I don’t know how your divorce and subsequent remarriage affected your daughter, but in ways you may not have realized, she got hurt. Although she was a bridesmaid at your wedding and “seemed accepting” of the situation, there’s a good chance that her feelings ran deeper. Often in these situations, parents want so badly for their kids to be okay with what’s going on (because, let’s face it, for you, your new marriage was a happy event) that they don’t see what’s happening beneath the surface with their children. Your daughter likely tried, in her college-age way, to let you know she was upset about something, and if she didn’t feel heard then, you’re going to have to hear her now.
To hear her, you’ll need to acknowledge that the two of you have what therapists call separate realities. Parents, for example, tend to believe that they acted in the best interests of their children, while the children may feel that their parents failed to do just that. Both “realities” are valid because they’re simply two perspectives on the same situation. Separate realities are a normal part of any relationship—including between spouses or siblings or friends—and relationships go more smoothly when each person can see some truth in the other’s reality. But there’s a caveat: When it comes to children who are hurting—including adult children such as your daughter—it’s a parent’s job to make the effort to see the child’s reality first.
That’s why your contact with your daughter over the years, though well meaning, has probably felt a bit tone-deaf to her. By sending annual holiday cards and asking “once or twice” in the course of two decades about her interests and concerns, you’ve shown that you’re thinking about her; but by giving short shrift to the elephant in the room—directly acknowledging that you’ve hurt her—you’ve created the impression that you don’t care about her inner world (a perception that likely led her to cut off contact in the first place). Of course, it’s hard for most parents to hear how they disappointed their kids, especially if they tried their absolute best, but unless you can see how you contributed to her feelings of anger or hurt, nothing will change between you. Right now the only way she can communicate her pain to you is by inflicting it on you in return—with her distance. But once you’re able to receive this message by other means—by understanding what she’s gone through—the indirect message becomes unnecessary.
You can start with a sincere apology. A sincere apology is heartfelt and empathic and entirely about the person receiving it. A letter in this spirit might go something like this: “I owe you an apology, and I wish I’d offered it much sooner. I know that I’ve hurt you deeply, and I’m truly sorry for that. I would like to know more about your experience, because I’ve come to realize that I failed to see earlier that I put you through a lot of pain. You may be so hurt and distrusting of me that you don’t want to open up lines of communication, but I want you to know that I love you deeply and I’m committed to really listening to you and hearing you in a way I should have long ago. One idea I have is that maybe we could talk about some of this, at least initially, with a therapist of your choice. Of course, I love and miss you very much, but I also want to respect where you are. I hope that at some point you’ll be willing to talk with me about this. Whatever you decide, I want you to know that I’m starting to see my role in your pain, and am so sorry for it.”