Q&A Closeups, December 1997
Q: For several years I have been living with a Frenchman who was previously married and had three children with his wife. Even though his marriage was dead before we became intimate, his children have never accepted the idea of my presence in his life, and he keeps me totally separate from anything to do with them. Although he says he intends to make our relationship permanent once the children change their attitude, he plans many of his weekends and all of the holidays with them rather than me.So now I am facing yet another Christmas on my own, and despite countless hours spent in tears, reasoning, pleading or threatening, nothing changes. What’s left to do?
A: Not much. I hate to be so pessimistic, but this is a situation which I have encountered before, and it can remain deadlocked for a long time, even when people get counseling. This particular dynamic often occurs when the previously married partner embarks on a new
couple relationship before the first one is really packed away, even though it may have been perceived as over or “dead” for a while. This lack of true resolution and separation leaves space for a bitter ex-spouse or angry, upset children to act out their pain by emotionally threatening the partner with vengeful behavior (the spouse), or withdrawal of contact/affection (the children). This partner usually feels guilty anyway for the family’s break up, and tries to repair or control the damage by acceding to the demands of the people he (or she) has hurt. In contrast, the new partner (in this case, you), has no such conflicts of loyalty, and is ready to engage fully in the new relationship. This difference in levels of commitment is extremely painful to experience. The sad fact is that lateral relationships (partners) are more easily expendable than vertical (parents, children) ones. Nevertheless, if a person has truly divorced and has been living alone for a while prior to meeting someone new, the guilt may have been resolved somewhat, and the parent is less likely to play along with the children’s naturally oppositional behavior to someone new. In your case, the children and perhaps the former spouse are running the show for both your partner and you, and as you have learned to your sorrow, there is little you can do about it.
Because you are probably suffering more than he is, this puts the onus on you to do for yourself what seems necessary to relieve your unhappiness. This can mean deciding to leave the relationship, or backing off and creating a life for yourself while waiting for your friend to take greater risks on your behalf. Know that even if your partner does eventually try to create more space for you in the family, the battle is far from over. The step-parent role is generally thankless, even more so when the biological parent is still in the picture. “When You Marry a Man with Children,” by Barbara Mullen Keenan, is one of several good books about step families which may lead to your realizing that the current situation also has certain advantages.
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she also teaches PAIRS, a skills-building course in intimate relationships.