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.