"He Dotes On His Son and Ignores Me"
The Counselor's Turn
"After Beth had described Andy's behavior I showed her that it was a textbook example of how children of divorce react," said the counselor. "A child usually doesn't mind when his divorced dad starts dating, but once a couple marries, the woman becomes a permanent presence and threatens his relationship with his father. It's difficult for a child to express his pain, so he reacts by being rude to his stepmother. Adolescence makes it even more complicated since tweens are then in inner turmoil. 'Don't take this so personally,' I told Beth. 'It's not about you.'
"I told Jack that I thought he was trying to win Andy's love by treating him like a prince. Since he didn't demand appropriate behavior from his son, Jack was essentially giving Andy permission to mistreat Beth. 'By ignoring his rudeness, you're excusing it,' I said.
"Initially, Jack was defensive. 'Andy meant to say hello to Beth, but he got distracted,' he said during one particularly heated session. 'He didn't leave his dishes at the table to be mean. He just forgot to help.' Assuming Andy did forget, I told Jack that he still wasn't paying attention to his wife's needs. 'As a result she feels neglected,' I said.
"By our next session Jack admitted that perhaps he had been dismissive of Beth. 'I'm sorry,' he told her. 'I'll do whatever it takes to make amends.' Jack agreed that during Andy's weekend visits, the family would eat dinner together and would do one activity as a group, such as going bowling or baking cookies. He also promised to make Andy go to bed by 9:30 p.m. so that he and Beth could have some quiet time.
"To keep things on track I helped the couple create a list of house rules for all the kids. I urged them to phrase the rules positively -- a list of dos instead of don'ts -- and they included these three: 'We look people in the eye when we speak.' 'We allow others to finish their sentences.' 'We clear dishes after we eat and put dirty clothes in the hamper.' Before they posted the list on the pantry door, Jack and Beth sat down with the children and explained that they had come up with some rules to help the family run better. 'Andy whined a bit at first, but when I stayed firm, he backed off -- and he ultimately took the changes in stride,' Jack said.
"He actually seemed to thrive under the structure. After a few months Andy became much more respectful and more cooperative. He also paid attention to his younger siblings and seemed to bond more with Beth. 'The other night he told me all about a project that he was working on at school and even asked for my help with it,' she said.
"Beth and Jack spent four months in therapy and worked really hard resolving their differences. Their efforts seem to have paid off. 'We're a stronger family because of what we've learned here,' Beth said. Jack agreed: 'I'm glad that my wife didn't give up on us.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2010.