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Family Dynamics

I Want to Get Along with My Stepmother

I feel singled out and hurt

Dear Dr. G.,

Hi there,
I would love to say that my relationship with my stepmom is the greatest but it's not. She has been in my life since I was like 2 maybe even before that. You see my father married my mum when she was pregnant with me, then he cheated on her with my stepmom but I don't really know his side to the story so I couldn't say how long it went on for. Anyhow, my whole life she has been in the picture and she was always so nasty to me, like she would pinch me and smack me. Now coming to me being at the age of 17 she has said that at 18 they are cutting me off, i.e., not paying for a ticket for me to fly back to South Africa (my hometown) every year. My mom doesn't agree with this because in South Africa by law my dad should be paying maintenance until I'm 21. I mean every time I want to ask my dad something I have to go through her because she "controls the finances" which is just so unfair because I mean if I want to ask my dad for something I should be allowed to and it should be him saying yes or no to me. Am I right? They've now had a child together and since then my dad has changed a lot more towards me. I just feel like my stepmom has just always tried to take my dad away from me like when it comes to paying for my ticket (which is his share for child maintenance of the year). It is always an issue of "oh we might not be able to pay for it this year but we will see", and when that's said to me i just wonder am I seriously that much of a problem? And I know they have the money to pay for a ticket because of my dad's occupation. She even asked me this year (because i got a job now) if i could pay for my ticket to South Africa this year instead. I mean she has the nerve to say she can't pay for my ticket but I'm always seeing her buying new bags and stuff that she doesn't even ever use. I mean I've tried before where I asked her nicely why can't she pay for my ticket when she can pay for new bags all the time and she went off at me big time so I need to ask would you know how I could sort this out? How could I put it across nicely that I don't want her inside of mine and my dad's relationship? How can I tell her to back off without being disrespectful?

A Frustrated Step-Daughter

Dear Daughter,

It must be dreadful to be in this situation. You are not only dealing with the confusing dynamics between 3 people including your mom, your stepmom and your dad but you also seem very alone in sorting out your issues. I am delighted that you wrote to me. It seems to me that too much responsibility has fallen on you in this complicated situation. Of course you are distressed. And, I agree with you that you that your father should be more of an advocate for you and playing an active role here. My hope would be that he would honor both your desire to visit South Africa annually and his financial agreement with your biological mother. Instead it appears from what you are describing to me that your father has bowed out of these financial decisions that are causing you distress and is also shirking his emotional responsibility. It is a shame that he leaves this conflict solely to you and his current wife.

I am also deeply sorry that there was a time that your step-mom was physically hurting you. I wonder if your father stepped in at that time. I sure hope so. Here is what I suggest to you at this point in your life: speak to both your biological mother and father and suggest that they discuss payment for your trip and that your father and stepmother do the same. You may be 17 but your parents are the adults and should be making these financial matters easier for you. I think it is unlikely that your stepmom will step out of the picture when it comes to these matters. Instead, this should be a conversation between all of the adults. And, your father seems to have chosen to give your stepmother a great deal of power. In addition to speaking to your biological parents about their financial decisions I also suggest that you have a heart-to-heart with your father about how difficult and painful your relationship with your stepmom is and has been. It is possible that your father is clueless about the conflict between the 2 of you. It is unlikely but it is possible. You may also want to discuss how your father has changed his behavior toward you since the birth of his other child.

Please don't expect your stepmother to back out of your relationship between you and your father because that is unlikely given how much power your father has given her. I believe that the best possible outcome to what is going on now is more involvement from your father. If you try and that does not happen then that will be a shame. In that case when you approach your stepmother perhaps you can offer to pay for part of the ticket. I would not recommend asking her to back off as you suggested. This would definitely aggravate the situation. She certainly does not want to feel left out of the family decisions either. I wish you luck. Step-family dynamics are often difficult as you well know. Good luck with your negotiations and please get back to me.

Dr. G.

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