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"My Stepdaughter Is Ruining Our Marriage"

Blending children from previous marriages is putting a strain on this new union. Can this marriage be saved?


Her Turn

"My 21-year-old stepdaughter, Dana, moved in last year after dropping out of her junior year of college," said Ellen, 37, a marketing representative, who has a seven-year-old son, Jack, from a previous marriage and is now seven months pregnant. "I love her, but her laziness and disregard for the rest of us is driving Warren and me crazy. 

"Worse, we're totally at odds over Dana. She manipulates us so that Warren and I are bickering a lot now — something we'd rarely done in our two-year marriage.

"I really feel for this kid. Her mother, Warren's first wife, died when Dana was five, and she was shuttled from one relative to another. Warren was in no condition to care for her then — he has a history of drug problems, and it's only in the last few years that he's straightened out. But he adores his daughter, and he's worried about her.

"Dana is a smart girl, but she got derailed, so she asked to move in with us until she figured out what she wanted to do. I wouldn't have any problem with that if she didn't flout every rule we have. She’s a total slob. She leaves pizza crusts in the living room, watches soap operas for hours and spills cigarette ashes on the carpet. She didn’t do wash for two months, and when she finally ran out of clothes, we had a big blowup because she expected me to do laundry for her.

"Both Warren and I are also very worried about Dana's weight. She's well over two hundred pounds. She refuses to talk about it, and she canceled the appointment I made for her with a weight specialist. We hate to nag, but she's facing serious medical problems.

"Warren thinks I’m a pushover because I try to draw Dana out. But his alternative is unacceptable: He confronts her angrily, Dana rolls her eyes and gets this sneering look, and his temper just explodes. The next thing I know, my husband is pounding the walls, Dana is screaming, and I'm at wit's end

"Dana is also very manipulative. She tells me constantly that Warren is taking advantage of me because he procrastinates with everything — helping around the house, doing the yardwork, taking the car in for repairs. I can't believe her impudence, insinuating herself into our relationship like that. I'm starting to have all these doubts and jealous feelings now whenever Warren is late coming home, so I pepper him with questions.

"While my own childhood was very different from Dana's, I can relate to her. Dad, who worked as a manager for a life-insurance company, never had time to be with me. Mom worked full-time as a secretary, and when she was home, she was preoccupied with what everyone else thought. She hated the way I looked: I was never thin enough or pretty enough, so she put me on diets from the fourth grade on.

"She sent mixed messages. One minute she'd treat me like a confidante, then suddenly she'd become cold and even pretend that a conversation had never taken place.

"I met my first husband at a party after college graduation, but the marriage lasted only a few years. I knew he was an alcoholic when I married him, but I thought I could make a difference. The one good thing that came out of that marriage was Jack.

"I met Warren at the tail end of my marriage. I was working at a record company, and Warren was a freelance photographer shooting album covers. The chemistry between us was tremendous. We used to talk for hours. We were best friends, and after my marriage ended, we became lovers. Jack bonded with him immediately. I knew Warren had had a drug problem, but he goes to support-group meetings faithfully, and he's been clean for three years. He's got his own business now — he's developing a Web site.

"In the past, we always balanced each other. But as the tension with Dana escalated, we've lost that. Warren is often evasive. If I ask what he did during the day, or who just phoned, I can't get a straight answer. The whole mess with Dana has left me totally confused."

His Turn

"Let me say right off the bat that I love my daughter very much, even though, over the years, I've been one lousy dad," said Warren, 42. "But Dana is screwing up her life, just like I screwed up mine, and I can't stand to see her on the same destructive path.

"I was raised by a single mom who cleaned houses to support me. She left my dad when I was an infant, and we haven't seen him since. I'm still close to my mother, but she's extremely overprotective. My older brother, Jonny, was hit by a car and killed when he was three and I was one. Jonny was Mom's miracle child — talking in full sentences at two, playing the piano at three. While she never compared me to him, I sensed I had this incredible image to live up to. Many times she'd called me Jonny by mistake.

"I was a good student until I discovered drugs when I was 10. I started selling, too. Mom was often called to school because I had stopped going to class. Though it's hard to believe now, even an overprotective mother like mine was clueless back then about what was happening to me. The authorities told my mother I was sociopathic. Actually, I was stoned.

"In spite of all this, I managed to win a college scholarship, but I lasted less than a semester. I dropped out and started selling drugs while I bounced from one job to another. I met my first wife, Dana's mother, when I was 20, but the marriage was doomed from the start. We split up and she died of a brain tumor when Dana was five.

"As Ellen said, Dana was raised by my wife's relatives. I saw her whenever they let me, which wasn't often. When she started college, we became much closer. And when she dropped out, I was devastated. You see, I'm finally turning my life around. Three years ago, I checked myself into a hospital detox program, and I've been drug-free ever since. I've started a mail-order Web site from home, and I plan to take care of Jack and the baby while Ellen continues working. But Dana has thrown a monkey wrench into the whole system. 

