"He's a Lousy Stepfather"

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The Counselor's Turn

Lofty Expectations

"Sheila and Will were a classic case of partners with hidden expectations. Early on, their relationship worked because Will, raised by distant parents, had a deep-seated need for precisely the kind of emotional support that came naturally to Sheila. She gladly gave him the undivided attention he yearned for when they were alone. After the wedding, however, Will had to compete with Ashley for Sheila's affections.

"For her part, Sheila thought of her ex-husband as being out of the picture, and believed Will could take his place. But expecting Will to become an instant parent to a girl he had known for only a few months was an impossible demand. A stepfather can be a loving and authoritative presence, but he isn't a clone of the biological father. 

"In addition, Sheila and Will had never discussed their child-rearing philosophies. A blended family situation is tricky because the birth parent and child come into the marriage with established habits. Will tried to change those habits by setting and enforcing new rules right after their wedding, which made Sheila resentful because he hadn't consulted her. Couples must calmly discuss problems as they come up, and agree on solutions to avoid tension and fighting.

"We addressed their hot-button issues one at a time, starting with how best to deal with Ashley. Sheila agreed to let Will take away her daughter's privileges when she misbehaved. In turn, he promised to make the punishments reasonable, and to enforce them only for true acts of disobedience. The next time Ashley refused to clean her room, Will again told her she would not be allowed to watch a video until she complied. Sheila stayed out of it. Ashley sulked for two nights, but she finally tidied up and earned the right to the movie. What's more, she didn't use any foul language the entire time. Ashley seemed to understand that her mother and stepfather were finally in agreement -- and in charge.

"Sheila was surprised to see the change in her daughter's behavior. 'I guess I didn't realize it, because my parents never had to lay down the law like that,' she said. 'My brother and I pretty much did what we were told, but Ashley clearly needs more limits, and Will's system works well for her.' Sheila admitted that she had been too lenient since the divorce, and Will was gratified that she had found the courage to say so.  

"I suggested that Ashley see a counselor on her own to help her come to terms with all the changes in her life. Therapy has been very beneficial; Ashley's therapist helped Will to understand that she had been lashing out at him as a means of releasing the anger she felt toward her father for abandoning her. This insight, along with the fact that the couple have stopped thinking of Will as a 'replacement father,' has gone a long way toward allowing Will and Ashley to forge a relationship of their own. He told me, 'She's even letting me teach her to play chess now. I love it!'

Continued on page 5:  The Counselor's Turn, continued


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