When my husband and I got married almost 10 years ago, he brought his two children with him, of which he had full custody. Their own mother left them all. They consider me their mother, because I have filled that role and she has chosen not to. For all these years both of his children have lied, defied, disobeyed, had outbursts, and have hurt the younger children we had together.
The teenage son still has so much anger and resentment towards the situation of his mom leaving when he was little, me for being in that role, and the children I have borne. He is so disrespectful and hurtful, saying he can’t wait to get far away from us. But, then he blames us for whatever lack of relationship he has with us all. He’s told me that he can’t change and that I should just focus on teaching my sons because he doesn’t want what I’m trying to teach. I try to love and reach out but am continually rejected; being the one he wants to hurt. In addition to being worried for him, I’m also concerned with how to help our other children and stay close to my husband.
There is emotional weight and damage that my children, myself, and my husband all carry as a result. It’s draining. I want to make my home a haven, and am struggling every day, feeling beaten down. How do you help someone (the teenage son) who doesn’t want your help at all? And, how do you help the rest of the family feel peace and comfort amidst the contention and uncertainty he brings into the home?
Blending families isn’t easy under favorable conditions. However, when you throw in parental abandonment, it sets everyone up for a more difficult experience. The loss experienced by these two children whose mother wanted nothing to do with them cannot be fully measured. The grief that accompanies such a loss reverberates through the years while you and their father work to support them. I’m certain you understand the profound pain these children must be experiencing.
Losing their mother to abandonment can often feel more confusing and painful than losing her to death. Knowing that she’s still alive, but doesn’t want anything to do with them affects the way they see themselves. It diminishes their sense of self and their importance to others. This can produce behavior that sends mixed signals of “please come here” and “go away.” This attachment distress isn’t easy to heal when a child is rejected by a parent.
I hope you’re not doing this alone. You didn’t mention your husband’s involvement in working with his children’s emotional struggles. Is this something that has been delegated to you? If so, that will explain much of your challenge. If your husband hasn’t been an active part of his children’s transition from losing their mother to gaining a stepmother and half-siblings, then this will most likely be part of their grief. It’s one thing to lose their mother, but it’s another trauma to go through that loss without the emotional support from their father. Outsourcing that responsibility to a stepmother doesn’t work, regardless of how loving and compassionate you are.
If he’s not involved, then I recommend you make a strong effort to let him know how important he is in their healing. It’s not too late for him to become a significant influence in his children’s lives. He may need some help learning how to become involved at this stage of their lives. They may feel resistant and resentful if he’s not been involved and suddenly shows an interest. Family therapy can be effective if everyone is willing to attend together.
If he has been involved in helping his children cope with the loss of their mother and the subsequent transitions, what has his role been in that process? Has he taken the lead? Has he just listened and observed? If he’s been in the lead and the children still resist and struggle, then continue to show understanding and compassion to those older children while having boundaries and expectations in place for the benefit of the family.
Dr. Haim Ginott taught that we should be “permissive with emotions and strict with behavior” when working with our children.[i] You can still expect him to be appropriate and respectful while living in the home, even though he may have no interest in anything else you have to teach him.
It’s difficult to stay respectful to someone who blatantly disregards the rules and boundaries in your home. I recommend reading “The Anatomy of Peace” as a way for you and your husband to better understand how you can pull of this delicate balance of providing structure while maintaining a compassionate awareness of what these kids have been through. Even though it’s not their fault for what has happened to them, it is their responsibility to be a contributing member of the family and working to make the family a safe and respectful place for all.
Stephen R. Covey taught a challenging truth about how to respond to those who treat us disrespectfully. He wrote:
“When you consistently return kindness for unkindness, patience in the face of impatience, good for evil, you release the still, small voice inside of the other person to advocate your case, and it will appeal to whatever good there is in that person.
Of course, there is no guarantee that this will result in a change in the offending person’s behavior. As happens with many people in all kinds of situations, he may completely ignore the still, small voice. The point is that one of the main factors, perhaps the major one, influencing whether he will listen to the voice or ignore it will be your own behavior and attitude. The person who is striving for Christ-centeredness will seek to bless when being cursed, to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile, to forgive and forget, to move on in life with helpfulness and cheerfulness, believing in the potential goodness of people and the eventual triumph of truth and righteousness. And such a divinely centered behavior pattern arouses enticings to righteousness in the consciences of all those around him, representing an “upward temptation.” In effect, he then has the Savior as his advocate.
Interestingly enough, the moment a person attempts to become his own advocate, he loses in part the Savior’s advocacy. If he seeks to defend and justify himself, or to return in kind the treatment he is receiving, thus being caught up and cooperating in the negative exchange of energy, then he has forfeited the higher advocacy. Both parties then are on the same territory, and either fight or flight will be the probable outcome, whether in the form of smooth manipulations, pressures, violence, withdrawal, indifference, cold wars, or heated-up legal battles.There is nothing as baffling to one who is full of tricks and duplicity as straightforward, simple honesty in another. It sets him in a war with himself, with his conscience, with his Savior.”[ii]
It’s tempting to come up with ways to control these children and make them respect you and the efforts you’re making. There is nothing wrong with having boundaries and expectations of these children. Continue to engage them in a loving and supportive way as you hold a firm line with them.
I hope you can continue to advocate for family therapy to help create unity with your husband and his children around their losses and how they can get support as they learn how to live in a family. They may struggle to learn for many more years, but your ways of modeling compassion with firm boundaries will give them a great model for how family life can work.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves as the primary chorister. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[ii] Covey, Stephen R., The Divine Center