Monday 23 April 2018

Dear Mary: I cannot stand my demanding and spoiled adult stepchildren

Mary O'Conor

Relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist Mary O'Conor offers relationship advice in her weekly column.

Question: I have been married to a widower for a few years. He has several adult children from his previous marriage. The problem is that I can't stand my stepchildren. I have tried to be open-minded, but they are spoilt, demanding and manipulative. They treat me like the maid. They show up at will and expect me to cook a full Sunday dinner, going so far as to specify the menu and what brands they will or won't eat. It is always: "Do for me!"

Even though we are living on a low income, they are constantly asking for "loans" for the "grandchildren". Their incomes are much higher than ours and they waste their money on luxuries, then expect us to constantly bail them out to cover their school fees, clothes and utility bills. My husband won't ever say no, because he doesn't want to risk alienating his children. In the meantime, I dread the next phone call or knock at the door.

Mary replies: Even if you were his children's biological mother, as opposed to their stepmother, this would be a horrible situation for you. Nobody likes to be taken for granted, which is what they are doing to you.

Firstly, let's look at the money situation.

It really depends on what sort of financial arrangement you reached with your husband when you married. Did you keep a separate account for yourself or did you merge everything into one account? If you have separate monies, then your husband is entitled to do whatever he wants with his money, as are you.

If it is all coming out of a joint account, then can you draw up a budget showing how your money is accounted for and how little you actually have to give them. Voice your concerns to him, but at the same time be very wary of being critical of his children because even though they are adults, he will still see them as his children and will look on it as his duty to be there for them whenever they ask.

You don't say if you have children of your own, but if you do, you will understand the point I'm making. If you did not have any children before you inherited his, then you will find it difficult to put yourself in his shoes.

Now that the New Year is approaching, why not make some new rules - but in the very nicest way? You can suggest that you are not always going to be there when they call on Sundays expecting to eat with you, and come up with some reason why you won't be there.

You can invent a new hobby or interest if you have to. Offer to have a slap-up Sunday dinner on, say, the first Sunday of every month when they are all welcome. You can let them know that by now you are fully aware of all their different preferences, so they should leave the menu up to you. Insist that they are welcome to call any time to see their father, but not to expect dinner at the same time.

In this way - or whatever variation you feel will help - you will be taking control of the situation and won't be dreading their calls or visits quite so much. You will, of course, have to outline to your husband what your plan is but be sure to emphasise to him that you don't want to put your relationship in jeopardy.

My dependent mother has ruined my life

I have an emotionally dependent mother. This has been my nightmare for the past several years since my adored father died. My doctor at the time told me that my mother immediately decided that I was her new partner and ever since it has been "we will sit in" "we won't do that".

I am nearly 60 and a single female. She has ruined my life. She has stepped in on several relationships and one near-engagement. Due to Victorian rearing, sex was a no-no before marriage. Several doctors and counsellors have cited her hold on me as holding me back in life.

Recently, a friend invited me away for a weekend. "Don't worry about me, I will be fine," she said, adding: "But you'll call for your dinner on the way back." She expects me to be with her a lot at the weekend, which has cost me in terms of friendships and having to hide the few romantic relationships I have had, though I don't live with her. She talks in terms of "we" not "I".

Time has moved on and she is of robust health, even in her early 80s. Is it too late for me to break free and make my own life? She disapproves of my hobby, of which I could have made a career, but I am working on it. I have a considerable amount of free time work-wise but she expects me to be with her even more as a result.

I can no longer stand this and am in crisis as I realise clearly the mess that she and I have made of my life.

My siblings are in part supportive and tell me I need to create distance, but there are elder-care issues and they are male and not as understanding.

What hope is there, Mary? Where does it go from here, given I am worn out and depressed and too much called upon. There are near hysterics if I don't answer my phone immediately and messages are then left on both the mobile and landline. I really can't do this any more.

Mary replies: I can see that having had counselling and other help, you have a very good understanding of what has happened to you. But it is not just enough to have that understanding - you have to move on to the 'action' stage and do something to effect change. Your mother substituted you for your late father and you in effect became her significant other, but this was not your choice. It is a pity that you haven't done something about it before now, because her attitude and behaviour have become ingrained in her and would be very difficult to change. But you can change your responses and your way of interacting with her.

You seem to have given in to her a lot over the years and I hope that you can now find the strength to stand up to her and live your life more as you choose. The alternative is for you to grow more and more resentful and more stressed, and that won't be good for anybody. So start by making small changes, and the phone calls will make a good place to begin. Get into the habit of letting all calls go to voicemail and then call her back the next day. She will gradually accept this as the new norm. And so what if she disapproves of your hobby - it is your hobby and your life to live.

Now is also the time to call on your siblings for more help and input into her life.

They may not be as understanding as you are in relation to her issues, but they won't harm her in any way. Try to let go of the fact that you are the only one that can take care of her. If you were ill and in hospital she would get along just fine.

For all these years you put your mother first, but in the process you have suffered greatly. Now is the time to put yourself first - the world will not stop spinning and you will find after the initial feelings of guilt that it is indeed a better place.

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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