Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The (Sometimes) Myth of the Wicked Stepmother

Stepmothers sometimes pretend to be the villain to protect dad's image.

 Flickr, WDW Wicked Stepsisters and Wicked Stepmother by Amy
Source: Source: Flickr, WDW Wicked Stepsisters and Wicked Stepmother by Amy

In my post of 4/8/2013, Your Spouse's Secret Mission, I described how the spouses of people who are not getting along with their family-of-origin often make it look as if they are villainous meanies. They pretend to be someone who is poisoning the mind of an "innocent" husband or wife against his or her parents.

That way, the parents in said family-of-origin do not get angry at their own progeny, but instead blame any and all problems on the nasty, controlling spouse.

These family-of-origin members seem to ignore the fact that their darling son or daughter is going along with the spouse's supposed "program." Perhaps their own children are just weak-minded souls who are easily led by the nose? Not!

This is an example of how the term "defense mechanisms," which Freud thought of as existing solely within an individual's psyche, may in fact, be interpersonal strategies. In this case, the defense mechanism in question is displacement. You know, how someone comes home and kicks the dog when they are really mad at their boss? In this case, the spouses are allowing their in-laws to displace any blame for emotional distance that exists in the in-laws' family-of-origin onto them. That way, the person who is actually angry at his or her parents - and who is actually the one who wants to keep away from them - gets off scott free and appears utterly blameless for any emotional cut-off.

Yet another example of how one family member can volunteer to take the heat for a spouse involves the divorced parents of some young children. For various reason, many of which I will not get into here, one parent abandons these children, runs off to marry someone else, has more children, and then lavishes all their money and attention on the new family. In the process, the parent may then completely ignore the children from the earlier marriage. This seems to happen more often with fathers than with mothers, although women are certainly known to abandon their children in this exact same manner.

Men, at least until recently, were often screwed in divorce proceedings in regards to child custody arrangements. Usually, the ex-wife would get prime custody of the kids, and the ex-husband would just get the right to pay child support. In other words, the ex-husband got the bills for the cost of raising the children, while getting little say in how they were raised. To add insult to injury, if there was any remaining tension within the couple because of their divorce, which there often was, the husband had to go through the disagreeable ex-wife to even get to see his kids. Some ex-wives went out of their way to make that as difficult and/or unpleasant as possible.

Having more access to the kids than their dad, these ex-wives may also attempt to alienate the children from him by constantly saying terrible things about him (parental alienation syndrome). I have seen cases in which an ex-spouse does not even give the kids letters and birthday cards that their Dad had written to them - or even acknowledge their existence - and won't let the kids see their dads while lying and telling them that it is Dad who does not want to see them.

Now, before anyone gets all offended and everything, let me be quick to add that it is also a frequent occurrence that a divorced mom really does want the dad to be involved in the kids' lives, and he for whatever reason still avoids them. He may say he is coming to pick them up and then not show, making them feel very disappointed. And of course controlling Dads can also alienate their kids from their mothers.

Which takes us to the actual topic of this post. I bet you thought I was never getting around to wicked stepmothers, didn't you? I know, I have a much-criticized habit of writing long expositional prologues before I get to the main subject of a post.

Anyway, for many of those dads who seem to want to avoid the kids from their "first" family, their new wife may volunteer to be the villainess, just as she might have done with dad's estranged parents. She makes it look like Dad's avoidance of the children is entirely her doing. This way, the abandoned kids get to feel better about their dads by blaming his absences on his mean and nasty new wife.

In a way, she is actually trying to protect the abandoned children from the pain of being rejected by their own fathers.

In these cases, the "wicked" stepmother is often accused, rather, of keeping dad away from said kids because, for example, she wants all of his money to go to her children, either from their marriage or to those kids from a former marriage or marriages. The poor guy doesn't have a chance against such a monstrously powerful little witch, does he? So he is forced to go along with her wicked plot against his better judgment.

Yeah, right.