’s not–maybe they can be generically “busy” (without giving any details about what they’re busy WITH), as in, “well, gotta go, I’ve got a lot of stuff to do” “blah blah too busy to talk to your old man?? busy with what?” “yeah I just got a lot of stuff to do, anyway, bye”.

    1. I came down into the comments basically to say this. I would highly recommend LW share with the teenager her strategy for screening Dad contact and make it clear that teen does not need to talk to him any longer/more often than they want to. IF they want to, this might be a good place for the Captain’s wonderful regularly scheduled (and time-limited) phone calls. Not only will these help teen control how much annoying Dad they have in their life, it will prep Teen for planning weekly conversations with LW once they go off to college/out into the world (in a good “let’s not lose touch” way).

      As for the gift, I’m a fan of the trash can or returning to sender with no comment made to the asshole ex.

    2. This is fully the father who is going to later say “I was so sad you didn’t include me in your college decision making” and also conveniently not offer to pay anything for college.

      I’m projecting, but the point is, if I were her mother, I’d give her full permission to cut off contact if the daughter wants to. Men like this are toxic. They are terrible fathers and they don’t get better. The earlier you can set boundaries, the earlier you can start to recovering from the damage and not carry it with you into adulthood.

      I know Moms are trying their best and have so much guilt around this, but with fathers like this, the earlier the daughter can cut the cord and see this person for who he is, the better she’ll be.

  16. Can I just say how GOOD it feels to do the whole “return to sender” thing when people cross boundaries. Despite the added expense, it feels even better when it’s not just a case of refusing to accept delivery but physically packaging up the received-but-unopened parcel together with a WTF? note and mailing it right back at them.

    I also second the importance of having your teenager’s back in terms of letting them know that they don’t have to talk to the other parent if they don’t want to, keeping their stuff private from the other parent unless they explicitly give permission to discuss it, and always talking directly with the other parent and not through your child. I’ve been through a similar situation with asshole ex who can still push everyone’s buttons at 15 years post-divorce when kid is now 24, and even at that age it means a lot to never feel as if they’re on their own in dealing with a manipulative or abusive parent.

    *Sorry to make this bit about me but I need to vent: latest drama from ex, aka Bread in the Freezer Guy, was just last weekend. Daughter asked if she could have his old fridge (oh, the irony) because the one in her share house had broken down, and he said sure and oh, by the way it’s lucky you asked, we’re knocking the house down any day now and you should probably also arrange to grab your stuff from your old room (like, thanks dad, for keeping me in the loop on your rebuilding plans for my childhood home /s). And managing to work a little dig at her into the conversation at the same time, “jokingly” asking her if she’d dented her car yet (about 6 months ago, just after she got her drivers licence and shortly before buying her first car, she had a minor collision in his current wife’s car; totally the other driver’s fault and insurance company paid out in full without charging her any excess, but she was very upset by the whole thing).

  17. One thing that was slightly unclear but that might make a big difference is whether the teenager or any siblings are under 18. I.e., is custody still a thing at all, or is that part of the LWs relationship with her ex blessedly over, and now we’re only talking about the relationship of parents of legally adult children?

    It sounds like the latter but I wasn’t 100% sure.

    It’s something to be considered in the best way to handle this.

    1. Since the LW says she’s looking forward to the day she can stop taking his calls, I’m fairly positive we’re talking about at least one legal minor among the children, necessitating at least some conversation until all the children are adults.

  18. I had an ex try something similar, only it was a so-called expensive present he’d so-called arranged for our son. I was to take this letter to the shop and see the manager and he’d give me whatever-it-was from stock. The whole thing smacked so much of manipulation that I just said no thanks, we weren’t interested; if he wanted our boy to have this item he could give it to him in person the next time he saw him.

    Guess what? It never materialised. I don’t believe the thing ever existed in the first place.

    I also made it a rule never to say anything about my ex to our boy as he was growing up, except occasionally to ask after his health. I don’t know if the ex did anything similar, but I doubt it. As a result my son grew up with a rather too rosy view of his poor misunderstood and mistreated father and that bugs me, but then I figure it’s really not his problem anyway – and if he has a decent relationship with his dad, despite having seen him at his worst, then I’m happy for him.

    However, my son has turned into an excellent father himself … and he certainly didn’t get his example from my ex!

  19. Been here, done this (without the kid). My off the cuff response to ex, which in hindsight worked beautifully, was
    “Sorry, I’m not comfortable accepting gifts from someone I’m not in a relationship with!”

    Which meant he either had to be direct and I could rebuff him similarly directly, or he had to accept me sending it back as we weren’t involved.

