Dr. Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. Here, she counsels a second wife who reports that her stepdaughter is making her life unbearable.
Dear Dr. Ford:
I am the stepmother of a 27-year-old woman who makes life almost unbearable for me. I married her father ten years ago—two years after her mother died—and it’s never been easy. She finished college after five years (because she changed her major) and has had a series of jobs that always ended because she was “treated badly,” and a series of dating relationships that ended the same way. My husband feels that he has to support her with an apartment, car, and health insurance and include her in many of the things we do because “she is lonely.” We aren’t poor, but this is draining financially and ruining our marriage. She has refused to see a therapist, and I don’t know what to do. My husband has been told by his younger son that she is “sick,” but even this doesn’t seem to convince him that something is wrong.
Do family dynamics like this ever change? I really love my husband, but I won’t win a battle where I tell him that he has to choose between his daughter and me. I have a really good job and still have friends from before my marriage. I would hate to get a divorce, but I think I may not have a choice if my future married life is really going to be a threesome. Do you have any suggestions for intervention? What choices do I have?
Dr. Ford Responds:
The role of step-parent can be a thankless one, and it can be especially frustrating in your situation, when you are forced to endure the consequences of parenting decisions that you are not a partner in making. You are feeling understandably helpless, and this always leads to anger and often to depression. In fact, you have described your stepdaughter as making life almost “unbearable” for you.
It seems to me, however, that it is your husband who is responsible for this state of affairs. According to your description, his daughter is in a chronic state of dependency and yet refuses to take any steps, such as therapy, that might lead to her becoming more independent. While it is important to remain compassionate about your husband’s concern and (probable) guilt feelings that have led to this sticky codependence, this is not a good way for her to be living; her brother agrees that she needs professional help. By continuing to support her without demanding anything from her, your husband is abetting a self-destructive path.
I think it may be useful to look at your husband through a similar lens. By continuing to support this dynamic with his daughter, he too is engaging in behavior that is neurotic, compulsive, and destructive to his marriage. If he were drinking or gambling and you went to Al-Anon, they would tell you that you were colluding by continuing to be part of this dynamic, not challenging him. You would be well advised to force a choice, not between you and his daughter, but between your marriage and the unhealthy behavior that’s going on in the family. I think you should insist on a couples or family therapy consultation as soon as possible.
Although this course may seem risky, there’s not much choice if you want things to be better. Yes, family dynamics can be changed, but patterns are hard enough to break individually; when two or more people are involved, it’s even more challenging. Every time one person tries to pull someone out of the rut that’s been dug, one of the others is trying to pull him back in. There are so many currents and cross-currents in a situation like yours that a well-trained therapist is strongly recommended. Besides having an outside perspective, a professional may be able to give your husband the permission he needs to show his daughter how to live like an adult.