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Does My Husband Love His Daughter More Than Me (his Wife)?

Question:

This probably seems silly but I feel like I have to fight for any attention from my husband with my step daughter! She gets anything she wants from dad because (he has come right out and told me) he feels guilty because she doesn’t live with us! He does everything with her. She is a sports-aholic so he goes to all her games and even practices… if its baseball and thats 30 miles away! She has tourneys all through summer so we haven’t done any family time in about 9 yrs! We have 3 other boys and I feel bad for them! I keep hoping it would get better … and the boys are all grown now but she is 16 now and manipulates him so well I am about to throw in the towel!! She knows it too. She does little things like saying dad over and over again when she talks to him and it is just me and him there with her. She always wants to go to games of any kind like other high school games/practices or watch them on tv I am ready to give up! I need some me time with hubby we haven’t had a romantic night since well…forever…

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Answer:

This is not a silly problem by any means. Instead, it is a very real and unfortunately common problem that occurs in some marriages. Households where children from prior marriages are combined are perhaps particularly vulnerable to this sort of thing happening, for reasons which will hopefully become clear in a moment.

Family therapists call this sort of problem a boundary issue. In an idealized household, the adult couple functions as an integrated unit, at least as far as their children are concerned. They make policy together and speak with one voice, individually resisting any given child’s attempts to manipulate or to play one parent off the other to gain advantage. They also keep confidences for one another and do not share private adult business with children. It is as though a fence or boundary has been drawn around the adults which functions to keep their secrets inside and to unify them in front of their children.

It’s not so much that having this idealized boundary around the adults in a household is so great in of itself. It’s more that the alternatives to this arrangement are worse, both for the children and for the adults and the quality of the marriage. When a child is allowed to split the marriage, the partners suffer, as you well know from your own experience. Also, the child’s successful manipulation of the adult caregiver isn’t good for the child. She is rewarded, essentially, for dominating her caregiver and comes to see her caregiver as weak. At the very least this encourages selfish behavior on her part and models a weakened marriage for her. Her successful transgressive relationship behavior here sets her up for dysfunctional relationships in her own future, as well, I believe. It feels good to get what you want, but it is not always in your best interest that this should occur. The outcome, in your case, is that daughter becomes more of a selfish brat (albeit a brat who was probably wounded by her biological parent’s divorce and who is acting out at the present time), husband becomes daughter’s poodle, wife feels unloved and unappreciated, and everyone loses self-respect.

It is especially easy for mixed families (families composed of members of prior families) to have boundary problems. Children’s loyalties are to their old families and new spouses in step-parent roles (whether this term is used or not) are not easily listened too. It is common in such circumstances that children will cling to their original parent and reject the step-parent. Such behavior puts pressure on the marriage and attempts to split it or break down the boundary around the new marriage, which likely has not had much chance to get well defined in the first place. Your own family would appear to be living this process out currently.

My recommendation to you is to see about getting your family into a family therapy situation. If they whole family cannot go, then couples counseling for you and your husband could be quite useful too. The structural problem in your marriage and family situation needs to be addressed and hopefully corrected. If your husband has enough insight to know the motive for his behavior, he will hopefully also have enough insight to understand the boundary concepts and how his behavior is not helping your mutual situation but instead, making it worse. What needs to happen here is that he and you together agree to strengthen the boundary around you that protects you from your children and vice versa, protects your children from you both. You both need to set limits with the daughter and keep them, and make some protected time for yourselves. It won’t take much: he can still spend a lot of time with daughter, so long as he grows a spine and tells her no when that is the right thing to do, and so long as he stops neglecting you and the health of your mutual relationship.

If you both see the wisdom in setting limits on daughter, you can expect daughter to ratchet up her demandingness. This is to say, it is normal for someone who is used to getting her way to seek out ways to continue to get it. Escalation is typically a favorite strategy. If a little guilting used to get me what I wanted, but isn’t anymore, then I’ll just turn up the volume until it is loud enough again that I get what I want. You both should be ready for daughter to throw fits and perhaps even move out (if she can). This is all normal, and will tend to subside once it becomes clear that the new limits you both set are not something she can manipulate.

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