    (He had a sudden moment of courage and was straightforward, at which point I got to do the long pause of awkward, swiftly followed by “yeah, I’m not interested. As I’ve said. Stop asking.”)

  20. Seriously look into parallel parenting. Lots of information out there. You dont have a coparenting relationship with this man and your child would actually prefer to be in charge of their own relationship with their father. Put everything in writing. Have a routine or shedule with 48hrs notice in writing needed for any changes. Dont do their parenting emotional labour like giving a heads ups or reminders. He is a big boy! (Dad not teenager). They arent allowed to call or expect immediate responses except in genuine emergencies. Let them be in charge of their own parenting and brook no interference with yours. You can use an intermediary if he won’t respect your boundaries to keep things more businesslike (you just need someone who is willing to spam filter anything that is not a parental communication with a canned response). Under PP rules you could use apps like a calendar, you could simply package up or dispose of anything unsolicited like letters (or like a valentines present; that is not really unusual sadly) and return it back to him. Key thing is that you dont respond. The really golden rule is that you dont allow the child to be a messenger in any way so they can honestly say to their other parent “Dad she puts her fingers in her ears and walks away when your name is mentioned. I am supposed to discuss our relationship with you. Better use the email she gave you.”
    Too many men use coparenting as a little black book and it doesnt help anyone.

    1. Gods, I wish I’d heard of parallel parenting back when my parents got divorced. Probably wasn’t as much of A Thing back then, this was over 15 years ago. But man, my dad used the whole “coparenting” thing against my mom in innumerable manipulative, controlling ways over the years. (His definition of “coparenting” was “just agree with me so that I can say “we” are doing it this way, that’s coparenting, right?”) Would’ve been really nice for mom to have an alternative narrative to use against that.

      1. Oh sure. Not only do some men expect the woman to continue doing the lion’s share of parenting there’s a bizarre possessiveness even if they initiated the split. One of my friends told her husband mid divorce “You get child visitation rights, not ex wife visitation rights.”

  21. Great advice, and I’ll enjoy heart jewelry so much more now. I agree with Prakriti that the stock boring responses the Captain proposes are still a bit too “interesting”– lol maybe The Captain is too good a writer to do “boring” even when she tries? It really is difficult to formulate sentences with absolutely no “hook,” especially in real time. Doable, but freaking hard.

    Reading the scripts for the teenager I can imagine how nice it would be to have a supportive parent go through this stuff with you! I have a few things to add. When I was a kid being targeted by manipulative and bossy people, I was given the exasperated and extremely vague directive to “stick up for yourself!” and there was always a heaping helping of “why are you such a doormat, what is wrong with you.” That last bit is often unintentionally implied even in a lot of encouraging, well-intentioned advice. I hope the LW’s teenager comes away from the talk knowing that they’re armed with reasonable responses and permission to use them out and about in the world– not just with Dad– but also that the other person’s reaction to those reasonable responses is up to them. Dad is going to do what Dad is going to do. He’s an adult and they can’t “manage up.” It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you if the other person persists when you’ve already stated your piece. I’d also add to to scripts a nice boring “No Dad, I’m not going to relay that message. I’m not comfortable with that. This is between you and Mom.” And the good old response of literally walking away (into the kitchen or something). Teenagers know about storming out, but they’ve been conditioned for the last 15 or so years that they can’t calmly walk away from an adult, ever. And hey, LW, there’s also nothing wrong with YOU because of the way Ex is behaving after that “backfire.” Talking about the kids you co-parent and discussing an important issue (college anxiety) is totally reasonable; now you know Ex can’t handle it and you’ve got to stop, but you didn’t do anything wrong in the first place.

    Finally, if you haven’t already, maybe make it clear to your teenager exactly what you will and won’t discuss about them with their Dad from here on out, so they know what to expect. And maybe ask if there’s anything the kid needs you to communicate, in terms of sticking up for them, that they feel they can’t do themselves.

  22. Really feeling for you. This is such a shitty situation to have to deal with. I’ve had to deal with the manipulative gift more than once in my life, and it sucks, because on some level I felt guilty and hurtful for not accepting the gift. Then I felt furious that *I was feeling guilty and hurtful. Don’t fall into that trap. You’ve told your ex where you stand in regards to not wanting to get back together, ever. His insistence on ignoring that, and trying to up the ante with unwanted gifts, indicates that in all the years you’ve been apart, he hasn’t really grown or evolved at all. Hugs to you, and I hope the Captain’s advice can help you slough off your ex’s advances like dry skin.

