QUESTION: I am 31 years old and
have never been married. I met a wonderful man on the Internet, and
we are engaged. He has two children, a 14-year-old daughter and an
11-year-old son. The kids live with him, and I have recently moved
in with the family.
My problem is that my fiancÚ wants me to help
discipline the children, but whenever he sets rules -- such as phone
curfews or no food in the rooms -- and I try to enforce them, he tells
me I'm being too restrictive. Then later on, he will rant and rave
about how the kids don't want to help out around the house. I feel
this happens because there is no structure.
Am I doing the wrong thing here? The kids know
that they are supposed to listen to me, but lately I've been afraid
to say anything that could get me labeled restrictive or inflexible.
He says he'll choose his own battles, and that sometimes he decides
not to say anything. But when I ask why, I don't get a straight answer
-- he just tells me I look for trouble.
Please help. Is there a support group for stepmoms
that I could attend? The kids' mother is hardly ever in the picture,
and when she is it just seems to upset them. Am I on the road to becoming
a wicked stepmother?
ANSWER: Look out or you may indeed turn
into the wicked stepmother! Your betrothed's lack of follow-through
on the rules, his desire for you to take on a disciplinary role with
his children prematurely, and his willingness to make you the "inflexible"
one in the family all spell trouble. In addition, your fiancÚ is delivering
two contradictory messages: Take charge of the situation and stay
out! And he is giving his children conflicting messages about what
is expected of them.
More than half of all remarriages end in divorce,
partly because of unrealistic expectations and role confusion in the
formation of a stepfamily. The two most important factors for success
in stepfamilies are a strong bond between the couple and, between
the stepparent and stepchildren. It is not possible for you to take
on the role of disciplinarian until you have established a bond with
the children based on affection and friendship. Your move into their
home may also prove precipitous. It is a lot of adjustment all at
once! And the myth of instant family togetherness is just that. There
are no short cuts to true intimacy.
Your quick entry into the children's lives could result
in your becoming the scapegoat for all the negative feelings the family
endured prior to your arrival. Do not jump into a parental role with
these children. Instead, work to develop a friendship based on genuine
affection before attempting any discipline. Your place in the family
must be established through the agreement and support you receive
from their father.
Insist that your partner work with you to set house
rules, and that he be consistent in enforcing them. Your observation
that he has developed a pattern of setting rules, bending them and
then exploding in anger and resentment is a useful one. Your job is
to continue pointing this out to him.
But beware! Stepfamilies aside, most divorce is the
result of prolonged unresolved conflict. And your fiancÚ's style of
communication may have contributed to ineffective problem-solving
in his former marriage. If your relationship is to survive and thrive,
you must be able to empathize with each other's experience rather
than attempting to minimize the feelings. True negotiation will evolve
from a genuine understanding of your partner's point of view, not
an insistence on scoring points.
Once you establish the rules together, your partner
and you must be willing to hold the line for long-term gain rather
than bending it for short-term relief. For help in this task, contact
the Stepfamily Association of North America (1-800-735-0239) for information
on stepfamily support groups in your area.
This is your home now, too. You are partners! Do not
accept a back seat in negotiating agreements with your usband-to-be.
Also, do not make the mistake of trying to "fill in" for his lack
of consistency with his children. Disciplining them is his responsibility,
but it is up to the two of you to negotiate a realistic, shared vision
for your future marriage and family relationships.