My wife treats my children differently than hers

I don't know how to deal with my wife's treatment of my natural children. She treats her son, who is the youngest, like a little angel. My children are considered trouble by her and her family. The kids are five,six and seven. I work long hours, so I'm not home a lot. How can I get her to be fair in dealing with my children?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

You and your wife are experiencing the challenges of becoming a stepfamily. Your particular circumstances define you as a complex stepfamily, meaning that you both bring children to the marriage. This is the most complicated stepfamily formation. All children have suffered loss of their original family situation and that loss needs to be mourned. All too often unresolved sadness and loyalties do not get a place for safe expression in the family and a second family dissolution is the result.

It is natural for both of you to experience feelings of belonging to your own biological children. But you are rapidly taking on traditional roles and expectations which increase the pressure to be one big happy family. This increases the likelihood of an explosion.

There is no "instant love" between stepchildren and stepparents and in situations where a stepparent, particularly a stepmother is taking on primary responsibility for stepchildren you can expect trouble. In addition, your wife has gone from caring for one child who she has known for years, to primary caretaking for your three children with whom she did not experience a primary bond.

Perhaps both of you are falling prey to highly unrealistic expectations for one another, which leads to alienation and blaming. Over half of remarriages fail, in part because of highly idealized visions of becoming one big happy family. Television shows like the Brady Bunch only helped proliferate these destructive myths. The lack of education about stepfamily development is largely responsible for unresolved tensions in remarriages.

Take a step back and put yourself in your wife's shoes. Certainly her negative expression of feelings towards your children needs to stop. But her feelings that your children are a burden are quite real. If you were the primary caretaker for three new children that came with your spouse, in addition to the work of caring for your own, you too might feel overwhelmed. But instead of resolving these feelings, your wife may be contributing to greater polarization and disharmony by villianizing her stepchildren and sanctifying her own biological child.

Acknowledge your wife's feelings, but request that she change her behavior. Ask her what would be helpful to her in taking a step back herself and accepting the complexity of the situation. Does she need hired help or your help in some way? Because you are the biological parent, it is you who should be disciplining and setting limits. It is a set-up for failure for your wife to be the one who doles out consequences. Your children will act out their anger on her, as she is not their "real mother". And there is no affectionate foundation yet established on which your wife can effectively gain your children's respect. The result is a self-perpetuating pattern of splitting the positive and negative feelings natural to family life into biological war camps.

It is your job and your wife's job to sort through these difficult issues and get back on track as a couple so that you can more effectively lead the family together. Research shows that the most significant predictor of successful stepfamily formation is the quality of the relationship between stepparent and stepchildren. The second most important predictor is a strong couples' bond. You and your wife need to work on both. Read my article Making healthy stepfamilies, as well as answers to other questions relating to stepfamilies on this column. These answers contain resources, such as the National Stepfamily Association that can help you to resolve your understandable difficulties in this family transition.

Take responsibility for educating yourself to the task at hand. Remember, that each of you chose to be married to the other. Choice includes responsibility. You each made the choice to become a stepparent to one anothers' child(ren). No one promised you that it would be easy. Your children did not have this choice. It is your responsibility to create an environment that works for everyone. You owe it to your children and to your marital commitment to one another.

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