  23. You can 100% have a policy: never accept gifts from people with whom you are Not Cool. Sending gifts is a clever trick from manipulative people because it lets them leapfrog over the difficult work of talking about feelings and behaviors to extract some socially-obligated closeness and good feelings. Forget that. When I get these gifts, I give no acknowledgements or thank-yous. I either return them or donate them or leave them on a shelf.

  24. I would also like to add: if you haven’t already, and if you think you can budget for it, consider finding a therapist for your teenager.

    As someone who has been in the middle of Two Parents, One Of Whom Is Manipulative (though, thank GOD, neither of whom wanted to get back together), my shoulders went up around my ears and I remembered the way my mom would always ask “Anything to report?” about my Dad (now she does it about my siblings. I HATE that phrase so much, because yes, it was meant very literally at the time, tho when I eventually tried to confront her about it and say that it made me uncomfortable, she laughed it off. …and then continued trying to suss out the best way to keep Dad from finding out that she was breaking terms of the custody agreement and ANYWAY….)


    It can be really helpful for a kid or teenager caught in the middle to have an adult who is Not Involved to talk to, especially if they’re dealing with one parent who is being manipulative and weird and they are Clearly Uncomfortable with it.

    Best of luck. It all sounds super awkward, but also like you are handling it really well.

    1. That’s a great point. if LW is friendly with any Cool Teacher, Cool Aunt, Cool Parent-of-kids-friends etc., maybe a heads up that kid might appreciate a friendly non-parently adult ear could be well placed.

  25. Also gonna add, and it seems like you’re already doing this, but just to say–definitely affirm teenagers feelings when their father messes with their heads. It can be a fine line to walk, sussing out the difference between: “Yeah, your parent is like that sometimes, you’re not wrong” and “Oh man, your parent is the worst, let me tell you about all the worst times with them.”

    But it’s another thing that’s really helpful. I can’t count the number of times my Dad has been there after my mom had thoroughly messed with my head to basically ungaslight me, to assure me that it’s all her, that she is like that, and that it’s not Something I Did, and no, she wasn’t right when she said that horrible thing.

    1. This is the one small thing I resent about my father. My mother was and is a violently toxic person who caused both of us a lot of misery. Among other things, she’d throw screaming, grunting, swearing, slamming, object-breaking temper tantrums, chase me into a corner to scream into my face, etc.

      Of course, if I cried or protested, I was being too sensitive. “People are allowed to get angry.”

      She did these things to my dad too, and I know he was incredibly upset and frustrated by it.

      But. For much, much longer than I should have done, I bought her crap. At first, of course, I interpreted most of her rages as my fault for doing something wrong; then I thought it was just normal anger that I was weak for not being able to handle; then I went through a time of feeling like she was a victim of her temper, like it was something I could help her overcome.

      All of which was crap. She only did these things when it was just family around, never with other people or in places where there could have been real consequences. When I was old enough that I no longer felt physically intimidated by her, she started threatening to kill herself instead, which at that point was enough to horrify and frighten me all over again. (And of course, once she was over the mood, I was belittled for taking her seriously.)

      Some time later, I came across an article on another topic entirely, which happened to mention that threatening to harm yourself in order to manipulate another person is considered by the goddamn *military* to be domestic abuse. It was a disproportionately huge revelation to me, one that finally got me to re-examine her behaviors in the light of ‘no, this is not normal, this is not okay, I am not the one who’s in the wrong here’.

      I was in my early twenties.

      It would have been a hell of a help if, long before then, someone had sat me down and told me that. There’s a lot of feeling isolated and self-disgusted and miserable that maybe wouldn’t have happened. And my dad was the only one who knew what was going on. It should have been his job to do that.

      He was otherwise an amazing parent who I love and miss with all my heart, and the fact that I hold even this one aspect of bitterness against his memory is just something else to hurt over.

      tl;dr: Yes, un-gaslighting is an incredible gift.

  26. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. May I recommend Swiftrolling? It’s a bit like Rickrolling, except whenever you get an email or a text from him, you respond with a link to Taylor Swift singing “We are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

  27. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned from dealing with manipulative family is, “You don’t have to make a decision now.” One night I came home to find an unexpected and unwanted gift on my porch from relatives I deliberately never shared my address with. I tied myself in knots trying to figure out the best way to respond. Should I return it? Acknowledge it? Am I setting myself up for a neverending argument with people who believe they are entitled to do this kind of thing because faaaaaaamily? What course creates the least drama?

    Then I thought back to my therapy sessions and focused on what would make me happy. Did I want this gift? No. Did I want to encourage this behavior in the future? No. I tossed the gift and didn’t acknowledge it. No response is a response.

