QUESTION: I am stepfather to my wife’s only child, age 8, from her first marriage. My wife always and in every way 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 child-comes-first mode. Believe me, we have a near-perfect marriage outside of 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?
ANSWER: You’ve described what is in my estimation the number one reason why the divorce rate is so high (relatively speaking) for marriages where at least one party brings a child or children with them into the union. Specifically, either the male parent cannot shift out of dad and into husband or the female cannot shift out of mom and into wife. Said another way, for the person or people in question, being a parent trumps being a spouse.
A parent-child relationship of this sort is defined by the lack of an emotional boundary between the two parties. 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, indication of her failure as a parent. The solution, she thinks, is more enabling. A vicious and mutually destructive cycle has developed. The more she enables, the more helpless he behaves, and the more she enables. And around and around they go. That is, in a word, codependency.
The following is pure speculation: Your wife may have thought she wanted to get married, but in fact what she really wanted was a live-in male role model for her son as well as your income. I admit to the cynicism of that, by the way. Your wife would certainly take great umbrage over it, but if I was counseling the two of you, I would challenge her to prove that it is not the truth.
More often than not, responsibility for marital problems is shared 50-50, but this is an exception. A stepparent who walked unknowingly into a pre-existing situation of this nature should not be held accountable for solving the problem. He or she can certainly make matters worse (e.g. getting angry at the child), but 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 for the two of you to give that another try. Know, however, that this is one of the most intractable problems a counselor will ever encounter. My question, therefore, to you: Are you prepared to hang in there another ten 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.
It may sound counterintuitive, but agreement concerning parenting issues requires being married first, parents second.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.