How to deal with a divisive stepson

January 17, 2012

Q. I’m having real trouble with my two stepsons. I finally divorced an alcoholic husband after 25 years, and five years ago I married a friend and neighbor who was the confirmation sponsor for two of my four children. Although he had been a wonderful husband and father, his wife cheated on him, then moved across the country to be with her new husband while he stayed home to provide some stability for their college-age sons.

Since my husband and I knew that stepchildren could pressure a marriage, we vowed to create a happy, blended family and were welcoming, generous and loving to our children, all of whom were grown. My kids accepted my husband with open arms, and one even said, “Now we have the family we were always meant to have.”

His sons, however, have been indulged far more than mine and have completely different temperaments from my generous, thoughtful husband. To them I am strictly “our father’s wife,” and they have been divisive in many ways.

One of my stepsons tried to make my husband choose between them and our family, and he did it not once but twice. Last year, he invited us to dinner on Christmas Eve, but he didn’t ask my children, even though they get along fine and they had nowhere else to go. We had a brief lunch with his sons instead, but it really hurt my feelings since I try so hard to keep up the traditions of both of our families. Although my stepsons usually spend the holidays with their mother’s family, our holiday gatherings — to which my stepsons are always invited — are a big deal to my children, and I can’t believe he didn’t know that.

This year the same son invited his father and me — but not my children — to Thanksgiving dinner, saying that he and his wife wanted to start a new tradition. Later, however, he told me that he thought I was kind to him because I wanted to be his mother. This greatly surprised me. My stepson has done nothing that makes me want to be his stepmother, let alone his mother.


(Hadley Hooper/For the Washington Post)

My nonconfrontational husband, who’s a pushover for everyone — even the dog! — is going to see a counselor to learn how to discipline his sons, but how do I handle them, especially the one who questions both my kindness and my motives? I’m afraid that he won’t improve no matter how hard I try or how much I show my love.

A. What’s good for the gander is also good for the goose and for your six goslings, too.

All eight of you need to see a family therapist, both together and individually, so you can learn how to look at the world from one another’s perspective, as well as your own. An experienced clinician — whether she’s a psychologist, a social worker or a licensed counselor — will ask you the kinds of questions you don’t dare to ask each other, and she will help you express the suspicions that you’ve been keeping to yourself.

Any therapeutic peeling of the family onion will be painful at times but also cathartic as you lay your demons to rest. Your blended family will have a much firmer foundation, but it may still wobble; a relationship is built like a stack of blocks, after all. You could let it fall apart, but it would be better if you straightened it out again. Your families are joined by marriage as well as by friendship, and friends don’t walk away from friends unless the situation is much more egregious than this one.

It’s true that your stepsons acted poorly, but their behavior wasn’t all about you; it was all about them. These young men were probably in their teens when their mother left home, and if they’re like most children of divorce, they’ve felt embarrassed and rejected ever since. Children hate to be different from their friends, especially in adolescence, and many of them hate to share their parents, too.

The next time your stepsons invite you and their dad to a holiday meal, thank them profusely but tell them that you’ll be leaving early so they can have some time alone with their dad. They may protest, but they’ll appreciate your thoughtfulness and so will your husband. His children are as dear to him as your children are to you, and there are times when he wants to be with them — and only with them — just as you sometimes want to be alone with your children.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Chat Thursday at noon

Kelly will answer questions about parenting and other family relationships. Submit yours here.

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