Honeymoon is over for woman distressed by husband's kids, ex-wife

Issue December 2005

Q:I find myself sometimes regretting my decision to marry my husband, whom I met when his previous marriage was on the rocks. His business recurrently brought him to my firm in another state, and we became very close very fast.

A year later, I find myself in Massachusetts, working for a firm I do not like and bearing with his daily exasperation over the tremendous cash flow to his ex-wife for child support, which leaves the two of us with less than enough to pay our bills. Aside from his usually angry phone calls with the ex, my husband devotes most of his non-work time to his two young sons, who are with us every other weekend.

Most of the time, they either ignore me or treat me with disrespect, yet he is dismayed that I don't behave like a mother to them. In fact, I dread their arrival, because I know that, for the rest of the weekend, my husband will barely notice me. He then expects me to join him in driving them back to their mother's home. As we near the house, the kids become even colder, and his ex-wife, although herself remarried, treats me with hostility. I'm at a loss as to how to deal with this situation.

A:Our dreams of the ideal marriage, infused with scenes from "The Brady Bunch" or "Sleepless in Seattle" can lead to unrealistic expectations for a newly forming stepfamily. Although about 43 percent of marriages are remarriages, and about 65 percent of these result in stepfamilies, the process of forming a functioning blended family is very difficult and takes several years; many break up within the first two years. (More than half of first marriages end in divorce, and the figure is higher for remarriages.)

Children, other than the youngest ones, typically have little interest in bonding with someone who, after all, is not their parent and whom they did not choose. It is easy to understand why, during visits, they may wish or need to dominate the time of the otherwise absent parent whom they now have a greater fear of losing. The parent, in turn, may feel guilty for the impact of the divorce and not want to deprive the kids of his attention.

Your husband is also unrealistic in wishing for you to become a second mother to his sons. At this early stage, you can be, at best, a benign, friendly or loving presence, not a primary source of either nurturance or discipline. And, while his devotion to his children is admirable, he cannot expect you to totally submerge your needs. You and he must negotiate times when you can be together as a couple, apart from both the kids and his divorce-related financial worries.

You may also benefit from some time on your own, or with your own friends; in fact, the boys would probably appreciate the time alone with their father. In the coming years, everyone involved will need time to assimilate these major changes, grieve their respective losses and achieve a new balance that will permit the formation of new kinds of bonds, family rules and traditions.

Some mental health clinicians specialize in the issues faced by stepfamilies, and some also offer support groups in which you may be able to share your experiences and compare notes with others involved in a similar process. Feel free to talk to us at LCL if you could use help trying to access these kinds of resources.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/e-mails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

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