Recalcitrant Stepdaughter

5 May

Dear LetterBalm: I was married for the second time two years ago. My husband’s teenage daughter is supposed to have a learning disability, but it’s never been formally diagnosed. She recently came to live with us, and, unfortunately, it’s tearing up our marriage. She won’t go to school or get a job. She mouths off to her father and me, throws tantrums, trashes rooms, and refuses to pitch in and do household chores. She is sullen and uncooperative – kindness and reasonableness don’t work with her. My college-age kids won’t have anything to do with her and won’t come to our home if she’s there. My husband coddles her and pays for all her expenses. He won’t listen to anything I say without becoming defensive. Frankly, I’m terrified of her and think my husband and I need a temporary break. But I’m afraid if I leave she’ll just become more entrenched. What to do?

–Trapped in My Own Home

It seems to Ms. L.B. that there are two issues here, both of them serious. You have an obviously troubled stepdaughter who may be bipolar with other medical and psychological issues. She also may have obsessive control conditions or a chemical imbalance. The second issue is that your stepdaughter is disrupting the lives of many around her, including your children, and threatening the stability of your marriage. But you can’t force your husband or his ex to get their daughter a desperately needed full physical and psychological evaluation. If you decide to leave your home, you’re forcing your husband to choose between his wife and his daughter. Based on his ingrained patterns of behavior and some guilt, guess which one he’ll pick. He’s blind to his daughter’s troubles. But there may be a softer way, one that aligns you and your husband. Find a qualified family therapist (who’ll ask probing questions), book the first session, and have a private, nonjudgmental conversation with your husband. You might wait to discuss an ultimatum first with the counselor, but if you feel you must give one, do so at your own risk:  

Evan, things have been in such an uproar, I’m glad we have these few quiet moments. Darling, you’ve been under such pressure it’s a miracle you haven’t snapped. I know you love Adelaide very much, and it pains you to see her in such distress. I’ve told you that I think she needs a full physical and psychological evaluation, but you and Susan have rejected that. So, I have an idea that will help both of us deal with the situation. I’ve made an appointment for you and me with a family counselor who may have insights to give us some tools to help Adelaide and us. And, after all, you want your daughter to be happy, don’t you? And, I must tell you, if we don’t resolve this, our marriage is at risk, and I might have to leave for awhile. Please, dear, talk to me.

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