    LW, it’s good to think about your options when it comes to this unwanted gift. However, don’t feel bound by any decisions you make now. You might settle on a plan, and then once the box arrives, think, “You know what, screw it,” and dump it in the trash. Or put it in a corner because you’re not 100 percent sure of your plan now. All that is valid. I know your ex is trying to entangle your child, but ultimately this gift nonsense is between you and him. Do what brings you peace and happiness.

  28. The reply here was great, as usual.

    It sounds like this guy is perhaps realizing that, as his kid gets older and leaves the house, he’s no longer going to have ties to the LW. He sees that she’ll finally be free of him and he’s getting upset about that. Or, he’s going through some midlife crisis where he’s realizing that he’s messed up every relationship that he’s had and now he’s worried about what his life will be like when he’s old and alone.

    Either way, these feelings are not the LW’s to sort out. Having kids with a guy doesn’t obligate her to be his fallback for the rest of her life.

    Whenever he talks about his feelings, she should reply by talking about her feelings (or lack of feelings for him). If he’s trying to make her responsible for managing how he feels, she can just remind him that she has her own feelings to deal with and exit the conversation. Him: “I love you so much! I can’t go on like this!” Her: “I don’t feel the same way. I have a casserole in the oven and I have to go.”

  29. Ugh. The gross, grasping ickiness of an ex trying to reconnect in an effort to make sure there is always someone around who has to deal with his crap. I know it well.

    My (evil, abusive) ex once gave me a hideous ruby pendant, ring, bracelet and earring set. That he had already given to his last (victim) girlfriend and then retrieved from her when (she escaped) the relationship ended. He bragged about having saved money on gifts by bullying her into giving it back.
    This was the same Christmas when he gave me a pair of shoes that was four sizes too big and a set of cups his other (victim) ex gave him. As his ex girlfriend, I should be honored by his attention, no?

    This guy showed up on Christmas with his boxes of crap (wrapped by his mom) and acted like he was magnanimously doing me a huge favor by taking me back. Ummmm… NOPE!

    I just sat there by the Christmas tree with a quizzical look on my face and asked him why he was giving me all his old, leftover crap as a gift. Was he cleaning out his closet? WTF?

    These shoes are huge! Are they clown shoes? I don’t need more cups, thanks. I live in the dorm. No room. Oh, and I don’t like jewelry and never wear it and am allergic to most metals, so please take this with you when you leave right now!

    Actually, I didn’t say any of that (I wish!). I just raised my eyebrow and gave him a baffled look. At the time, I was terrified that he would get violent. Now, it is one of my fondest memories of the relationship, because he was totally flummoxed by my confused indifference to his boxes of crap.

    Ex gathered up his garbage and sort of ducked out of the room, as if trying to avoid attracting notice. He had embarrassed himself, and it was awesome.

    About 2 weeks later, he cornered my sister at the grocery store so he could mournfully sigh, “She could have been my wife if she had played her cards right.”

    Sis and I had a good laugh about that later. It was nice when the abusive ex who was usually able to scare the crap out of me, like my own personal Pennywise the clown, became instead someone I could laugh at, like… not a clown? because clowns creep me out.

    Stay strong, OP! You are awesome, and his stupid, sparkly crap gifts have no power over you. His triangulation bullshit will not defeat your knowingly raised eyebrow, sigh of mild annoyance and true, utter disinterest in his shenanigans! If you can just refuse the packages of crap, so much the better. Hopefully, your ex will leave your teenager alone when he realizes that passing messages through other people is not getting him anywhere and is making him look like even more of an asshole. The Captain’s scripts are great for this. Jedi hugs if you want, and also a (very gentle as my hands hurt) Jedi fist-bump of solidarity.

  30. Neither of my parents were as bad as this guy, but after they divorced, they did try to pass messages through me. I am forever glad that I set a firm boundary right away. I believe I often said things like “You two are adults right? Just call [other parent]!” or “Why should I? You have the phone number.”

  31. Ugh. I hate those “every kiss begins with Kay” ads, as if men have to buy women’s affections. The stereotypes of women as gold digger/prostitute are disgusting.

  32. If he sends you a package that must be signed for, in the US Postal Service, there is an option on our scanners for “refused”.

    Source:. Am a Letter Carrier.

  33. Oh my very dear Letter Writer, you are already doing well because your teenager feels OK confiding in you about this nonsense. My parents divorced when I was six, and moved to different countries, and my mum did her best to maintain an amicable and accommodating relationship with her ex/my dad, for the sake of us kids. Therefore she did not want to encourage us to complain about him, and would say things like ‘but he’s your father and he loves you! You need to have a relationship with him!’

