The stepchildren are causing problems

CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED?

February 11, 1996|By FROM LADIES' HOME JOURNAL Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"After seven years of marriage, Richard's children are still at the root of our daily battles -- though all four are now in their 20s and, except for one, living in their own apartments," sighs Christine, 31, an artist who also teaches at an elementary school. "You wouldn't believe the way they intrude on our lives, mess up my home and even dump their laundry with me."

Christine's problems with her future stepchildren began when she first started dating their father, 18 years her senior. "I naively believed they would learn to love me, but all the children resent me intensely," says Christine.

Most infuriating, however, is Richard's lack of concern: He doesn't seem the least bit troubled by the children's behavior, never disciplines them and never supports her when she tries to. "When they're here, they leave dirty dishes on the kitchen counter or waltz into our bedroom unannounced," she explains.

Christine is tired of being all things to all people: "My mother spent her days cleaning up after everybody -- I refuse to do that," she says, her voice rising in anger. "I married Richard because I loved him, but I don't want to be a servant around here."

Right now, the only thing that keeps Christine sane is Jessica, her 2-year-old daughter with Richard. "Though he resisted being a father again, Richard loves Jessie with a passion. If only that bond could spread to the rest of our marriage," she says.

Richard, 49, a high school English teacher, is honestly confused. "I wish I could figure out what Christine wants from me," he says. At first, he thought she was upset because he was reluctant to have any more children. But over the years, she's gotten nastier, more anxious and volatile. "Frankly, she's impossible to live with these days," he explains. "Why on earth is she so upset?"

Richard never expected Christine to be home all day doing housework, and he doesn't know where she got the idea that he did. "I don't share her penchant for neatness or her rigid rules for discipline," he says. If his wife could see things his way, she wouldn't be so stressed out, he adds.

Expectations

"For all their closeness, Richard and Christine never learned to tell each other what was on their minds," notes Selma Miller, a New York marriage counselor. "Instead, they assumed an understanding of how the other felt."

It's imperative for couples to routinely check out their own needs and expectations. Christine and Richard found that the following exercise helped them focus on what their partner was really thinking instead of operating under unfounded assumptions.

Each person takes a piece of paper and jots down endings to the following statement: "If you loved me, then you would "

Remember, there are no right or wrong expectations. Here are a few to get you going:

* give me a kiss and a hug when you greet me.

* make me coffee in the morning.

* prepare pancakes on Sunday morning.

* save more money.

* get to places on time.

* look at me when I talk to you.

* remember what I ask you to do.

* support me when I discipline the children.

Next, switch lists and ask yourselves: Was I aware of my spouse's expectations? If so, am I meeting them because I genuinely want to or because I feel guilty if I don't?

Christine, for example, had been playing the role of superhousewife to win the hearts of her stepchildren, not because Richard had foisted that role on her. Richard was able to see how important it was for him to step in and discipline his children, since it is difficult for any stepparent to do that. As Christine said: "I no longer expect to have a dreamily wonderful relationship with the stepkids. We coexist peacefully now; I can't ask for more."

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