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Evil Stepmom

 

Please contact Evil Stepmom at ESM@evilstepmom.org with your questions or ideas about stepfamily living with 17-30 year olds.

 



Dear Evil Stepmom
The Primary Triangle

Dear Evil Stepmom,

My stepson, Zach, has lived on and off with his father and me since he was a junior in high school. He’s now 25, and I’ve noticed something strange over these past seven years with him. It seems that when he’s living with us or living on his own, he has a lot of contact with his dad. They have a good relationship, they enjoy each other, and they like doing things together. They hunt and fish together, they work on cars together, and they build things and do repair work together. This is the strange part: whenever Zach spends time with or lives with his mom, we don’t hear from him at all. This didn’t used to bother me, but now that Zach is married and has a 1-year-old daughter, I feel that he should keep in better contact with his dad, even when he’s with his mom.

Here’s what’s happening. When Zach and his girlfriend, Sandy (now his wife), first discovered that they were pregnant, they moved in with us to save up for the baby. We don’t have much, but they had a room of their own and a clean place to stay. They lived with us til Anna, the baby, was three months old. Then Zach’s mom called and begged Zach to move his new family to her home in the South. I’ve been through this before with both of my husband’s sons; if they live with us or near us, everything goes well and we all get along. Then my husband’s ex pops up and wants one or both of the boys to move in with her by promising them a free place to live, jobs, contacts, etc. It never works out the way the boys hope, and they always wind up moving back here, where most of their family is. But, for the time they’re away, they don’t call their father, and he won’t call them if they’re living with his ex-wife because he doesn’t want to talk to her. I think Zach needs to be in touch with his dad, especially now that he has a child. What can I do?

Signed,

Missing the kids in Pacific Northwest

Dear Missing,

As incomprehensible as your situation may seem, there’s actually a simple reason for what Zach is doing: He’s working hard to maintain positive relationships with two people who don’t like each other. And, making things more complex for him, these are the two most important people in your stepson’s life.

There is a powerful underground factor that will always affect the behavior and decision-making of your partner’s adult children. It’s called the primary triangle, and it consists of your mate, your stepchild, and your stepchild’s other parent. The primary triangle is the condition your child was born into, the source of much of what your stepchild knows, and accounts for much of who he is. It matters to you because you are an outsider to it and always will be. Yet, if you can begin to see the movement in your stepchild’s primary triangle, you’ll be better able to navigate a relationship with him.

We know from significant longitudinal research (cite amato here) that young adult stepchildren frequently feel torn between their divorced parents, and that most who do handle it one of three ways: They take great pains to be equitable with both parents (Christmas with Dad, Birthday with Mom), they choose sides between parents (Mom good, Dad bad), or they distance from both parents (Christmas with girlfriend, Birthday in Vegas). All three of these postures cost the young adult something: Painstaking attention to fairness is fatiguing and gets artificial after a while – the vitality drains from a relationship when the visit is because this is mom’s holiday; Choosing costs a stepchild access to one the two most important people in his life—mom or dad; and distancing costs him access to both parents at a time when he needs all of their wisdom, coaching and life experience.

Zach is alternating good mom/bad dad and bad mom/good dad. It’s how he makes sense of loving both of his parents even though they don’t like each other. It may also be a way that he ensures that neither parent can probe him for information about the other. If your husband and his ex were able to loosen up a bit, Zach probably would too and you might even get a little more communication from him when he’s with mom.

If that doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, then you and your husband could work to normalize his distance by sending messages to him through the family system, letting him know through his brother or grandparents that he is missed and that you’re both wishing him well. No guilt trips, no whining, just a little light, indirect contact wherever you can. Your job in this is to be aware of the way Zach moves with regard to his mom and dad (toward mom, away from dad, then back again), stay out of it, and keep as neutral as possible. Welcome him and enjoy him when you do see him.* Leave the rest to Zach and your husband to figure out.

If you can do this consistently over time, I bet you’ll get good at seeing the patterns between Zach, his mom, and his dad. Remember, Zach has the complexity and pressure of a young family of his own now, so he needs open access to both of his parents more than ever. Anything you can do to help keep the anxiety in Zach’s family system down will be a benefit to Zach. And, by reducing the chronic stress you and your husband are both carrying around, it’ll help you too, in the long run.

Take your time,

ESM

*It is never a stepparent’s job to chastise or punish a stepchild for how they treat their parent; it is a parent’s job to manage their own relationship with their child. It will be best for your marriage to stay out of it.
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