    Unfortunately by the time I was 14

    – sorry, this is GROSS –

    my dad was trying to ‘enlist’ me as his ally in either a) getting him back with my mum DESPITE THE FACT THEY WERE BOTH REMARRIED, or b) to try and make my mum jealous by trying to get me to tell her all sorts of anecdotes about how great and sexy (I said it was gross) his relationship with his new wife was, and how nice and sweet and good his new wife was, and how my mum was missing out on all this awesome sexiness (eurgh) by not being nice and sweet and good herself. I would have rather pulled out my eyeteeth than tell any of this to my mum, especially as I’d been trained to think of complaining about my dad as wrong and disloyal. Unfortunately this meant I couldn’t tell my mum or indeed any other adult just how disgusting and borderline abusive my dad was being, and I really wish I had had an adult to confide in, who could’ve reassured me this was not OK, and not normal, and not my problem, and I absolutely did not have to sit there and listen to my dad saying all this stuff. I’m sure my mum would’ve been horrified if she’d known, but she had no way of knowing as she’d (with the best intentions) made it impossible for teenage-me to tell her.

    As an adult, this dynamic persisted. Dad would get drunk and start telling me how much he loved my mum, she was the only woman in the world for him, she had broken his heart, why couldn’t she give him another chance, the cold-hearted money-grabbing cow, etc., all this with his current (and very lovely) wife making us dinner in the next room. It took me until my 30s to realise, not that this was creepy (I knew that at 14), but that I didn’t have to listen to another damn minute of it.

    1. GROSS.
      I hope you have pushed your father back into his sewer and locked the cover, and that you’ve been able to rid yourself of his slime.

      1. My dad is occasionally vociferously surprised that not one of his kids really wants to have much of a relationship with him or see him above once a year. Mmm hmm.

    2. My father was sexually abusive to me when I was a child but many of the incidents I carry the most shame about now are the incidents in my twenties, like these, when he met his new gf and used me to manipulate my mother and be a gf. I was not skilled enough at that point to call it out so I unwillingly participated in a lot of icky stuff. It’s hard to forgive myself.

      My father would delight in telling me the ‘sex in the backseat’ details of his new post divorce relationship and then implore me not to tell my mother. He alternated between self pity that the woman he loved had kicked him out to denigrating her for not being a good ‘affectionate’ wife. He began abusing his new gf, starting fights about her weight and trying to give her makeovers. When they fought, he’d come to me for ‘advice.’ His new gf was a poor single mum in debt, with zero self esteem, he acted like the Doolittle to her Eliza, and I hated him for being so mean.

      While he did this, he’d claim that new gf was jealous of me because was beautiful like my mother so when he took me out to the dinners he insisted on, it had to be a ‘secret.’ I hated seeing him. My mother spent a year or two insisting my father commit to spending time with me thinking I needed a parent child relationship with him and she was a bad parent for letting divorce impact on our time together (she didn’t know about the abuse.)

      Years later, I can see that the gf; who is now his wife, had no chance to know me except through triangulation. I couldn’t warn her about him and if anything, I played into the rivalry my father set up; he implied that the gf sensed our father daughter relationship was too close and that she might know about the sexual abuse in my childhood and had chosen my father’s company anyway. I hadn’t told anyone about the abuse and was terrified what would happen if anyone knew. He encouraged new gf to be mean to me (she banned me from keeping a toothbrush at their house even though my parents had decided I had to sleep there one night a week. She would give me crappy gifts on Xmas and give her kids fancy ones, she refused to let me a cheap rollmat to sleep on when we went on a camping holiday and my tent pitch was hard and rocky.) I let my father manipulate me into seeing her as the enemy.

      I wish I could have protected his New gf from the evil house of bees and that I had been protected from his predatory behaviour. My father abused my mother, me and is abusing her. I wish I had the words and a safe person to have told. The next time I see her will probably be when my father dies and seeing her having wasted her life on an abusive assume will be fucking sad.

  34. Unlurking to say: your advice is gold, as always. Also gold? Your descriptions of the jewelry. I have been puzzled by that line for years.

    1. This is my first introduction to the Jewelry of Two Butts Stuck Together. If I had to learn of it, I’m glad it was with the Captain’s tutelage.

