"My Stepdaughter Is Ruining Our Marriage"

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The Counselor's Turn

Putting the Pieces Back Together

"Though they anticipated some difficulties when Dana moved in," said the counselor, "neither Ellen nor Warren thought she would have such a serious effect on their relationships. So a key goal of therapy was teaching them new tactics to deal with Dana while keeping their relationships in focus.

"Ellen's identification with her stepdaughter left her unable to see that Dana needed and wanted guidance. Ellen also had to learn that she could assert her own needs and that she didn't have to be the savior of the whole family. Warren had to check his anger before it destroyed every positive relationship he had built over the last few years.

"Warren and Ellen were both so convinced that fighting was a dirty word, they avoided it at all costs. Unfortunately, not fighting can be just as damaging to a marriage. When these two simply appeased each other, they stopped short of solving their dilemmas. They needed to learn how to work toward real resolutions.

"Compounding their problems was the fact that Ellen was a classic enabler, someone who appears to be nurturing and caring for others, but is actually allowing them to behave in self-defeating ways. Like many enablers, Ellen thought she was being firm, but she often waffled and eventually rescinded her rules. It's not hard to see why, of course. Ellen's parents were emotionally distant, withdrawing their love and affection when it suited them. Subconsciously, Ellen embarked on a mission to win love by always being there for others, even at the expense of herself. For his part, Warren used anger to intimidate others and protect his bruised inner core.

Helping Dana

"To help Ellen and Warren deal with Dana, I explained that she had never learned to handle setbacks. Warren and Ellen had allowed her to stay with them indefinitely, and Ellen rushed to do everything for her, so Dana was off the hook. I told them, 'Why should she be independent, when you both make it so comfortable for her to stay a child?'

"I suggested they draw up a contract for all three of them to sign. Although this sounds impersonal, it forces everyone to state his or her needs and expectations. Ellen and Warren agreed to pay for Dana to return to school if she wanted to. If not, she had to work to pay her own rent. As long as she was under their roof, she must share housework and other responsibilities. The contract established emotional limits, too: While Dana had a right to her opinions, she had no right to voice them in snide, manipulative ways to Ellen. If Dana broke the contract, she had to leave immediately. However, on the issue of Dana's weight, Ellen and Warren had to step back--Dana wouldn't and couldn't lose weight for them.

"Once Dana realized Ellen and Warren were serious, she came around, complaining much less than Ellen or Warren expected. After two months, she found a job at a senior-citizen center and moved into an apartment with a girlfriend. She's beginning to talk about going back to school in the fall.

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

 

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