I married a lovely man a little under a year ago. We’ve been together for several years, but we did not live together until about a year before we wed. He has two children from his previous marriage who are with us every other week. The relationship with his ex was very adversarial for a while, in part due to the fact that she continued to hold hopes for marital reconciliation well beyond the point where we started to date. Now they just don’t speak, and they exchange only cursory emails about kid activities.
I have a good relationship with my 15-year-old step-son, and I have rather gracefully fallen into the role my husband and I hoped for with him. I am not a mommy-replacement (she was stay-at-home, hyper-involved in school activities, worked only part time, etc.) but am, instead, another adult in his life who can inform, influence, and guide in a positive way. I was delighted recently when he sought my opinion on high school classes in order to get into the program he wants in university.
As graceful as I have been with my step-son, I am positively graceless with my 12-year-old stepdaughter. We had a reasonable relationship at first, but that soured as soon as her mother learned my husband and I would live together. At that point, his ex told my husband that the children were so unhappy with the idea of living in the same house as I that they needed counseling. They went to two sessions each before the counselor discharged them with a clean bill of mental health.
Since we married, I have been subject to a litany of “you can’t tell me what to do’s” from my step-daughter, and I have just recently been told by her brother that her mother reinforces disrespectful treatment of me through comments while they are with her. For example, my step-daughter has been told that decisions about who is picking up whom from what sports practice should be between her and her father as I “shouldn’t get a vote in anything that [she] does.” I often feel that she and her father make the plans and then delegate tasks to me, based on what my step-daughter wants. She has also recently advised us that she wants to start spending three weeks a month at her mother’s, which has resulted in my husband feeling very guilty and capitulating even more often.
The consequence of all of that is that I have (perhaps not maturely) withdrawn from her and it’s driving a wedge between my husband and me. I no longer ask her to do any of the “girl things” because I don’t want to reinforce what I see as negative and dismissive conduct towards me. For all intents and purposes, I look like the hands-off boyfriend in the original letter. If you were to look at a snapshot of our family on any given evening, you would see her trying to draw her father’s attention exclusively and endlessly and her brother and I wandering away in frustration. When I make a conscious choice to involve myself, she withdraws completely – often leaving the room or retreating into her technology so as to not even acknowledge my existence.
My husband suggests I ignore the behavior and ask her to do things anyway to forge a relationship – basically go over the top to prove her mother wrong about me. I don’t want to do so as rewarding bad behavior is counter-intuitive to me and, quite frankly, the refusals when I have extended an invitation sting far more than I care to admit. I counter by suggesting that my husband needs to make very clear, small points to his daughter that the way she is treating me is unacceptable and that she must be called on it every time it happens.
Do you have any thoughts? — Not Really a Wicked Stepmother
Well, first of all, you are NOT like the boyfriend in the letter you reference from last week. You may feel you are abandoning efforts in bonding with your step-daughter, but you are clearly thoughtful about this relationship and care where things are headed. I’m not sure the same can be said for the boyfriend from the other column.
For advice on your particular situation, I contacted a good friend of mine who is not only a psychologist in private practice, but is also the mother of a 12-year-old girl. I thought she could have particularly helpful insight to share. Here is what she said in response to your letter:
It seems as though Step Mom is taking this all on herself, and good for her for taking responsibility for her relationship with her step-daughter (this is a big difference from the significant other in the mentioned article). But the problem with her taking all of the responsibility is that she has very little control in this situation. Seems to me that Bio dad has a larger role to play and part of that is recognizing 12-year-old girl’s behavior toward him and toward step mom.
No one, including bio dad, has any control over Bio Mom and her influence but this is not a battle that Step Mom can fight alone and she certainly can’t just ignore the 12-year-old’s negative behavior when it becomes rude and dismissive. Step Mom can call her out on her behavior but it may, for the time being, fall on deaf ears because of Bio Mom’s influences, thus Bio Dad is going to need to step in and lay down some ground rules.
That said, a little flexability needs to be included for the fact that this is a transitional situation where a kid is moving from home to home with different rules and practices AND the fact that hormones are just beginning to explode for a 12-year-old girl. She is super impressionable right now and she is just beginning to study relationships in her own life. In time, she is likely going to be able to see through Bio Mom’s manipulation and puppetry (ie her negative traits) and she will see more clearly Step Mom’s positive traits.
In regards to 12-year-old daughter wanting to change the living arrangement, this may be an opportunity for bio parents to sit down and discuss the parenting plan and Bio Mom’s VERY inappropriate conversations with their 12-year-old daughter, whether in therapy or mediation. A 12-year-old does not have the right, nor should they have the power, to decide where they should live in a custodial situation where abuse is not occurring (in most states). This is a power play on the 12-year-old’s part that is being reinforced by Bio Mom behind the scenes.
In an ideal/healthy family structure parents are aligned (ie making decisions/ handing out discipline) and the kids are under the parents creating a safety net and power structure for the family. In this family the dad and daughter are aligned at the top and step mom is on the outs. The family structure is off and there is a great imbalance of power thus creating instability and a lack of safety within the family structure for all parties. That’s why everyone’s acting out. Dad may not know that he is contributing significantly, but he is definitely giving more power to the 12-year-old and creating a helpless situation for Step Mom. He may not have any influence over his ex-wife, but he does have influence over his daughter. He doesn’t have to be mean, but he does need to show his daughter that Step Mom isn’t going anywhere and that she must be treated as a human being. Doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
Yes, what she said! LW, you say that your husband and his ex-wife “don’t speak and that they exchange only cursory emails about kid activities.” That’s a big part of the problem here. Clearly, it’s time for a conversation to address the 12-year-old daughter’s inappropriate behavior. It’s time for the ex-wife’s inappropriate comments to her daughter and son about you to be addressed. As my friend said, you have very little power in this situation, unfortunately, which is why you are emotionally shutting out your step-daughter. I get it. But that can’t continue. It’s time for your husband to step in and use the power that HE has to put an end to his daughter’s mistreatment toward you.
I would suggest enlisting the help of a professional in the way of mediation where all three adults sit down and discuss parenting these two children in a way that is both loving but firm. It’s time for some boundaries to be set, and, clearly, you can’t be the one to set them. The bio parents need to communicate here, even it means getting professional help to do that. Good luck!
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.