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Unresolved Hurt Even After
Step Children Have Moved Out

QUESTION: I have been married to a wonderful man for two years and am a stepmother to his four kids (ages 12-20). I do not yet have children of my own. For two years before we were married, we lived together with his two older teenage sons, with the younger kids visiting every other weekend. I have always felt that my husband puts his children's wishes before my needs--he never asked them to say "hello" to me, never asked them to help keep the house picked up, let them make all the noise they want, let them insult my cooking, and let them take over the living room/dining/kitchen area with their noise. When it got to where I would just leave rather than put up with their foul language, rudeness and loudness, he finally began to ask them to act more civilly.

Now the kids are out of the house and rarely visit, but I still feel that we need to talk about what happened in those two years before and first year after we were married. I'm still angry with him for not asking them to be civil to me earlier, for never admitting that any of his kids' behavior might have been inappropriate, and also for talking about his kids, to the exclusion of talking about the two of us, during our wedding ceremony when he read his self-written vows.

He thinks I am dwelling on the past and being negative because these things are not happening on a daily basis now. I feel that there is a lot of unresolved hurt that needs to be healed. He won't read anything I give him on stepfamilies and doesn't want to see a counselor. I love him very much and want to strengthen our marriage. What can I do?

ANSWER: The two most important predictors of success in blending families is the quality of the relationship between stepparent and stepchild and the strength of the couples' bond. You are feeling the inevitable fall-out in the marriage of your husband's lack of alignment with you as a partner. By remaining primarily sensitive to his children, he not only hurt the marriage, but failed to protect them from the possibility of yet another family dissolution.

Over half of all remarriages end in divorce, largely due to a lack of knowledge of healthy stepfamily development. It is natural for biological parents to have protective feelings about their children. However, all too often the natural parent makes the mistake of assuming he (or she) must come between the spouse and children and play mediator. Rather than mediating differences between spouses about children privately within the boundary of the couple relationship.

Much needs to be worked through in blending two different individual styles which is indeed more complex when one parent has a history with children and the new spouse may not have had any experience even raising children. You may feel disturbed by the sounds of children in the house, while your husband believes noise to be an inevitable aspect of family life with kids. However, to be included as a partner, the two of you must talk through these differences to an appropriate compromise. This is the task of becoming a stepfamily...to work through these conflicts in the couples' relationship. And it is the biological parent's job to support and show alignment in decision-making with his/her spouse. Only the natural parent can show the children that this new spouse stands by hisher side and establish a place of equality in the partnership.

Children benefit from the generational boundary that respects the joint leadership of two adults. And they, too become more secure in the blended family. This does not mean that the stepparent should step in and parent in the form of disciplining and caretaking. In fact, it is best if this level of responsibility occur gradually, but the strength of the couples' bond must be recognized and respected, if such responsibilities or even the potential for a healthy relationship between stepparent and stepchild can develop.

At this point in your marriage you are suffering the consequences of a lack of boundary around the couples' relationship from the day of your wedding. No wonder you are upset! Your husband was likely confused rather than intending to hurt you in the past, but it is important that he understand the nature of your experience of exclusion in the family. Each day this exclusion continues further damages your relationship.

It is time for your husband to stop defending his position or deflecting your feelings because the children no longer live at home, and deal directly with your experience. You have a chance of saving the relationship if he is able to truly empathize with what your second class citizenship was like in the family. Acknowledging a mistake in not supporting your position as his partner and an apology would be a beginning. However, it will also be necessary to make changes, including talking with the children now about the misalignment of loyalties that took place. For in order to change your position in the family and begin to have genuine blending and inclusion, your husband will have to take the lead in placing you beside him in the family.

Practically speaking, your inclusion in the family means a change in behavior that comes from genuine understanding and bonding around these issues, that did not happen previously. This could result in small behaviors, like your spouse explaining to adult children that he will have to check with you about scheduling commitments with them, to conscious and deliberate recognition thanking you for your contributions to the family in front of them. Naturally both of these or other actions need to arise from genuine understanding which could follow from communicating and resolving these feelings, even at this late date.

And remember that these patterns and relationships continue throughout your lifetimes. These feelings will recur at later points in the lifecycle, even though your stepchildren have left home. Seek a realignment of the couple relationship, before adding another child to the blend. For whatever parental conflict you had before, you will no doubt have again, including the possibility of warring factions and triangulating children in the marriage.

Let your husband know that these feelings are not going to go away. Invite him to be a part of the solution in working on the marriage to become a strong couples' team. Maintaining his position of further dividing the two of you by being unwilling to consider your needs will cause further alienation.

Though apology is in order, there is much more work to be done to realign your couple's relationship. Ask for your husband's help in creating a marriage that reflects the equality necessary to a healthy partnership.


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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