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
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
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.