Dear Therapist: Having a Blended Family Is Causing a Lot of Problems

I’m struggling to connect with my soon-to-be stepkids, and it’s harming the household dynamic.

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Dear Therapist,

My fiancé and partner of eight years has two teenage boys from his first marriage (ages 13 and 15). We have only lived together for a couple of years. They appear to be typical kids—hate school, don’t read, not that interested in anything but soccer and video games. This has made it hard for me to get to know them, mostly because I don’t know how to talk with them.

My fiancé is a pretty laid-back dad with lax rules. The kids are not expected to care for the pets, clean their rooms (ever), keep track of their belongings, feed themselves, or spend any of their time at our house doing something other than video games. Our house is usually a mess when they are over and I try to tolerate it without becoming the maid. I do, however, reach the end of my rope pretty quickly when the house is a mess, the dishwasher isn’t emptied, I’m working to get dinner on the table, and one of them throws his backpack on the floor and stomps into the kitchen demanding to know when dinner is. I can become terse and pretty irritated at times like this.

A few times when I’ve gotten irritated, my fiancé has gotten ferociously, blindly angry and basically said that if I can’t stop mistreating his kids, we might as well break up. I’ve never even raised my voice at them. The most recent fiancé freak-out happened because I placed the salad bowl down a little more forcefully than usual on the (unset) table in the (dark) dining room 10 minutes after I had asked that someone please set the table. The kids were not even in the room at the time—they were in the garage playing video games and my fiancé had his nose in his iPad. Yes, I felt angry and ignored. But the way my fiancé described it was that I “flew into a rage” and assumed the kids were purposefully ignoring my request, rather than considering some other explanation for why the table wasn’t set.

He believes that I think his children are bad kids, and that it is my fault that our household is not in harmony. I think my fiancé needs to step up and be more forceful about setting household standards and have a more realistic view of his children. In his view, they never knowingly lie, they never purposefully disobey him, and any time Johnny stays up past his bedtime playing games is merely the result of a misunderstanding of what bedtime was, not disobedience on Johnny’s part. (Bedtime is always the same.)

What should I do?

San Francisco

Dear Anonymous,

Your letter is a perfect example of why blended families can be so complicated. Here you are, trying to create a functioning household and feeling ignored, disrespected, and misunderstood. Meanwhile, your fiancé is trying to please both you and his children. And his boys surely have their own feelings about the whole situation, feelings that it sounds as though nobody’s been talking about directly.

In other words, you’re all furious for different reasons. (You may not raise your voice, but fury can be quiet too, percolating inside but still very much there.)

Before you get married, it’s important for you to have a strong relationship with not only your fiancé, but also his boys. I’m not just referring to resolving the issue at hand—the household management—but to resolving the interpersonal issues in this blended family that are making the household management so fraught.

Think about it this way: It’s hard enough for an adult to get used to another family configuration, so imagine what it must have been like for these boys. Eight years ago, around when you and your partner started dating, his kids were just 5 and 7 years old. They probably weren’t thrilled about their family’s breakup, and they were probably even less thrilled to have to share their father’s attention with a woman who’s not their mom.

Granted, you weren’t living together until a couple of years ago, but I wonder how much of an interest you’ve taken in their lives for the past eight years—not a superficial interest like, say, grudgingly attending their soccer games with their dad, but a genuine interest, like being curious about who they are. Sure, surly teenagers aren’t the most engaging company (I speak from experience here!), but you’ve known them for a while, and it doesn’t sound like there’s ever been much of a relationship between you and these boys. In fact, the way you describe them makes it seem as though you don’t like them very much, much less respect them. And it’s very hard to ask for respect from people you don’t respect in turn.

Their father, meanwhile, has a different dilemma. He loves you, and he loves his kids, and he’s painfully aware that the people he loves don’t particularly like one another. I think that your fiancé’s fury is partly about how you handle your irritation with the household mess but more about the emotional messiness that he feels stuck in the middle of. Here’s something to know about parents: If there’s a contest between anyone and their children, the children will win, so this shouldn’t be set up as a contest of you versus his kids. I have a feeling that he’s reacting with papa-bear intensity to your interactions with his boys because your complaints about their behavior sound like criticisms of their character.

So, what to do? First, it’s likely that his boys feel as ignored by you as you do by them. I’d suggest that you get very curious about why in eight years you haven’t found a way to connect with them. With kids, it’s always the adult’s responsibility to find a way into their lives, not the other way around.

You don’t have to like video games and soccer any more than they have to like literature or schoolwork. Therapists are taught to “meet people where they are,” and that’s wise advice for parents and stepparents as well. Do you know what they like about soccer, what positions they play, which teams and players they follow? Do you know which video games are their favorites? Do you know what excites them, what they find funny, who their friends are, what classes bore them and which teachers they find most irritating?

They’re teen boys, so don’t expect long conversations, but if Johnny asks when dinner is, instead of fuming, you might say lightly, “It’s in 30 minutes. Hey, can you set the table, and by the way, I heard there’s a new version of [his favorite video game] coming out tomorrow. Are you getting it?” That one comment begins to say to him, I see you. You should make it your mission to show them in some small way every day that you see them, appreciate them, and enjoy something about them.

Second, it would be helpful for you and your fiancé to talk more openly about your respective struggles not just with the household chores, but with the blending of the family. Can you talk together about what might be helpful in forging a friendship between you and his sons? Can you be more understanding of how upsetting he finds it when you communicate your disdain for the two people he loves most in this world? Can you give him space to talk about why he might be so lax with the boys—does he feel guilty about the family’s breakup, and/or feel a need to be liked by them? Can he be more understanding of your struggle with wanting to feel valued and respected by both him and his boys, and of your desire to work as a team to create reasonable expectations and standards? Can you two agree on what those standards are in terms of household responsibilities, screen time, bedtime—and then let him be the person (for now) to enforce the rules you two have come up with, so that you aren’t pushed into the middle of those battles? Can you talk about the difficulties you’re both having adjusting to living together, independent of the boys? For instance, when you ask if “someone” can set the table and your fiancé has his nose in his iPad, what’s going on between you two as a couple?

Each one of you is going through a transition: You and your fiancé are adjusting to living together as both lovers and parental figures and haven’t worked out the kinks yet; the boys are adjusting to living with a woman who’s not their mom and the adults haven’t laid out how the rules work and who’s in charge of enforcing them; and you’re adjusting to living with boys you haven’t formed much of a relationship with but will have to, not only because you can’t order up your fiancé à la carte, but also because these boys probably have a lot to offer under their prickly exteriors. In fact, there’s a good chance that they’ll make your life far richer if you’ll let them in, rather than treat them like fine print to be tolerated as part of the marital deal. Once you’re able to work through these underlying dynamics, the daily household struggles will ease up, too.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.