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In Competition with Her Child
For Husband's Attention

QUESTION: My husband and I are raising an only child with not much possibility of having another. I am a "brittle diabetic," which makes child birth again almost impossible. The problem we are having is it seems like our child is running our lives! We never get a moment alone. If my husband and I are hugging she feels like she has the right to be in the middle of it.

I am also starting to notice difficulty in school dealing with other children, and always wanting to be in control. If we play a game together like dominos, she gets mad and whiny if she is not winning.

My husband has been Sara's "Daddy" since she was two years of age, so I don't feel like she is insecure about him leaving. Please help me! I feel like I am going out of my mind. I refuse to be in competition with my six-year-old for attention from my husband.

ANSWER: It appears that you are distressed with your marriage, not your daughter. You may be targeting your child when you should be turning to your husband to resolve your loneliness and dissatisfaction. You must be willing to take the lead in putting an end to the competition you feel with your daughter. She may be filling a gap in your marriage that you and your husband are not bridging.

Ask yourself why your jealousy is flaring at this time. Your daughter is now six. Why have you suddenly, after four years of marriage, reached your limits? Is this age triggering any unresolved childhood relationships for you? Six years of age is a natural time for your daughter to seek the special attention of being Daddy's "little girl."

Consider the possibility that you are overreacting to her needs by feeling as if she is in true competition with you, when in fact she is not capable of being your replacement, nor should she be in any position to do so in your family! Either there is some insecurity in your relationship with your spouse, or you are reliving a similar love affair triangle that threatened your emotional stability in childhood. (Or both!)

Ask yourself whether your mother interpreted your relationship with your father as a threat at any time in your development. Was your father getting emotional needs met by you that should have been met by his wife? If so, it is possible that you are in the midst of your own unresolved rage at not having your father's attention without the threat of losing your relationship to your own mother. You and your husband may be in full swing of creating a family dynamic which has potential to not only harm your daughter, but your marriage as well. If you feel that your husband is having an emotional relationship with his stepdaughter that he should be having with you, communicate this to him. Do not scapegoat your daughter for your marital problems.

The natural "love affair" a child experiences with the opposite-sex parent is meant to resolve strong feelings of love and hate without threatening the emotional connection with either parent. The healthy resolution to this developmental crisis is for your daughter to feel that she wants to "marry Daddy," but eventually incorporates the message that she can have a man of her own some day.

When sexual and relational boundaries are intact, a child can feel safe to have strong ambivalent feelings without threatening her parents' marriage or the security of her bond with either parent. In your case, your family dynamics are reflecting unhealthy boundaries which no doubt need correction. Your feelings of jealousy are misplaced and indicate that a realignment of your marriage may be in order.

It is easy to "triangulate" a child to avoid resolving problems in a marriage. It is natural for children, especially an only child, to secure all the parental attention they can possibly get! This tendency can be magnified by the stress of including a new family member in an already existing family unit. Do not gloss over the foundational history of your stepfamily.

Two years of age is a time of great upheaval developmentally. The period of adjustment to becoming a stepfamily at that time in your daughter's life could have set the stage for putting her in the spotlight. Accept responsibility for guiding her. As her parent, it is likely that you supported the relationship between stepfather and child at that time. If you feel that your marriage is now suffering because of it, talk with your husband about carving out special couples' time together.

Successful remarriage depends on two key factors. The first is the establishment of a positive stepparent-child relationship. The second is the secure development of a strong couples' bond. You have succeeded at the first. Now it is time to attend to your couples' relationship.

Talk with your husband about your desire for more connection with him. Consider your needs, and establish patterns of interaction which respect the primacy of your couples' relationship without rejecting your child. For example, you might establish special time as a couple following dinner to talk to one another without interruption. After your daughter has connected with both of you, told you both about her day at school, and you have all enjoyed a family dinner, consider instituting a protected 30 minutes of couples' time with your spouse. She will learn that she is not to interrupt during this time. You can expect your six-year-old to play or do schoolwork on her own for half an hour. Similarly she can accept taking her "turn" with Daddy.

Your daughter's seeming need to "be in control" or "win" may be a result of being in an "adult" instead of a child role in your family. Seek to realign your relationship to your spouse. Your child will not only learn to follow the guidelines you establish as a couple regarding your relationship, but she will gain security from being in her proper place in the family. She will learn that she does not have to "compete," "win" or "be in control" to get attention.

Do not repeat generational patterns, which elevate a child to adult standing. Your husband is your mate. Do not place responsibility for your marriage in your daughter's hands. Instead, take your place at the helm next to your husband and invite him to join you in steering a safe and steady course.


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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