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My stepdaughter Kim's wedding two months ago should have been a joyous time, but it's brought nothing but hurt feelings," said Ann, 45, a preschool teacher in Florida with two kids from her first marriage, Kara, 23, and Jake, 18. "She and I have always had a rocky relationship -- she was just 11 when her dad and I got together 13 years ago, so naturally she felt threatened -- but the tension has been unbearable ever since her engagement to Greg.
"During the months of wedding planning my opinion was never sought. My husband, Bill, said, 'This isn't about you.' I realized that but felt like an extra in a movie! Kim and her mom made every decision and even left my name off the invitation. Among all the wedding photos, there's not a single one of me.
"Things went further downhill after Kim and Greg got back from their honeymoon. Against my wishes, Bill let them rent -- at an absurdly low price -- the three-bedroom condo we bought as a weekend getaway. They're both graduate students in South Florida, and our condo is a short drive from their school. I thought they should find their own place, but Bill kept saying there was nothing decent in their price range. In truth, they never bothered to look. Why would they? Our place cost roughly an eighth of what they'd have paid on the open market.
"So they moved in, with two stipulations: They would keep the condo neat and clean, and we could still visit for the occasional weekend. Two weeks ago Kara and I drove down for a long weekend. I nearly fainted when I saw the place. Dishes with congealed food were piled in the sink and pizza boxes littered the coffee table. Both showers were clogged with hair, their dog had chewed my throw pillows, and their computers were on my new glass dining table. Plus, Kim and Greg treated us like interlopers.
"After a year of stifling my resentment I'd had it. I wrote Kim a long letter listing the conditions that she and Greg had to meet if they wanted to stay in the condo. I thought she and I should work this out, so I asked her not to mention my note to her dad. Well, she immediately called Bill, who was so enraged he wouldn't even let me explain. That was more than a week ago, and he and I have barely spoken since."
"Bill and I met through friends and quickly discovered we shared similar values, dreams, and backgrounds. We were both a bit gun-shy -- we'd each had a spouse leave us for someone else. But we fell in love and wanted to build a life together. Kara was 10 and Jake was 5. The girls were close in age, so I thought we'd easily blend into a family. Was I deluded!
"Nothing worked with Kim. I'd schedule one-on-one time with her; I'd cook special birthday dinners. For her sweet 16 I made her favorite foods for 30 of her friends. I didn't even get a thank-you. Once a year we took a vacation with all three kids, and the trips were riddled with bad feelings. Kim could even turn a stroll on the beach into an ordeal. She'd make faces at Kara, then run down the beach, leaving Kara behind in tears. Sure, this is typical sibling stuff, but she was relentless. She was impertinent and downright nasty -- and Bill was oblivious.
"He has always put his daughter before me. Always. For instance, Wednesday nights were his special time with Kim, which I totally supported. My kids were with their dad that night, too, so I'd usually see friends. But one Wednesday, the kids were with me and by sheer coincidence we went to the same restaurant as Bill and Kim. I assumed we'd all get one big table, but Bill insisted we sit on the other side of the restaurant. We were hurt, and he didn't have the foggiest idea why. But then he'll walk out of a room when I'm in mid-sentence and, again, can't understand why it upsets me.
"Right now Kara and Jake still live with us, but in the fall Jake's going to college and Kara's getting an apartment with friends. So I've been thinking a lot about the empty nest. I'm often lonely -- an all-too-familiar feeling. I was the youngest of five kids in a religious family. We all went to church together, but we weren't close, and when I was 14 my parents shipped me off to a church-run boarding school. But at least my parents had a good marriage. I wish I could say the same about mine. Clearly, I learned nothing from my first try because I'm failing again and don't know why."
"Angry? I was livid!" said Bill, 45, a civil engineer. "Here, let me read what Ann wrote to Kim: 'As long as you are under our roof you must follow our rules. If it is a hardship to do so, you can move. If you have issues with any of this, take it up with me, not your dad. If I hear that you've complained to him, I'll ask that you find another residence.' She then went on to list 11 'conditions,' such as 'clean the shower every day.' Even Ann doesn't do that! How could she possibly think that letter wasn't inflammatory? And how dare she tell my daughter that she can't talk to me?
"I knew Kim's wedding would be tough, but hearing Ann complain incessantly about being left out made everything worse. I'm not saying she's wrong across the board -- her name should have been on the invitation, for instance. But my ex-wife was in charge of that stuff. Believe me, if it were Kara's wedding, Ann would call the shots. If the biological mother is around, a stepmother is not going to be involved. Why doesn't Ann get that?
"I won't apologize for being protective of my daughter. She's an only child, and the divorce was really hard on her. Ann had primary custody of her kids, so she doesn't know how it feels not to be able to tuck your child into bed every night.
"I never dreamed I'd be a divorced dad. When my ex told me she'd fallen in love with someone else I barely knew how to react. I'm the eldest of six kids from a traditional family, and divorce wasn't in our vocabulary. Being the eldest was both a privilege and a burden. My parents were grateful when I helped with my siblings, but I also felt pressured to set a good example and keep everyone safe. I took that responsibility seriously as a boy, and as a father I've felt the same responsibility to Kim.