You see, I'm finally turning my life around. Two years ago, I checked myself into a hospital detox program and I've been drug-free ever since. I'm trying to start a mail order Web site — I've set up an office in our home and I'll be the primary caretaker of the baby while Ellen continues at the record company. But Dana has thrown a monkey wrench into the whole system.

"I know I've always had a temper, but Dana's incredible rudeness brings out my worst. I'm a procrastinator, so when I ask Dana to wash the dishes and she says she'll do it later, I feel like I'm breaking out in hives. It doesn't help that my wife mops up after Dana at every turn. Maybe I have no patience, but Ellen has too much, and I think that's just as harmful. Whenever I try to set limits, they close ranks. I don't like fighting, and I'd rather not talk at all than argue.

"My relationship with Dana really soured when she started to come between me and Ellen. When Ellen acts like the Grand Inquisitor, expecting me to account for every minute and every person I speak to on the phone, I feel smothered. I'm not hiding anything .I just don't tell her everything.

"I don't want to be here, but if counseling can help alleviate some of this constant tension, I'll be here as long as necessary."

The Counselor's Turn

"Though they anticipated some difficulties when Dana moved in," said the counselor, "neither Ellen nor Warren thought she would have such a serious effect on their relationships. So a key goal of therapy was teaching them new tactics to deal with Dana while keeping their relationships in focus.

"Ellen's identification with her stepdaughter left her unable to see that Dana needed and wanted guidance. Ellen also had to learn that she could assert her own needs and that she didn't have to be the savior of the whole family. Warren had to check his anger before it destroyed every positive relationship he had built over the last few years.

"Warren and Ellen were both so convinced that fighting was a dirty word, they avoided it at all costs. Unfortunately, not fighting can be just as damaging to a marriage. When these two simply appeased each other, they stopped short of solving their dilemmas. They needed to learn how to work toward real resolutions.

"Compounding their problems was the fact that Ellen was a classic enabler, someone who appears to be nurturing and caring for others, but is actually allowing them to behave in self-defeating ways. Like many enablers, Ellen thought she was being firm, but she often waffled and eventually rescinded her rules. It's not hard to see why, of course. Ellen's parents were emotionally distant, withdrawing their love and affection when it suited them. Subconsciously, Ellen embarked on a mission to win love by always being there for others, even at the expense of herself. For his part, Warren used anger to intimidate others and protect his bruised inner core.

"To help Ellen and Warren deal with Dana, I explained that she had never learned to handle setbacks. Warren and Ellen had allowed her to stay with them indefinitely, and Ellen rushed to do everything for her, so Dana was off the hook. I told them, 'Why should she be independent, when you both make it so comfortable for her to stay a child?'

"I suggested they draw up a contract for all three of them to sign. Although this sounds impersonal, it forces everyone to state his or her needs and expectations. Ellen and Warren agreed to pay for Dana to return to school if she wanted to. If not, she had to work to pay her own rent. As long as she was under their roof, she must share housework and other responsibilities. The contract established emotional limits, too: While Dana had a right to her opinions, she had no right to voice them in snide, manipulative ways to Ellen. If Dana broke the contract, she had to leave immediately. However, on the issue of Dana's weight, Ellen and Warren had to step back — Dana wouldn't and couldn't lose weight for them.

"Once Dana realized Ellen and Warren were serious, she came around, complaining much less than Ellen or Warren expected. After two months, she found a job at a senior-citizen center and moved into an apartment with a girlfriend. She's beginning to talk about going back to school in the fall.

"As the tension over Dana subsided, Warren and Ellen could work on intimacy in their marriage. Both partners had built a protective wall around themselves — Ellen through emotional distrust, and Warren with his anger. Though he couldn't admit it at first, trust was further complicated by the fact that Ellen worried he might someday relapse into drug use.

"However, an important breakthrough came once Ellen was able to make the connection between her childhood experience and the assumptions she was projecting onto Warren. We spent several weeks talking about why Ellen didn't trust Warren, and why it was scary to be dependent on another person. In time, Ellen understood that she'd been assuming Warren, like her parents, would abandon her emotionally if she let down her guard.

"I suggested to Warren that whenever he felt furious, he needed to say to Ellen, 'I'm beginning to feel angry, and I need a time-out.' This allowed him to think through the outcome of his rage, and signaled to Ellen that he respects their relationship and doesn't want to damage it by going ballistic.

"Soon after Dana moved out, little Kenny was born — and Warren stepped right into the role of doting father, just as he had promised. Ellen took a six-week maternity leave, while Warren juggled caring for the children and his fledgling business. 'Seeing him with Jack and our son has made me feel so close to him,' Ellen now says. Ellen and Warren know they must continue to work hard to stay close. But they also know just how rewarding that can be."

"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular, most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Nanette Berman Cohen, M.S.W., a therapist in Plainview, New York, and professor of social work at Adelphi University, in Garden City, New York. The story told here is true, although the names and other details have been changed to conceal identities.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 1998.

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