I’m having some stepfamily problems. My husband and I are in a relatively new second marriage. He has one son and I have a daughter.
Last night my teenage daughter had two friends sleep over. When my husband came home late, tired and hungry from a long day at work, he did not say hello to the girls or even acknowledge their presence. He said nothing to them before leaving this morning, either.
I was put off by this; I feel an acknowledgment is a priority for everyone all the time. But when I told him later that it was important to me that he acknowledge the children, he said he didn’t feel that it was always necessary or that my daughter would have cared, as the girls were doing their own thing.
I was hurt by my husband’s lack of consideration for my feelings and for my request. Plus, if his son had been at our house with his friends, my husband would have greeted them. He does acknowledge my daughter from time to time, but on his terms, when he decides to do it.
Anyway, I’ve decided to let last night’s incident go so that he doesn’t get angry and think I am a nag. But is this a case of “I have made my bed and now sleep in it” – or is there a way to reason with my husband?
– Strugging in a stepfamily
Shortly before receiving your e-mail, I got one from a fellow in Haverford who was considering marrying for the second time and asked my advice. I told him that his timing was perfect because the best time to begin talking about what it means to be a (new) family is before you are one.
When people get married for the first time, they bring a set of expectations and experiences from their family of origin. Partners rarely see the world through the same lens, as both have a different vision of what it means to be a family. So that can be a challenge. When they get married a second time, however, the challenge is different because those expectations have been modified by their experiences – particularly the negative experiences – the first time around. Everyone usually arrives with some anxiety and apprehension, and many carry baggage from the previous marriage.
So the questions about what it means to be a family, to be married, to be a parent and a stepparent should be discussed at the beginning of the process. And all the children should be brought into the discussion at the level they can understand. Even young children have feelings about what they might want in their new family and what they might miss from their old family.
Every stepfamily I’ve treated has struggled with issues of loyalty. The original parents feel loyal to their children, who have already suffered. Yet this loyalty can do great harm to the fragile new marriage. It is a difficult issue: Children do suffer in a divorce and they do need the support of their parents. But when a child of divorce has lived alone with a parent for a while, he or she is not going to be happy about sharing time and space.
All of these things need to be talked out with the whole new family. It’s very important that stepfamilies not divide along biological lines. And while this may be difficult for the first few years, as everyone tries to get to know one another, secret alliances can be destructive.
So, “Struggling,” even though you may not have had these discussions earlier, it is never too late. You see, there are always stories behind the story. When you say how important it is to be acknowledged, that sounds to me like a high-stakes issue from your childhood that may have nothing at all to do with your daughter. I don’t know why your husband won’t acknowledge the children, but there is a story behind that too.
And the most important issue here is that you are being hurt by something that is happening in your marriage. That is never OK. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your husband should change his behavior to address your pain, but it does mean that the two of you have to talk about this.
Please keep in mind that blended families are difficult. So are second marriages. In my experience, the most important factor affecting the outcome is devotion. If the two of you are committed to this relationship and to this new family, you might still need counseling – but you should do pretty well.