  35. Great advice. The only thing that I would add is, while telling your teen that it’s okay *not* to share what dad says, I think it’s okay to add that it may be worth telling the teen that it is okay to talk about dumb things dad did. The teen may need that outlet to vent. It doesn’t *have* to be with mom, but if mom is one of the safe trusted people for the child, then she’s a safe space for them to not have to hold things in. It varies based on the person, but kids with difficult families don’t always want to talk to their friends about dysfunctional stuff happening at home. (Despite how cool it is to vent about your parents, at that age, it’s usually about “normal” stuff, like parents nagging you to do homework.)

    And then if the teen *does* share something, mom can treat it as a situation to support the teen, not as a message from the ex. So, ignoring the content of the message, as Captain Awkward says, since it’s not a direct communication from ex, mom can still listen to teen, if teen needs to vent about “Why is dad so messed up?” And it’s not like the mom has to badmouth the dad, but mom can validate for the teen that it’s frustrating to be put in the middle. And, of course, as the captain said, be supportive of the fact that the teen is not responsible for their dad’s behaviour, and the mom will never blame the teen, whether or not they choose to share this kind of information in the future.

    There’s this general advice, which I do like, that says you should never badmouth your ex to your shared children. At the same time, though, I think it’s important, if you see really toxic behaviour, to have one adult who really validates that the child is not going insane if they think their toxic parents’ behaviour is messed up.

    1. Yeah, that, “Don’t badmouth the ex,” advice assumes both reciprocity (everyone is acting in good faith and not badmouthing each other) and, more importantly, that the ex in question is not being actively harmful, especially to the child/ren, but even to people in general. If your ex is a cannibalistic serial murderer, you’re doing something wrong if you DON’T object to that behavior (extreme example, of course, but the point is that there are limits to that guideline). Don’t lay your OWN problems with an ex on any kids you may have, but by all means acknowledge things that are generally objectionable or any mistreatment of your kids.

  36. I think it may be a good idea for the LW to suggest some meetings with a counselor for their kid(s) if possible. What a parent thinks a teenager needs, might not be exactly what they actually need, and “you don’t have to talk to your dad about these things” could be heard as “I don’t want you to talk to your dad about things”, even when that’s not the intention. A neutral third party could help the teenager determine their own boundaries, and communicate them to Dad.

    I think the LW is doing a great job of dealing with a jerk ex, and sounds like a great parent, but I also remember being a teenager and completely misinterpreting my parents’ words. A counselor may help prevent the teen feeling like they’re caught in the middle.

  37. I noticed this:
    Since he heard that I had to leave my most recent long-term relationship quite hastily for safety issues,

    And of course, there’s this:
    I always try to shift any conversations that get personal back to talking about the children we have in common.

    That tactic recently backfired, leading to my teenager getting frustrated with me for talking about them with their father at all.

    As you work your way forward, you and your teen would probably benefit from putting Dad on an absolute starvation diet for information.
    Just make a rule–Teen never discusses you with dad, and role play ways to make that a reality.
    You never discuss teen with dad–anything teen wants dad to know, teen must tell. Think through where that might take you–if teen gets arrested, does dad need to know? If so, he sure doesn’t need to know it immediately, so you have time to negotiate w/ teen and plan how dad will be told (try to make it not be you who tells dad).

    1. I always try to shift any conversations that get personal back to talking about the children we have in common.

      I think the tactic for these conversations should be to END THEM, not to shift them back to talking about the kids. Because then you find yourself sharing things that make it awkward for the kids.

      Also, ending the conversation immediately when he gets personal has two possible positive effects:
      (1) it doesn’t reward him with your attention, so he does it less
      (2) it gets you OUT of the conversation rapidly, and you don’t have to be in touch with him for a single second longer!

  38. I might consider selling the jewelry and putting the money in Teen’s college fund. And then never mentioning it and making Ex ask about it. That way he gets the discomfort AND it ends up benefiting Teen in a way he never intended.

    1. ‘I might consider selling the jewelry and putting the money in Teen’s college fund. ‘

      I looked at some of the Jewelry the captain linked to… ~$94-$195 range. You’re going to get maybe half a college credit for that, where I live.

      1. “Three quarters of a textbook” is still a better use than “emotional manipulation” though! 😁

  39. Your local DV/IPV survivor orginizations’ advocates can also be really, really wonderful resources here too. (Speaking from personal experience.)

    This kind of behavior from your ex sure seems like whatwecall post-separation abuse to me too. Based on what you wrote in your letter you have already recognized it as such, and you are RIGHT! I see it to! It is totes bullshirt of your ex to even try It! [Insert velociraptor noises here]

    YES they absolutely keep helping even once you are away! Post-separation abuse is a major issue. You are not alone in this. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224 or https://www.thehotline.org): they will absolutely help by text, chat, or phone with direct resources for helping you and [helping you help your] kids navigate the bullshirt of an abusive parent trying to play them as pawns. The kids can also call/text/chat with them (and refuse to give details, if needed) to ask questions.