"Ever since she was little, Wednesday night was Kim night. And Ann always resented it, despite her claims to the contrary. Jeez, the fact that she's still carrying on about the time I didn't want her to sit with us speaks for itself. It's like she has a big scorecard in her head of every slight she's ever suffered. It's painful to listen to her talk about how upset or worried she is about this thing or that. I don't catalogue hurts that way -- I tend to blow up and then it's over. This time, though, Ann went too far. I love her very much, but writing that letter was so out of line that I'm finding it hard to move on."
"Even joyful events such as graduations and weddings can turn sour as fears and insecurities that usually stay on the edges of our consciousness get thrust into the limelight," said the counselors. "This is especially true in stepfamilies. In this case, we also suspected that the couple's stress was compounded by the prospect of an empty nest that was less sturdy than it should have been. Still, we felt strongly that through counseling this couple could resolve their current crisis and strengthen their marriage against future problems.
"We first asked them to describe their happiest moments. Couples in crisis often focus on the negative, forgetting what brought them together in the first place. Ann and Bill recalled how in sync their values and interests were and how much they'd enjoyed the weekend 'mini-vacations' they'd taken when Ann's kids were with their father and Kim was with her mother. 'We'd usually drive to the ocean,' said Ann. 'It was a time to laugh and be close.' Reminiscing helped them soften their stances so they could figure out why some issues had become so explosive.
"Ann had a history of feeling ignored. Her parents had focused little energy on their youngest child, and as an adult she weathered a traumatic betrayal and divorce. So she was still easily wounded by perceived slights. As the eldest of six, Bill believed his job was to keep things running smoothly and fix them when they didn't. Like many men, he became irritated by his wife's desire to chew over problems.
"To help them work through emotionally charged issues, we had Ann and Bill draw up an 'anger contract' wherein they vowed to let the other know when anger was surfacing and promised not to vent it by hurling blame or accusations. We also taught them to use the classic reflective-listening technique of structured speech: One partner speaks and the other calmly paraphrases what he or she has just said. This method dramatically increases the odds that each spouse will truly 'hear' the other."
"The condo stalemate was broken a couple of months into counseling during a car ride back from a joint visit with Kim and Greg. Keeping his voice perfectly calm, as we'd urged in our sessions, Bill brought up the offending letter, and Ann admitted it was a mistake. Bill then conceded that her anger was understandable -- Kim and Greg's housekeeping was appalling and he, too, was unhappy with the state of the condo -- but added that she should check with him before confronting his daughter. Ann apologized and also called Kim to apologize. (To Ann's surprise, Kim admitted that the apartment was a mess and said she was sorry.) Bill promised to give Ann his undivided attention when she wanted to talk. 'Ann needs nurturance and reassurance,' we told him. 'Too often, we're too rushed to vocalize loving feelings toward a spouse, or we think we don't have to. A phone call or e-mail during the day is invaluable. So, too, are nonverbal cues -- a smile, an unexpected hug.'
"By this point we were able to discuss the thorny issues common to stepfamilies. 'Brady Bunch harmony exists only on television,' we said. 'But while Ann and Kim may never be close, they can be friendly.' Bill admitted he hadn't done as much as he could have to help his daughter connect with her stepfamily. He explained to Kim why it was so important to behave respectfully. He also insisted that she and Greg maintain the condo to Ann's standards.
"Gradually, with these changes in place, Ann was able to relinquish past hurts. 'Forgiving is an act of will,' we told her. 'You decide that for the sake of the relationship you're going to let go.'
"United now, Ann and Bill are building a more realistic relationship with Kim and Greg, who have moved into married students' housing. Kim has become more respectful. 'I can't say we're close, but it's much more pleasant when we're together,' said Ann.
"Bill marvels at how small steps, taken in good faith, turned the tide in his marriage. 'We're focusing on the now,' he says, 'and having more fun than we've ever had.'"
When a woman marries a man with kids from a previous marriage, she not only inherits stepchildren, but often an ex-wife. "How you relate to your mate's former spouse will help determine the fate of your marriage," says Claudia Arp, cofounder (with husband David Arp, MSW) of Marriage Alive International (www.marriagealive.com). "You and his ex may never be best friends, but you can foster a healthy, cordial relationship." Here, the Arps' "4 C's" for making it work:
1. Be civil. Ask yourself, Is what I'm about to say positive or negative? If it's negative, find a way to reframe it.
2. Be clear. Say what you mean, but say it carefully. To avoid sounding aggressive, start your sentences with "I" instead of "you," and avoid absolute statements such as "you never" or "you always."
3. Be cooperative. Children are involved, so it's imperative that you find ways to work together regarding schedules and family plans.
4. Be calm. Regardless of what she says, resist responding with something you'll later regret. And never raise your voice. If all else fails, count to 10.
-- Lisa Gerry
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Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2008.