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Unable to Love my Stepchild:
Is my Marriage Doomed?

QUESTION: I have been married for six months. My wife has two kids from a previous marriage. We are currently separated because of the children. I don't have any kids of my own so I don't have any parenting instincts. Should a marriage end because of my inability to love my spouses' child?

ANSWER: It is not an "inability to love" your stepdaughter presently that is problematic to your marriage. Liking her is enough for now. Instead, reflect on your willingness to accept a share of the responsibility for her development. In fact, it is the nature of your ongoing care and commitment to your stepchild's welfare that creates the potential for feelings of "love" to develop.

Your wife is right to expect and require you to address the needs of your stepdaughter. After all, you are an adult and you made the choice to marry a woman with children.

But stop short of any expectation for "instant love" that you or your wife may foster. Instead, take it slow, and be willing to develop your parenting skills over time. Your wife has had nine months of pregnancy and two years of caring for her daughter which you have not experienced.

You are right to expect and require that "couples" time be carved out to strengthen and nourish the marriage. A strong bond, as well as a good relationship between stepparent and stepchild are the best statistical predictors for success in your marriage.

Start by taking an honest look at your situation. Are you part of the solution or a part of the problem? For example, do you initiate responsibility for finding an appropriate baby-sitter when you want to go out with your wife, or merely complain to her about not getting out? Do you setup an atmosphere at home for an enjoyable "date" after your stepdaughter has gone to bed, or do you wait for your wife to create these opportunities?

Have you developed some shared activities or caretaking responsibilities that would allow for bonding with your stepdaughter, such as reading stories regularly, playing with her or comforting her when she cries? Do you know what developmental tasks your two-year-old will face in the next six months, or do you expect your wife to consider and respond to caretaking issues alone?

Ask your wife to discuss and work toward a vision of family rather than continue this separation. This is your family, too. Step up to the plate of responsibility as a spouse and as a stepparent. Then request that your wife do the same.

The most common reason for failure in remarriages is the lack of knowledge about the normal stages of stepfamily development.

The key to success in your marriage lies in togetherness and teamwork. Striking a balance between parenting and carving out couples' time is a dilemma all families with young children face. Stepfamilies are no exception.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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