"When Jack and I were dating I was crazy about his son, Andy," said Beth, 38. "But ever since we got married, five years ago, and had two kids of our own, things have become increasingly tense with my stepson — and my marriage hasn't been so great either. My husband and I are fighting all the time and Andy, who's 12 now, is usually at the center of our battles.
"Jack's divorce from his first wife was pretty bitter and he feels guilty about how it affected his son. But he's trying to make up for it by completely spoiling Andy, buying him anything he wants and doting on him completely. Whenever Andy is with us — usually every Wednesday night and alternate weekends — Jack ignores me and our kids, Kate, 4, and Ben, 3. Jack and Andy spend the entire weekend watching action movies or playing video games. Not only do I miss having private time with my husband, but I also hate being excluded from their lives.
"I also can't stand the way Andy treats me: He won't look me in the eye when he speaks to me. Usually all I'll get is a mumbled one-word answer. He never says 'please' or 'thank you' and doesn't lift a finger to help around the house, whether to bring his plate to the sink after dinner or keep his bedroom neat. 'I like it messy,' he snaps when I tell him to pick up the dirty clothes strewn across his bed. As for Kate and Ben, Andy barely speaks to them, and they're crazy about him.
"I try to talk to Jack about the situation but we always end up arguing. If I tell him he's too lenient with Andy, he tells me I don't appreciate how traumatic divorce is on a kid. If I say Andy's disrespectful, he accuses me of not liking his son. It's gotten so bad that we hardly ever have sex. I just don't feel romantic with this much tension.
"It's hard to believe that we were once so totally in love. I met Jack through a coworker and fell for him after our first date: He's a partner at a big law firm and he's really good-looking, supersmart, and fun to be around. He'd been separated for a couple of years when we began going out and was very open about his battles with his ex-wife over custody and money. He also talked a lot about how much he missed being involved in Andy's life on a day-to-day basis. I liked that he was such a committed dad.
"Andy was a cuddly 5-year-old when I first met him and I adored him. And I know the feeling was mutual. But things started to go downhill shortly after I married his dad. The fact that I got pregnant right away — and had two babies within two years — didn't help. But frankly, I think it was his ex who turned Andy against me. When he was with us she'd call several times a day and Andy would talk to her in a whisper. Once I overheard him say, 'She's not that bad, Mom.' But she has clearly brainwashed him.
"I really wish we could all get along when Andy is here. Despite the children's age gap I know there are family activities we could all do. But Jack hovers over his son like he's a visiting dignitary. Worse yet, he wants me to dote on him, too. Well, I consider Andy to be a family member, not a guest, and I expect him to follow the same rules that Jack enforces for Kate and Ben.
"This past weekend was the last straw. Instead of coming home after picking Andy up, Jack took him out for pizza and a movie — and never called to tell me they'd be late. When I complained, he told me I have to respect his need for private time with his son.
"Believe me, I realize the situation is difficult for Andy and I also understand that his dad wants to have a good relationship with him. But I'm trying to create a family here. If things don't improve fast, my husband will be twice-divorced before he hits 40."
"Beth and I never argued about anything when we were dating," said Jack, 39. "When I was stressed out or upset because I'd had a fight with my ex-wife, Beth always knew how to calm me down. And when I felt sad about being apart from Andy, she'd cheer me up by helping me plan activities for his next visit.
"Since we've been married, though, she's become much less supportive. She's always criticizing me for how I treat Andy and complaining about his behavior. I hate the way she picks fights about his visits because those weekends mean the world to me. I wish Andy lived with us full-time instead of only 10 nights a month.
"So what if I devote myself to my kid on the days he's here? True, I don't spend a lot of time with Beth, Kate and Ben on those weekends, but I make up for it by being a devoted father and husband the rest of the month. My wife wants to do stuff as a family, but given the age difference among our kids, that's not realistic. And she complains that I give Andy presents, but I don't see any harm. It's not as though we're broke!
"What hurts me most is how tough Beth is with Andy. Would it be so hard to fuss over him a little bit and treat him like a special guest? At heart Andy is a good kid who's stuck in an impossible situation. Yes, he has withdrawn from Beth, but come on, he's 12 now. She shouldn't expect him to be the same cuddly little boy he was when he was 5. It's true that my ex-wife has made things worse. For some reason she drilled it into Andy's head that Beth was the cause of our breakup even though I didn't meet her until after we'd separated. I'm angry at my ex's behavior and I've called her on it repeatedly. The fact is, my ex has always been a moody and self-centered woman — that's a big part of why we broke up.
"I wasn't looking for another relationship when I met Beth, but after a friend set us up, I couldn't resist. I waited six months to introduce her to Andy, and when I did, they totally hit it off! Beth was crazy about him, and he loved her. I figured that would continue.
"Obviously that hasn't. But Beth's approach to the situation is only making things worse. Okay, I was wrong to go to the movies with Andy without letting her know. But I was so excited to see him that I lost track of time and forgot to call. I apologized to Beth, but she just won't let it go.
"Apart from our issues with Andy, Beth and I really get along well. So when she suggested that we see a marriage counselor, I agreed. I love my wife and want a happy family life just as much as she does."
The Counselor's Turn
"After Beth had described Andy's behavior I showed her that it was a textbook example of how children of divorce react," said the counselor. "A child usually doesn't mind when his divorced dad starts dating, but once a couple marries, the woman becomes a permanent presence and threatens his relationship with his father. It's difficult for a child to express his pain, so he reacts by being rude to his stepmother. Adolescence makes it even more complicated since tweens are then in inner turmoil. 'Don't take this so personally,' I told Beth. 'It's not about you.'
"I told Jack that I thought he was trying to win Andy's love by treating him like a prince. Since he didn't demand appropriate behavior from his son, Jack was essentially giving Andy permission to mistreat Beth. 'By ignoring his rudeness, you're excusing it,' I said.
"Initially, Jack was defensive. 'Andy meant to say hello to Beth, but he got distracted,' he said during one particularly heated session. 'He didn't leave his dishes at the table to be mean. He just forgot to help.' Assuming Andy did forget, I told Jack that he still wasn't paying attention to his wife's needs. 'As a result she feels neglected,' I said.
"By our next session Jack admitted that perhaps he had been dismissive of Beth. 'I'm sorry,' he told her. 'I'll do whatever it takes to make amends.' Jack agreed that during Andy's weekend visits, the family would eat dinner together and would do one activity as a group, such as going bowling or baking cookies. He also promised to make Andy go to bed by 9:30 p.m. so that he and Beth could have some quiet time.
"To keep things on track I helped the couple create a list of house rules for all the kids. I urged them to phrase the rules positively — a list of dos instead of don'ts — and they included these three: 'We look people in the eye when we speak.' 'We allow others to finish their sentences.' 'We clear dishes after we eat and put dirty clothes in the hamper.' Before they posted the list on the pantry door, Jack and Beth sat down with the children and explained that they had come up with some rules to help the family run better. 'Andy whined a bit at first, but when I stayed firm, he backed off — and he ultimately took the changes in stride,' Jack said.
"He actually seemed to thrive under the structure. After a few months Andy became much more respectful and more cooperative. He also paid attention to his younger siblings and seemed to bond more with Beth. 'The other night he told me all about a project that he was working on at school and even asked for my help with it,' she said.
"Beth and Jack spent four months in therapy and worked really hard resolving their differences. Their efforts seem to have paid off. 'We're a stronger family because of what we've learned here,' Beth said. Jack agreed: 'I'm glad that my wife didn't give up on us.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2010.