Stepfamily Issues

Q: I'm in a relationship with a really wonderful woman. The issue I'm facing is her 12-year-old daughter who keeps comparing me with my girlfriend's ex. He was a drug addict with a lot of HUGE personality flaws. He had a meltdown, went on a binge, and destroyed the family car one night, which ended the relationship. But I've never done an illegal drug in my life. I don't even drink. And while I'm not working right now, it isn't because I'm a lazy drug-addicted couch potato like her ex, it's because I'm a disabled veteran. My stepfather was an alcoholic who did to us what that drug addict did to them, and I recognize now that's part of why this ticks me off the way it does, but that doesn't lessen the impact.

The kid also takes sore subjects from arguments with her mother and uses those against me too, like fights over money. Her mother doesn't seem to understand why this is a problem. It is absolutely essential that she does. How do I explain why this is uncool? -- Doug, 39

Dr. Susan: Ah, the joys of stepparenting a 12 year old! Let me reassure you that what you're going through is fairly common in second marriages (or non-marriages, as in your case). Also that your instincts are correct that you and your honey need to be on the same page about how to treat this pre-teen's provocations. The girl is testing you, unsurprisingly. Uncool, but typical. She's been betrayed by the drug addict with the rotten personality, and she's not going to trust another man so quickly (nor perhaps her mom's choices in men). Especially when there's no reason for her to believe you're a permanent fixture in her life.

So what do you do? Act as though you're a stepfamily and follow all good stepfamily advice you can find online and in books. The gist of which is that you and the mother have to agree that everyone in the family shows respect for the others. No one is allowed to be mean or contemptuous. While anyone should feel free to bring up problems, I'd suggest you and the mother discuss your personal issues out of presence of the kids, thus depriving them of some ammunition. It's too easy for people to take sides, but you're all in this together. Try not to make any of this a matter of loyalty. The mother wants to protect her girls, and you want to protect your relationship with the mother. Do not get into arguments with the girl in which you defend yourself against accusations that you're "just like" someone you're not at all like. Act reasonably, but don't expect a kid to act reasonably all the time. You're not going to be an instant family, but if the mom and you take each other's feelings seriously, you'll both feel validated. And you might have a future.

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