I don't know how to deal with my wife's treatment of my natural children.
She treats her son, who is the youngest, like a little angel. My children
are considered trouble by her and her family. The kids are five,six
and seven. I work long hours, so I'm not home a lot. How can I get her
to be fair in dealing with my children?
ANSWER: You and your wife
are experiencing the challenges of becoming a stepfamily. Your particular
circumstances define you as a complex stepfamily, meaning that you both
bring children to the marriage. This is the most complicated stepfamily
formation. All children have suffered loss of their original family
situation and that loss needs to be mourned. All too often unresolved
sadness and loyalties do not get a place for safe expression in the
family and a second family dissolution is the result.
It is natural for both of you to experience feelings
of belonging to your own biological children. But you are rapidly
taking on traditional roles and expectations which increase the pressure
to be one big happy family. This increases the likelihood of an explosion.
There is no "instant love" between stepchildren and
stepparents and in situations where a stepparent, particularly a stepmother
is taking on primary responsibility for stepchildren you can expect
trouble. In addition, your wife has gone from caring for one child
who she has known for years, to primary caretaking for your three
children with whom she did not experience a primary bond.
Perhaps both of you are falling prey to highly unrealistic
expectations for one another, which leads to alienation and blaming.
Over half of remarriages fail, in part because of highly idealized
visions of becoming one big happy family. Television shows like the
Brady Bunch only helped proliferate these destructive myths. The lack
of education about stepfamily development is largely responsible for
unresolved tensions in remarriages.
Take a step back and put yourself in your wife's
shoes. Certainly her negative expression of feelings towards your
children needs to stop. But her feelings that your children are a
burden are quite real. If you were the primary caretaker for three
new children that came with your spouse, in addition to the work of
caring for your own, you too might feel overwhelmed. But instead of
resolving these feelings, your wife may be contributing to greater
polarization and disharmony by villianizing her stepchildren and sanctifying
her own biological child.
Acknowledge your wife's feelings, but request that
she change her behavior. Ask her what would be helpful to her in taking
a step back herself and accepting the complexity of the situation.
Does she need hired help or your help in some way? Because you are
the biological parent, it is you who should be disciplining and setting
limits. It is a setup for failure for your wife to be the one who
doles out consequences. Your children will act out their anger on
her, as she is not their "real mother". And there is no affectionate
foundation yet established on which your wife can effectively gain
your children's respect. The result is a self-perpetuating pattern
of splitting the positive and negative feelings natural to family
life into biological war camps.
It is your job and your wife's job to sort through
these difficult issues and get back on track as a couple so that you
can more effectively lead the family together. Research shows that
the most significant predictor of successful stepfamily formation
is the quality of the relationship between stepparent and stepchildren.
The second most important predictor is a strong couples' bond. You
and your wife need to work on both. Read my article Making
Healthy Stepfamilies available on this site, as well as
answers to other questions relating to stepfamilies on this column.
These answers contain resources, such as the National Stepfamily
Association that can help you to resolve your understandable difficulties
in this family transition.
Take responsibility for educating yourself to the
task at hand. Remember, that each of you chose to be married
to the other. Choice includes responsibility. You each made the choice
to become a stepparent to one anothers' child(ren). No one promised
you that it would be easy. Your children did not have this choice.
It is your responsibility to create an environment that works for
everyone. You owe it to your children and to your marital commitment
to one another.
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