Dear Dr. Diana,
My 16-year-old son moved out a few months ago to live with his dad who never paid child support and was barely around. My son told us he was moving out with a nasty text. My husband (his stepdad) and I were angry and didn’t let him come and get his stuff at first. Recently, my son started visiting us and his stepbrother and sister. His stepdad is angry with me for forgiving my son because he hasn’t apologized. Even if he doesn’t say so, I know he’s sorry and I figure he’s young.
My husband has always been jealous of my son, which has really bothered me. Now, he is so negative on my son, it makes me wonder if he ever really cared for him at all. I feel like I have to choose between my son and my husband. I am so confused and don’t know what to do.
— Caught in the middleDear Confused,
Relationships in stepfamilies can be complex. There are many different issues going on. Sometimes, absentee parents come on the scene when the children are a little older. Initially, some kids are eager to get to know their parent who has been distant – especially when they share the same gender. This may be especially painful to your husband who probably formed a genuine, caring bond with your son over the past eight years. So, rather than not caring, it may be that your husband’s feelings are more hurt than you’d think.
Biological parents often feel like they are caught in the middle of their spouse and their child. And kids often feel like they are caught between their divorced parents. Meanwhile, pre-existing histories and loyalties between children and parents can make the stepparent feel like a third wheel or a second-class citizen in their own home. Children, in turn, may be fearful that they will lose some of their parents’ attention or love to the stepparent.
People marry and make families in part to have a sense of belonging. We all want to feel like our loved ones care about our feelings – to feel that we matter to them. In our relationships with our children, there is an innate protective instinct that defies words. With our romantic partners, the attachment is different. But the need to be understood, accepted, and to have a secure sense of belonging, is consistent across different types of relationships in the family. So, when a parent is preoccupied with the needs of their child, and perhaps not as aware of how their partner is being affected, it can feel threatening and alienating to the partner.
At any rate, it might help your husband’s upset if you take some time to acknowledge his anger and hurt. Letting him know that you understand and appreciate his feelings and all the efforts that he’s made in the past. You can agree with him – neither of you approve of how your son handled things but that you need him to respect your decisions about how you want to handle the situation. It’s very likely that at the root of your husband’s anger is protectiveness toward you. He may be concerned that if your son is not overtly apologetic or remorseful, that he will repeat the behavior and hurt you again. It’s very likely that if you express your appreciation of his patience and tolerance throughout this difficult situation, his frustration may subside. When we feel that our partner understands us, accepts us and has our back, we feel more secure and generous.
I hope that this is helpful.
Diana Weiss-Wisdom, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in Rancho Santa Fe. She specializes in marriage counseling, stepfamilies, and cardiac psychology. Offering Marriage Retreats and Couples Workshops, four times a year. Please check our website for more information. www.cottageclinic.net or call (858) 259-0146.