Q. I’m divorced from the father of my two sons, now age 7 & 11. I’ve had a few failed relationships but in the last eighteen months met someone with whom I could be really happy. His wife died of cancer four years ago leaving him with two daughters, now age 12 & 14. It was all going well. We dated for six months before introducing the children, which went reasonably okay. We explored all possibilities of how we would live together and decided that it would be easier for me to move in with him as he had the bigger house and my boys were due to move school anyway. The boys were really excited as they like my partner but his daughters freaked out and became very difficult. We thought that once we all settled in it would change. We’ve now been living together three months and things have gone from bad to worse. Anything I say the girls either ignore or make snide remarks. I have no say on anything in the house. The girls control their father’s attention all the time. When I want to sit next to him or hold his hand, one of them will push me out of the way or snatch his hand, and he does nothing. My sons have become quiet, introverted and spend their time in their rooms or playing football. I used to love mealtimes, now they are so horrendous that we eat separately. I want my easy-going life back!
A. Integrating two families especially when one has lost a parent can be very challenging. Did the girls have counselling when their mother died? Have you talked to your partner about how you feel?
You moved in with your partner to his marital home; the house the girls grew up in with their mother who passed away when they were still very young. They most likely see you as wanting to replace their mother and they want to preserve their memory of her. Their world has crashed and they are afraid of the future. What if they embrace you, get to really like you, and then you die or leave?
You mention you have no say in the house and that the girls push you out of the way and your partner does nothing. It seems as though you’re all teenagers fighting to be daddy’s favourite, including you! And your partner seems too afraid to say anything, probably for fear of confrontation. You are all treading on eggshells hoping the situation will rectify itself. It won’t unless you, the adults, do something about it. Avoidance will have only one outcome – you’ll end up splitting up.
Fear is driving everyone’s behaviour
The first step is for you and your partner to have a long honest chat about the situation. You are the adults in that household. Go out for a walk with no children and tell him how you feel, as an adult, not a squabbling child wanting daddy’s approval. Remind each other what is good about your relationship. Take pen and paper and make a list of the positives and negatives about family life together. Look at the negatives and explore what you’d like instead.
Explore your family values and come up with a combined set of ‘house rules’. House rules are boundaries that adults set – you and your partner – and all four children abide by and follow. Children respond well to boundaries, it makes them feel safe, even though their job is to challenge them. Once you both come up with a list, which should include your much-loved family dinners, good behaviour and sharing household chores, decide what the consequences will be if they are broken. Remember that if there are no consequences you might as well not bother wasting your breath. There have to be consequences that need to be implemented come what may.
Have a family meeting and present the house rules
Let the girls know that although you are their father’s partner you don’t want to take their mum’s place, just as their dad is not your sons’ father. You do however need to make quite clear that you and your partner are the adults in your household and that you’ll be supporting one another in establishing the new house rules. This message needs to come from both of you.
Be open to negotiate with the children, show some flexibility on the minor issues and don’t budge on the big stuff. Once agreed do not under any circumstances deviate from the rules. Be prepared for the girls to retaliate at first but keep to the plan.
Display the list of the house rules and highlight the consequences, then stick to it!
Plan family activities together, have fun, and also make space for you to spend time with your sons and your partner with his daughters. Further down the line you may include a shopping trip with the girls whilst your partner takes the boys to a football game. And amongst it all remember to nurture your relationship too. It’s a juggling act that will pay off in the end even though it may feel like a lot of blood, sweat and tears at the start.
If you have a question for Carla please email Carla@carladevereux.comand enter – Your Questions Answered– in the subject line.