Unable to love my stepchild: Is my marriage doomed?

I have been married for six months. My wife has two kids from a previous marriage. We are currently separated because of the children. I don't have any kids of my own so I don't have any parenting instincts. Should a marriage end because of my inability to love my spouses' child?

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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

It is not an "inability to love" your stepdaughter presently that is problematic to your marriage. Liking her is enough for now. Instead, reflect on your willingness to accept a share of the responsibility for her development. In fact, it is the nature of your ongoing care and commitment to your stepchild's welfare that creates the potential for feelings of "love" to develop.

Your wife is right to expect and require you to address the needs of your stepdaughter. After all, you are an adult and you made the choice to marry a woman with children.

But stop short of any expectation for "instant love" that you or your wife may foster. Instead, take it slow, and be willing to develop your parenting skills over time. Your wife has had nine months of pregnancy and two years of caring for her daughter which you have not experienced.

You are right to expect and require that "couples" time be carved out to strengthen and nourish the marriage. A strong bond, as well as a good relationship between stepparent and stepchild are the best statistical predictors for success in your marriage.

Start by taking an honest look at your situation. Are you part of the solution or a part of the problem? For example, do you initiate responsibility for finding an appropriate baby-sitter when you want to go out with your wife, or merely complain to her about not getting out? Do you setup an atmosphere at home for an enjoyable "date" after your stepdaughter has gone to bed, or do you wait for your wife to create these opportunities?

Have you developed some shared activities or caretaking responsibilities that would allow for bonding with your stepdaughter, such as reading stories regularly, playing with her or comforting her when she cries? Do you know what developmental tasks your two-year-old will face in the next six months, or do you expect your wife to consider and respond to caretaking issues alone?

Ask your wife to discuss and work toward a vision of family rather than continue this separation. This is your family, too. Step up to the plate of responsibility as a spouse and as a stepparent. Then request that your wife do the same.

The most common reason for failure in remarriages is the lack of knowledge about the normal stages of stepfamily development. Refer to my article on stepfamilies, And Marriage Makes ?: Making Healthy Stepfamilies. Use this reading and other books such as "How to Win as a Stepfamily," by Emily and John Visher, to discuss realistic expectations in stepfamily development and find ways to make your stepfamily work!

The key to success in your marriage lies in togetherness and teamwork. Striking a balance between parenting and carving out couples' time is a dilemma all families with young children face. Stepfamilies are no exception.

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