By Randy Kessler | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes your wedding comes with a ready-made family. So what do you do if you find that although you love your spouse, you dislike your stepchildren?
They are inseparable. Your spouse had children before he or she met you. They are dependent on him or her and should and will, let’s hope, always be your spouse’s first priority.
If a new spouse cannot accept that situation, in my humble opinion (IMHO, as the new generation says), the relationship is doomed.
But what if you dislike your stepchildren?
There is a lot there. What if your spouse also dislikes the children? Yes, it happens. Parents and children grow apart.
But as a divorce lawyer who has seen my share of stepparent-stepchild relationships, I believe that the stepparent must be a “step-back” parent.
The stepparent cannot be the primary disciplinarian, instructor and guidance counselor. The parent must be primary, or things get askew.
Sure, there are exceptions, and I am by no means a psychologist. But we often see children desperately wanting their parent to be their parent and treating the stepparent as the adversary (even if the stepparent is actually their best advocate).
So what to do?
First, if you really not only dislike the stepchildren, but actually can’t stand them, please consider whether the relationship is worth it and will it survive over time. Seek individual therapy and think about the long term.
Not only can a bad relationship with stepchildren be uncomfortable, but it also can get worse as children get older. And that places the parent at a true risk of having to choose between spouse and children. What a horrible dilemma.
But if the choice has been made and you decide to try your best to make it work despite disliking the stepchildren, you have an immense task ahead, and I don’t envy you.
There will be times when the children want to do things alone with their parent. Let them. Let’s hope they appreciate your allowing them the time. Maybe they even will realize that they are being rude and that you should be included.
Their parent may choose you and love you, but the children did not choose you. They have to learn who you are and see for themselves why their parent chose you and loves you. And you can hope that they will of their own volition.
Certainly your spouse should support minimum requirements of decorum and respect, but the balance is to let children grow into a new situation. This is their entire universe. As one judge I appeared before years ago put it, “Just as the children’s empire is imploding, to make it even harder, a new emperor is installed.”
So be patient, hope for the best and love your partner. Kids grow up, graduate and move on (in most cases). Then you will be left with memories of how you handled things, and you want to feel good about that.
Even if it is never acknowledged, being a supportive, loving and considerate stepparent is one of the most important jobs a new spouse can have.
In today’s world of new family arrangements, being an adult takes on a new meaning. We all get only one childhood. Let’s do our very best to give every child the best one we can.
Randy Kessler is the founding partner of the family law firm Kessler & Solomiany (www.ksfamilylaw.com) in downtown Atlanta and former chairman of the American Bar Association’s Family Law Section. A version of this column originally appeared in Divorce Magazine.