    Similarly, your local DV Survivor resources (which the national hotline can help you access) are likely to be super extra helpful: They get to know the specifics for both you and your kids, and they know the ins and out of your geographic area’s laws and family court clusters. I’ve asked my local orginization’s advocates anything from “is this [oddly specific thing] really as horrible as I think it is or am I overreacting?” to “I am worried my ex might try to [specific action], what do I do now?” to “How do I navigate this [particular generally mundane but confusing situation] in a healthy way with normal non-abusive people?”. Being a survivor has longterm and wide reaching impacts on our lives. The advocates are trained and want to help however and whenever they can. Always.

    Please know that even if trying to figure out what to do with the UnwantedThingsDump in the middle of February may not initially seem like a thing that falls into “Safety Planning”, IT TOTALLY IS safety planning. The wonderful advocates at the Hotline or [YourLocalSurvivorAdvocacyOrg] can 100% support you here.

    (Delightful side note: Depending on the situation, you may even be able to donate whatever it is to a local DV/IPV organization. Somehow taking abusive ex’s UnwantedThingsDump and turning it into a donation to fun a DV/OPS survivor group is forking hilariously perfect in my mind here. But also?)

    You can do whatever you want, LW. I believe in you. I see you, hear you, and I support you.

    Because each survivor must do their own thing, in their own time, and in their own way. Keep being awesome. (You are awesome, btw.)

    1. ‘YES they absolutely keep helping even once you are away! Post-separation abuse is a major issue. You are not alone in this. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224 or https://www.thehotline.org): they will absolutely help’

      *needs upvote button*

  40. As I was reading this message, my thoughts were the same as the Captain’s but in a shorter version:
    Do Nothing
    – if you get no present, you are winning. Do nothing
    – if you are there when it arrives, do not sign, it will go back. Do nothing
    – if it goes to Depop, ignore it. Do nothing.
    – if it somehow ends up in your house, ignore it. Do not ask your ex about it. Do nothing.

    If he asks you about it, just reply with vague generalities. “Why would I think it’s from you. Would you actually send a valentines gift?”

    The less you engage the better. He wants attention and any attention will be reward for him. Just let him do the work, the questions, the conversations. Do not engage in emotional Labour.

    A gift is exactly that: a gift. Not an obligation. If your ex sees it differently (he does), let him do the work to figure it out (he won’t, people like that are cowards).

    1. :Wild Applause:

      “Do less” is my 2019 recommendation for all difficult relationships. “Do nothing” is the purest form of “less”!

    2. “I do not want a relationship with you and I am not going to change my mind. Please do not contact me unless it is about our child.”

  41. I had an abusive ex, that I have a child with who turned 18 a couple years ago. While my ex didn’t do anything exactly like the scenario (no jewelry) he did do a lot of weird triangulating stuff and stuff that was either trying to get me back together with him, or start a fight between me and his new wife.

    I like the Captain’s advice as far as it goes, and I agree you are doing the right thing in screening your calls.

    I’d also take it one step further, and move to email only communication as much as possible. Even if he calls, and it seems somewhat important, respond with an impersonal business-like email. Make all visitation arrangements over email, and keep emails as brief and to the point and emotionless as possible. Limit discussion of your child with him to logistical stuff like visitations, doctors visits – anything that you absolutely have to communicate with him about, and even those discussions keep it super short and emotionless.

    Basically the goal is to become as boring as possible to communicate with, so he’ll take this toxic behavior designed to rile you up somewhere else. Trying to tell abusers their behavior isn’t appropriate really did not work in my experience, it just gave him something to argue with me about, and he’d feed on the arguing and the attention. Better to communicate as little as possible – because this guy, if he’s anything like my ex, and from the description he seems to be – he’d feed on the attention of his behavior making me upset. He’d feed on hearing the emotions in my voice if I’d speak to him on the phone. Cold impersonal emails take that reward away and give him nothing to feed off of.

    Also I’m really sorry you are dealing with this. I know how much it sucks. Jedi hugs if you want them.

  42. And as far as the present, which I realize I’d forgotten to write about in my earlier comment, I’d just quietly donate it. Sending it back gives him something to feed off of. Saying something to him gives him something to feed off of. Just donate it, or get rid of it, and let it be a black hole, so he doesn’t get to feed off of the attention he gets from your reaction.

