Dear Suzie, I am very happily married now(to my second husband) all except for one thing-my son. I have three children from my previous marriage to a man who was an abusive bully. My second son was very distressed when we split up. He tried to carry a lot of burdens for his parents. He went away to University and got a very good degree in Computer Aided Design. In his final year he became extremely depressed and on returning home to me he could not work and had a nervous breakdown. Trying to support three children at once at University, work in a hectic teaching career and try to help my poor distressed son has not been easy. (I was alone for 10 years after we divorced.) My ex did not work or offer any support after we divorced. With a lot of help and support my son picked up and has since been in a variety of unsatisfactory (he says)jobs. He also became engaged and set up home with a girl and has since split up with her. Now he has had another nervous breakdown and is unable to work. My new husband says he should get himself together and get a life. He does not like him coming to see me regularly or me going to see him although he does enjoy his company on an irregular basis. I find his attitude very uncaring and find it hard to bear. I will always love and care for my children for as long as I am around. I love him too and feel very torn. How would you suggest I deal with the matter. Strangely enough, my best friend (living away now) is going through the same thing. Is it common for men to feel threatened by their wife’s sons?
You’ve absolutely put your finger on it and ‘threatened’ is an excellent word to use. Yes, most stepfathers feel very challenged by the son or sons of a previous partner. Think about it; any child is living, breathing proof that you loved someone else and someone else was there – intimately – before them. Any child who has been through thick and thin with you after a messy divorce and through several years together will have built up a relationship that they can only long to have – a relationship with mutual knowledge, love, empathy and all those little shared and known jokes and references. Add to that the fact that this is a boy – in a sense, the image and representative of his father – and what’s not to feel threatened about?! He can’t help feeling your son is a rival and in competition for your love. It’s natural, in fact. Did you know when a lion takes over a pride, he almost always slaughters any offspring of the previous male still at home? A lack of sympathy and understanding is a bit better than homicide, you have to admit.
But his feelings being natural doesn’t make them acceptable. Lions have no choice but to operate on instinct while we have the option to explore, understand and moderate our feelings and the actions we take because of them. What both of you need to understand is the very profound and destructive effect his father’s behaviour and loss has had on your son. His depression, his attempts to look after you, his difficulties in making relationships and sticking to his studies and his work all can be traced to this. He isn’t ‘together’ – he’s overwhelmed and fragmented because of it and to ‘get himself together’ takes two things. It needs you and his stepfather to recognize how very justified he has been in finding it hard, but how much you’ll both support him in dealing with it now. And it needs him to recognise the roots of his difficulties and to seek some help in getting back on track.
If you don’t mind I’d like to recommend my own book on Stepfamilies – all of you reading it may promote quite a few “Oh, NOW I understand” moments. And then you could encourage him to seek some counselling. Relate offer counselling for relationship and family issues. Their site can help you or your son find the nearest centre. They also do phone counselling – call 08451 30 40 16 for an appointment. Or the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy can suggest a counsellor in your area.