Dear Mary: 'How do we get closer to my stepchildren?'
Relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist Mary O'Conor offers relationship advice in her weekly column.
Problem: I’m stepmother to two young adults, both married but without children.
Their mother is deceased as is my first husband. I have a number of children of my own who are married with children, and each year my children come to visit us with their spouses and families, and it is great to see them all.
The problem is that my stepchildren have not visited us for anything more than a half a day in the four years that we have been married. When they do visit they are what I would describe as polite, no more.
My husband didn’t get on all that well with either of them when they were growing up but he thought that when they were young adults, things would change.
I’m beginning to think that I am the problem. I actually confronted his daughter and asked why they don’t come to visit more, and she said that while she didn’t mind being friends she wasn’t terribly interested in having new step-brothers and sisters or, indeed, a new parent. I’m at a loss to know what to do – how do I get everybody together to be one big happy family?
MARY SAYS: My advice to you is to do nothing. Think back to when you were in your mid-20s or even later. Would you have been interested in getting a step-parent and some step-siblings if one of your parents had died? Probably not, because you were already an adult and thinking more along the lines of becoming a parent yourself.
This is also much more about your step-children’s relationship with their father than it is about you and your children. They seem to be simply continuing on the pathway that was forged when they were growing up and, as a result, old animosities are continuing. They do not appear to have been a terribly happy family then, and so there is very little chance of you all becoming a very happy blended family now, which is what you wish for. Just be happy that your step-daughter is willing to be friends with you, take things slowly and keep the lines of communication open with her.
Your husband is the one who is suffering the most — it must be difficult for him to see the obvious bond between you and your children when he doesn’t have that same bond with his own children.
Allowing him the space to tell you how he is feeling about all of this is the most helpful thing that you can do right now. He may find it very difficult to talk about it all, but if you ask the right open-ended questions without in any way apportioning blame it would make it easier for him to open up.
A very good first step would be to get a copy of Families and How to Survive Them, a bestselling self-help book co-authored by the psychiatrist and psychotherapist Robin Skynner and the comedian John Cleese. It is a really good read for anybody interested in family dynamics, and may help him get talking about how things were for him when the children were growing up.
After that, you can talk about how things are for him with his children right now, and perhaps work out a plan as to how best he can deal with the fallout from their earlier relationship. It will not be easy, and try not to expect a happy ever after scenario. But the most important thing is for him to see that you do not judge him and that you are on his side.