I have been married for a few years to a really great guy and we have five children between us (second marriage for both). My children live with us full-time and his children come and go with visits. My boys get along well with him and like doing outdoor stuff with him. My teenage daughter gets along well with him most of the time, but there are times when she talks to me privately and cries and tells me that she misses her real dad and that my husband will never be her dad. When she’s in these moods, she avoids him and doesn’t even acknowledge him like she normally would.
Her real dad completely dropped out of her life when she was ten. Now, she’s sixteen and hasn’t had any real contact with him. My husband has been more of a father to her in the past three years than her dad ever was. When she talks like this, I get defensive inside because she has no idea how much my husband sacrifices for her and the rest of us compared to her real dad, who has done nothing for her. My husband isn’t offended by it and says that he doesn’t take it personally. How should I handle this when she brings this up?
I think it’s great your daughter feels safe enough to share her dilemma. The fact that she’s able to open up about this says a lot about her relationship with you and the kind of environment you’re creating for her. Make sure to let her know how grateful you are that she’s talking with you.
Please recognize that her reaction to losing her biological father is a grief response. There is an innate longing for her father that doesn’t just go away by explaining how rotten he’s been. Your husband is smart to not take this personally. It’s not personal. I’m sure he’s a great guy who provides her with a supportive relationship. I’m glad he’s making room for her to miss her dad.
The best thing you can do for your daughter is to let her share her sadness about losing her real dad. Let her talk about her feelings, even if it’s painful for you to hear. Remember that her relationship with him is not your relationship with him. She doesn’t have the perspective you have and she has a different connection to him. You got to choose him and then un-choose him after he left your family.
You can truly “mourn with those that mourn” as you sit with her and give her room to miss her dad.[i] I love the way Henri Nouwen put it:
“Being with a friend in great pain is not easy. It makes us uncomfortable. We do not know what to do or what to say, and we worry about how to respond to what we hear. Our temptation is to say things that come more out of our own fear than out of our care for the person in pain. Sometimes we say things like “Well, you’re doing a lot better than yesterday,” or “You will soon be your old self again,” or “I’m sure you will get over this.” But often we know that what we’re saying is not true, and our friends know it too. We do not have to play games with each other. We can simply say: “I am your friend, I am happy to be with you.” We can say that in words or with touch or with loving silence. Sometimes it is good to say: “You don’t have to talk. I am here with you, thinking of you, praying for you, loving you.”[ii]
My guess is that she’ll go back and forth like this for some time as she settles into acceptance of her new reality. As she matures and gains more perspective, she’ll be able to respond more maturely to your husband. Give her the space and time to grow into healthier responses. She’s hurting and permission from you and your husband to have these feelings will go a long way toward her healing.
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.
[i] Mosiah 18:9
[ii] Henri N. J. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey