Stepparent Challenge with Overbonding Parent

Q. I am very much in love with my fiancé but am having second thoughts about getting married. We get along terrifically when it's only the two of us but we get into all kinds of trouble when his six-year-old daughter is around (and that's a lot of the time). As an adult woman I realize I shouldn't be in competition with a six year old, and I'm not really, but I find myself resenting the amount of attention he gives to her. He says I don't understand how important it is to give attention to your children but I have a strong mother instinct and I just don't get a chance with this girl. Though I haven't had children myself I've been a daughter and I know the relationship between my fiancé and his daughter is not as healthy as he believes.

I could go on and on about what I see but right now I just get identified as the trouble causer whenever I bring up my feelings around this so it's hard to say much. Meanwhile I'm getting more and more upset about this whole situation. Any suggestions?

A. Welcome to one of the most, if not THE most challenging issues of second marriage. We can tell you if you don't have the stomach for it right now you ought to be thinking of a heading in a different direction because this issue will likely be a biggie for years to come.

In the attachment between parent and child there's all the biological forces of course but it's much more than that. Your fiancé's daughter is not only carrying his legacy but also (depending on how he feels about his own accomplishments to date) might well represent his only real sense of meaning in the world, his real contribution. Much as you might hope otherwise, you are, almost by definition, secondary to that.

As we get a little more into the shadow side of things, we find that spouses from a failed marriage were usually not getting what they needed emotionally from their previous spouse. Parents who exist too long in unnourishing marriages often unconsciously use their children to fulfill chunks (sometimes very large chunks) of their emotion needs. Furthermore, peer partners might abandon and hurt him but his child will always be around to give and receive love.

Add to this the guilt that a parent often carries about subjecting a child to a divorce. Many parents have a tendency to overcompensate for the trauma they know they have inflicted.

In short the situation you are facing is fraught with land mines. Giving abundant amounts of love and attention (how your partner sees it) can take on much the same appearance as obsessive overbonding (the way you tend to see it). Birth parents do have the ultimate responsibility for their children and you will have a corresponding responsibility, but no hope of a full say in child rearing matters until years down the road when you have proved yourself many times over. And the birth parent does of course know their child better than you ever will. So whenever you poke into the uncomfortable areas in this parent/child relationship you will be up against the defensive reaction that you don't really know what you are talking about.

And then we need to look at your side of things. The truth is you ARE in competition with a six year old and what does that say about your emotional age? As you observe your fiancé and his daughter we can be sure that part of your strong reaction to their relationship is at least somewhat triggered by your early family material and the kinds of attention you didn't receive as a child (or perhaps received too much of). Not having been a parent yourself you might not be too familiar with occupying 'second place'.

The problem in stepparenting marriages is that both partners, rather than listening to the wisdom of the other, often opt for the infinitely safer strategy of finger pointing. For example, the stepparent finds it a whole lot easier to pick out flaws in parenting (and stay stuck in that position) rather than looking into how needy and emotionally young he or she really feels deep down. Correspondingly the birth parent finds it much easier to focus on the holes in the stepparent (and stay stuck in that position) rather than looking into the holes in his or her parenting.

The bright side is that this whole issue could be very fertile ground for self discovery in both you and your fiancé - if BOTH of you make a strong commitment to work together on this and BOTH of you were willing to acknowledge that this territory is supercharged emotionally because there are tender and vulnerable places inside each of you that need to be worked out. If you are BOTH willing to take the kernel the truth in each other's message and commit to working with that kernel to look deeper inside yourselves, chances are a balanced truth will emerge and this six year old will have a good chance at coming through reasonably well adjusted (on your side of the parenting at least).

In the real world, imagining that both partners will take this level of personal responsibility, at the same time, is a bit of a fantasy. The way through this is to get some expert outside counsel, to help you both see yourselves more clearly - and doing it early enough and as often as necessary so that huge resentments don't get a chance to encrust your relationship.