Tell Me About It

My husband’s daughter is making my life miserable

I’m terrified of uprooting our children and moving to the country

PROBLEM: I’m on my second marriage. I really like him, we are happy together and are well-matched. He is calm and considerate, and we are lucky enough to have five children between us: two children on my side and three on his. However, I am finding it very hard to build a relationship with his daughters.

I suppose they don’t really want me there, but one of them is moody and won’t settle in. I am trying to create a family where we all respect each other. My youngest daughter is 17 and my eldest is 22, and his daughters are mid-20s. I thought that if we had meals together it would work, but no matter how I tried, it seemed not to. The younger one in particular does not want to be around me and does not co-operate with the housekeeping or even basic tidiness.

She is very subversive and her father does not see it. She will be caustic and unco-operative with me and then a second later be all sweetness and light to her dad. My husband just throws money at the problem and sticks his head in the sand; perhaps he did this in his first marriage?

It is causing friction between my husband and me. I know it is very important that we preserve our relationship, but I’m beginning to lose sight of how to do that.

ADVICE: Blended families have become much more common, but we have little experience of how to cope with these complicated relationships. Each person feels alone in the struggle to create the ideal family when there are backgrounds of grief, hurt, vulnerability and anger, making that ideal impossible. The dream of getting married is still that it is the end of struggle and the beginning of happiness; however, when there are children from previous relationships the competition for loyalty and commitment can be fierce.

Children expect that parents will always put them to the forefront of their lives, staying in the background and being there whenever needed. This dream is shattered when the marriage splits and the children find themselves in the middle of bitterness and division. As time passes this can ease, but the hurt, questioning and grief again arise when one or both parents engage in new relationships.

Children, even those in their 20s, often feel they are being disloyal to the absent parent if they connect with, or like, the new partner. This can often be expressed in a subversive manner if the child feels that the parent in the new relationship would be hurt by their dislike. For this girl, it is much safer for her to aim her anger and resistance at you rather than her father, as she cannot afford to lose him. It might not be personal at all; in another situation, you two might actually like each other.

Added difficulties can arise when grandchildren are born and the step partner is kept out of the loop in preference to the original parents. The chances of this rejection of you continuing for some time is a real possibility. The question is: how can you live with this and preserve your relationship with your new husband in the face of such challenges?

The first possibility is to have compassion for the girl who is in trouble – this will free up some of your own negative emotions (hurt, disappointment and anger). Secondly you might try to engage your husband in some parenting around this issue. The important thing to get across here is that it is for his daughter’s sake (not yours) that he engage in this.

She will benefit from a father who cares about her enough to make her responsible for her part in the maintenance of the house (research suggests that children who have responsibilities for chores are happier and more adjusted in later life).

It is never too late to parent, and your husband might be responding from guilt and overcompensation rather than from good judgment. It would be better for him if he could learn this from a parenting coach rather than you, or indeed from the many parenting books that are available.

Your leverage is that you have a great relationship that is worth keeping, but you do not want to create a “me or her” situation. This is where you, as a couple, can be creative about solutions. Previously, your husband might not have had this experience of being supported, so reassurance and confidence in your marriage is the starting point, followed by an approach that is the very best for his daughter and one that is grounded in expertise.