Q: I’m stepfather to my wife’s only child, age eight, from her first marriage. My wife always puts her son before our marriage. We went through counseling several years ago, and things got better for a while but then began slipping back into the child-comes-first mode. We have a near-perfect marriage except for her putting her son first and not supporting me when it comes to discipline. My wife struggles constantly to make him happy, and it’s really hurting our relationship. Do you have any advice for me or us?
A: You’ve described what I believe is the number one reason why the divorce rate is so high for marriages where at least one party brings a child or children with them into the union. Either the male parent can’t shift out of dad mode and into husband mode, or the female can’t shift out of mom mode and into wife mode.
A parent-child relationship of this sort is characterized by the lack of an emotional boundary between parent and child. Your wife experiences her son’s emotions as if they were her own. Any unhappiness on his part makes her anxious and kicks her into high-enabling. Furthermore, his unhappiness is, from her perspective, an indication of her failure as a parent. The solution, she thinks, is more enabling. A vicious and mutually destructive cycle develops.
The more she enables, the more helpless he behaves, and the more she enables. And around and around they go.
I’m going to speculate that your wife may have thought she wanted to get married, but in fact, she really wanted a live-in male role model for her son as well as your income. Your wife would probably take great offense at this; but if I were counseling the two of you, I would challenge her to prove that it isn’t the truth.
Usually, responsibility for marital problems is shared 50-50, but this is an exception. A stepparent who walks unknowingly into this situation cannot solve the problem. The heavy lifting must be done by the codependent parent. The good news is that your wife has in the past demonstrated some willingness to come to grips with the nature of her relationship with her son.
Since the prior round of counseling had a positive effect, it makes sense to give that another try. Know, however, that this is one of the most intractable problems a counselor will ever encounter. So my question to you is this: are you prepared to hang in there another 10 years or so in the hope that when said son goes off on his own, the “near-perfect” marriage you now have will realize its full potential? That would certainly be my recommendation.
By the way, the problem of one or both spouses putting parenting in front of being husband or wife is not only the single biggest problem in step and blended families; it is also the single biggest problem in first marriages where there are children. Unfortunately, the child-centric family has become the norm. That’s why so few husbands and wives these days are found on the same parenting page, or even in the same parenting book, or even in some cases in the same parenting library.
The bottom line is this: agreement concerning parenting issues requires being married first, parents second.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.