    1. Dear Harpy,

      Both your posts have excellent suggestions that will work well. I wish that I’d had, or thought of them, years ago when I needed them. Live and learn!

      Wishing you, the Captain, and other Awkwardeers peace and happiness, on Valentine’s Day!

  43. Love the Captain’s excellent advice. The only thing i’d add is you might also check out Chump Lady, an advice blogger entirely focused on dealing with situations of this and similar natures.

  44. As a now adult who was solely responsible for communicating inter-state travel flight arrangement between two parents for myself and my brother from age 8 to 18 and beyond (they still haven’t spoken and I’m now 34), these are great scripts to keep your kid out of the middle. You’re doing him a huge favor by nipping this in the bud, OP. Good work!

  45. I’d like to double-down on the Captain’s advice to not worry about the present until you actually see it in your mailbox – because in my experience there are non-zero odds that he won’t even send anything. I’ve had shitty partners in the past who used the promise of presents to manipulate; either it’s the low low bar of “well, I THOUGHT about sending you a gift, and it’s the thought that counts, so it doesn’t actually matter that I never got around to shopping or mailing it and I got your hopes up for nothing! You’re just ungrateful!” Or else it’s the also shitty but more intentionally cruel “I want to crawl inside your brain and live there while you stress out for a month about this thing that I’m not even going to do, or while you get excited and check the mailbox every day and look forward to something nice that you’ll never actually get!” The only way to win this game is not to play.

    1. Agreed! I mean, I like bling butts and I cannot lie, but it’s just not in my budget for this month. I’ve already allocated that money towards my collection of velvet paintings of Elvis.

  46. Damn it, I clicked on a couple of the Butt Jewelry links just to see what you were talking about and now I’m being followed around the internet by flying angel butts.

    This is either the best or worst thing that’s happened to me this week.

    1. Me too! Every ad on my work computer is for butt jewelry, and the one that looks like a vagina with a diamond in the middle.

    2. I’m so glad I used incognito mode for the butts. A good rule for butt photos in general, really!

  47. Ugh, I’m related to one of these, plus or minus a fair amount of whiny passive-aggression. I’ve found the captain’s approach to difficult relatives very helpful in freeing me from that lingering sense that I’m obligated to do various kindnesses for someone who’s only ever treated me badly, just because we’re related. I recommend them to the teenager in this scenario too.

  48. This is all very good advice as usual.

    But he’s not going to send the present. He already gaslit you by telling the kids, who he knew would tell you. He’s achieved the desired outcome of stressing you out (I’m very sorry about that) and now he can close out the trifecta by not even following through.

    Do your very best to ignore him, except if your kids are in danger. Luckily for you (and sadly for them) they are on to him and the damage is already done. You don’t need to put up with this anymore – and once the kids are grown up, you should gently let them know that they don’t either. Hang in there.

    1. Even better, he’ll tell you all about how he refrained from sending it out of his marvelous sensitivity to your feelings since he wasn’t sure how you felt about it.

      These guys all have a common playbook.

  49. LW, this is definitely the time to speak to your local jurisdiction’s domestic violence office if there is one, and/or speak to a hotline and get steered to the right resources. You’ve got a stalker ramping up who knows where you live and who has power over your child to use as leverage. That is what those hotlines and offices are for — they know stalking is a form of women and children not being safe in their homes and they have expertise in dealing with it.

    What’s more, the local ones know the judges and police locally and can walk you through exactly what records to keep NOW to build enough paperwork early so that this can be headed off sooner rather than later.

    I’ve told my story on previous CA posts about invoking the help of my county domestic violence hotline and office to deal with a stalker. It was great — for one thing, these are people who will instantly get your story when you tell it, so you don’t have to struggle hard to explain why things are creepy and problematic. Someone gave up a couple of hours of their Saturday when I called, listened to my whole story, asked good questions, and helped me formulate plans and pick a first option. I left that first call not only knowing exactly what records to keep and what to do next, but with the full confidence that there were solid other options if my next attempt at shutting the stalker down did not work.

    I think you don’t want to lose another day because there is a minor child getting dragged into this. With luck, your county or other jurisdiction can assign a social worker or other case worker to make it clear that Official Eyes Are Watching and ol’ stalky-pants had better settle the hell down.

  50. “I mean, you’d never actually try to get our kid to be your wingman, right? That’s just silly!”

    Naming the strategy, and calling it silly.
    All the love.

  51. Oh no! I clicked on the butt-jewelry links in your article, and now my targeted ads are full of butt necklaces!

  52. Great advice as usual. I got a real chuckle out of your description of that awful jewelry. Truer words have seldom been uttered!

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