Does he love my stepdaughter more than he loves me, his wife?

love-quizThis is not a silly problem by any means. Instead, it is a very real and unfortunately common problem that occurs in some marriages. Households where children from prior marriages are combined are perhaps particularly vulnerable to this sort of thing happening, for reasons that will hopefully become clear in a moment.

Family therapists call this sort of problem a boundary issue. In an idealised household, the adult couple functions as an integrated unit, at least as far as their children are concerned.

They make policy together and speak with one voice, individually resisting any given child’s attempts to manipulate or to play one parent off the other to gain advantage.

They also keep confidences for one another and do not share private adult business with children. It is as though a fence or boundary has been drawn around the adults, which functions to keep their secrets inside and to unify them in front of their children.

It is not so much that having this idealised boundary around the adults in a household is so great in of itself. It is just the alternatives to this arrangement are worse, both for the children and for the adults and the quality of the marriage.

When a child is allowed to split the marriage, the partners suffer, as you well know from your own experience. Also, the child’s successful manipulation of the adult caregiver isn’t good for the child. She is rewarded, essentially, for dominating her caregiver and comes to see her caregiver as weak.

At the very least, this encourages selfish behaviour on her part and models a weakened marriage for her. Her successful transgressive relationship behaviour here sets her up for dysfunctional relationships in her own future, as well, I believe.

It feels good to get what you want, but it is not always in your best interest that this should occur. The outcome, in your case, is that daughter becomes more of a selfish brat (albeit a brat who was probably wounded by her biological parent’s divorce and who is acting out at the present time), husband becomes daughter’s poodle, wife feels unloved and unappreciated, and everyone loses self-respect.

It is especially easy for mixed families (families composed of members of prior families) to have boundary problems.Children’s loyalties are to their old families and new spouses in stepparent roles (whether this term is used or not) are not easily listened too.

It is common in such circumstances that children will cling to their original parent and reject the stepparent. Such behaviour puts pressure on the marriage and attempts to split it or break down the boundary around the new marriage, which likely has not had much chance to get well defined in the first place.

Your own family would appear to be living this process out currently. My recommendation to you is to see about getting your family into a family therapy situation. If the whole family cannot go, then couples counseling for you and your husband could be quite useful too. The structural problem in your marriage and family situation needs to be addressed and hopefully corrected.

If your husband has enough insight to know the motive for his behaviour, he will hopefully also have enough insight to understand the boundary concepts and how his behaviour is not helping your mutual situation, but instead making it worse.

What needs to happen here is that the two of you have to agree to strengthen the boundary around you that protects you from your children and vice versa, and protects your children from you both.

You both need to set limits with the daughter and keep them, and make some protected time for yourselves. It won’t take much: he can still spend a lot of time with daughter, so long as he grows a spine and tells her ‘no’ when that is the right thing to do, and so long as he stops neglecting you and the health of your mutual relationship.

If you both see the wisdom in setting limits on daughter, you can expect daughter to ratchet up her demandingness. This is to say, it is normal for someone who is used to getting her way to seek out ways to continue to get it.

Escalation is typically a favourite strategy. If a little quilting used to get me what I wanted, but isn’t anymore, then I’ll just turn up the volume until it is loud enough again that I get what I want.

You both should be ready for daughter to throw fits and perhaps even move out (if she can). This is normal and will tend to subside once it becomes clear that the new limits you both set are not something she can manipulate.
-Anne



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