Advice: What Did I Do Wrong?

Hara Estroff Marano gives advice on the difficulties of childbearing late in life, the havoc stepchildren can wreak on a relationship, how to analyze what went wrong in a romance, and what obligations a stepchild has to a stepparent.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published September 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

What Did I Do Wrong?

I'm a practicing Christian who is at great odds with society right now. I am virtually sterile and underproducing sperm. My wife is in great shape at age 40. Many years have been invested, and we are still unbegotten (to borrow biblical phrasing). I once had an open mind; now I'm even struggling with homosexuals who are fertile and choose not to take advantage of it. Increasingly, I cannot identify with this group. I have read that the world's fertility is dropping. This will result in needed public policy changes that will affect our tax dollars when there are fewer children being born. It appears I'll be watching drug-addict moms pop out kids and wondering what I did wrong.

What makes you think you did anything wrong? There is no need to blame yourself—or anyone else. Sometimes life deals blows to our dreams for no discernible reason. It's perhaps the ultimate act of hubris to expect every event in the universe to yield to our understanding and remedy. Still, your disappointment is very real and completely understandable—and possibly tinged with regret for having postponed childbearing: People do generally become less fertile with age. Christian or not, disappointment with oneself or one's life choices is no reason to hate those who have what you want—homosexuals or whoever opts not to have children, drug addicts who by your reckoning squander their fertility by bearing children they are in no shape to raise. It is less than charitable to cloak your personal animosity in political or socioeconomic rationalizations. I suggest that instead of looking outward and resenting others, you look inward and apply some very Christian compassion toward yourself. It may not have been your first choice, but consider adoption as an alternative. There are many children who could benefit from all that love your religion encourages in you.

Housekeeper or Partner?

I have been with a man for three years. Shortly after we began dating, his ex passed away. A year and a half ago we moved in together. I do all the housecleaning, errand-running, bill-paying, cooking, plus I run his business. His youngest, who is 13, thinks I'm her taxicab. She makes plans and I ferry her and her friends. When I told my partner I would not drive her unless she asked me first, we got into an argument. He says that as long as I lie beside him I will bring her wherever and whenever she wants. Now she is calling me psycho and her enemy. I do love this man, but am I being childish? Do I stay and not let her win?

I don't know where you got the idea that relationships are contests, but as long as you see it that way everyone loses, especially you. One thing about relationships: You're supposed to have a conversation or two before moving in, so that you might discover whether you could live happily with LoverBoy's views on housekeeping, male-female roles—ya know, the usual stuff. You didn't know he was looking for an amanuensis rather than a partner. What's more, you are in a de facto stepfamily, and stepfamily relationships are difficult to negotiate under the best of circumstances—which this clearly is not. That was the second trap you landed in by not looking before leaping. Stepfamilies do not function like biological families, at least at first. For children to accept discipline, the biological parent must carry it out. RudeGirl is a textbook example of bad behavior in response to a father's failure to take responsibility in his own household, including the setting of ground rules for civility. But you can't ram it down his throat; the wise thing to do is to help him. (You did say you love him, didn't you?) Get him some overdue education on the inner dynamics of stepfamilies (stepfamilies.org, for example).

That won't solve all your problems. No family can function without basic respect all around. LoverBoy seems to believe that you forfeited your rights to any when you "lie beside him." You have very little bargaining power left, but use what you've got. If some education doesn't drastically improve matters soon, you'll definitely need to have a serious (though not angry) conversation with your bedmate in which you let him know that the conditions of your employment are no longer satisfactory. That might jolt him into negotiating terms that all three of you have a say in—and can live by.

Why Did the Love of My Life Leave?

I dated the love of my life for five months when she tearfully told me that we were through. I was devastated and am still baffled. Was it her? Is it me? What did I miss in choosing her? What did I do to repel her? Two days before, I'd told her of an intuition I'd had about trouble brewing; she said I was sensing distortions. Later, she apologized for the comment. This relationship was one of the most significant in my life. I have been fairly unlucky, it seems, and have a few personal hurdles to overcome.

Console yourself by recognizing that relationships are really hard work. It takes most of us a lot of trial and error, and a willingness to say "I'm sorry," to get the hang of them. At least now you know to trust your intuition. When you sense that something is wrong, it's wise to use your fear not to forecast doom—that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy—but to gather more information. Turning fear into foreboding can seriously dent your appeal by suggesting you're neither a take-charge person nor a problem solver.

A better approach is to tell your partner very matter-of-factly that you're picking up funny signals and you need her help in understanding what's going on. That may well lead to defusing the tension. Of course, it may not—but at least you will know what the issue is, which is valuable for guiding future behavior.

No question about it, it would be good to know what undid your recent romance. It may not have had a whole lot to do with you; not everything that goes wrong in a relationship is about you.

Instead of beating yourself up, take the gentle initiative to carefully prepare an e-mail to your ex. Work on getting the tone just right. Let her know you're not looking to get her back; you just want to know what turned her off, and you're open to the truth, as it will help you in the future. There's no guarantee she'll respond. But if she doesn't, you will have lost nothing, not even your self-respect. In the event that she does, you have to be willing to accept her assessment, no matter how painful, with a gracious thank you.

Must I See My Father's Widow?

My father died six years ago after a 24-year relationship with his second wife. My birthmother died when I was 28. My father and his second wife were manipulative, argumentative, spiteful and accusing of each other. They divorced and remarried three times. After his death, I carried on a charade of concern for his second wife for five years. But for the past year I have not returned her calls. She has three of her own children to assist her. My conscience tells me to be involved, try to care. But I don't. How can I resolve my dilemma?

As troubled as your father and stepmother's marriage was, and as badly as they behaved toward each other, the trouble seems to have been between them. It's not clear what you have against the second wife except that she wasn't your mother. No one is obligated to love a stepparent. Nor must everything we do in life be predicated on love. Respect and decency have their value too. If your conscience tells you to be involved, count it as a plus. It suggests you harbor some kindness. Honor it. At the very least, it will make you feel like a stand-up human being.

You may even choose to maintain contact with your stepmother simply to respect the memory of your father. You can sculpt whatever relationship you want; no law says you have to stick to any particular schedule in visiting your stepmother. Your interest in contact is driven by your compassion, not her need. You may discover you even have the opportunity to ask her some questions about the relationship or your father. Even if your father and stepmother served each other spite for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you don't have to repeat their mistakes. It's your life. Use it wisely; exercise your best instincts.

Send your questions to: askhara@psychologytoday.com.