Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I am engaged to be married to a wonderful woman who has a 6-year-old daughter with her ex-husband. They share joint custody. A major contributing factor in her decision to end their marriage was her ex’s controlling nature. Even now, after being divorced for more than two years, he tries to control her life.

One of the ways he tries to do this is by insisting on taking pictures of the three of them at every function where they are all present. First day of school, graduations, etc.—he has to have pictures taken of himself with my fiancée and their daughter as if they are still one big happy family.

Since the divorce, he has gotten engaged as well. I can only assume his fiancée must find these odd “not-a-family pictures” as strange as my fiancée and I do. The sole reason we haven’t shut him down when he insists on them is that we think maybe it is a nice thing for the little girl to have pictures of herself with her mom and dad. But we dread every event when we know he is going to expect this.

Will it do the daughter any harm to stop him the next time he starts insisting on this  awkward situation?

John
Sedalia, Mo.


Dear John,

It’s clear that you’re uncomfortable having your future step-daughter appear in photos with both of her parents, but I think some of this discomfort stems from faulty assumptions you’re making about your fiancée’s ex.

You seem to believe that your wife’s ex wants to be in these photos partly as a way to “control her life,” and partly as a way to create a tableau of the three of them as “one big happy family.” But let’s consider some other possible explanations.

Start with the fundamental fact that divorce is a decision made by adults that creates significant changes in their children’s lives. To name a few, there’s often a new home to deal with, less time spent with each parent, and an adjustment to new romantic partners or step-parents (whom the kids may or may not like). But the one thing that doesn’t change—the one constant in all this—is who the children’s parents are. The parents divorced each other, but they didn’t divorce their children.

In other words, this 6-year-old’s parents are still her parents, regardless of whether they’re married to each other. This means that for her, these pictures—at birthdays, a first day of school, graduations, and other occasions—aren’t “not-a-family photos” or photos of people pretending to be “one big happy family.” They’re simply pictures of her and her parents celebrating something joyful together.

Her father likely feels strongly that there’s a benefit to having both parents in these photos. He may think of how uncomfortable it might be for his daughter to have to take two sets of photos every time there’s a celebration—one with Mom, one with Dad—and how she might wish that despite the divorce, she could just be “normal” and take a picture by the cake or in front of the school with both parents at once. Her father may believe that seeing her parents work as a team on these occasions makes her feel loved and safe. He may imagine her as an adult, looking back at photos and remembering how hard it was to worry about the adults’ feelings on these otherwise happy occasions—having to deal with the politics of who gets to be in which photos—when all she wanted was for her parents to get in a picture together because they knew that the day wasn’t about them; it was about her.

I can’t tell you how many children of divorce later come to therapy and describe the sadness they felt when their parents couldn’t manage this on their behalf. Each photo of an important milestone became a reminder of the pain of the divorce—the loss was right there in the negative space where the other parent should be. They felt as if they were living two separate lives, and in each of these lives, the other parent had been completely erased.

Not all children will feel this way, of course. But enough do that you may want to consider this when thinking about why her father insists on this practice.

As for whether he’s trying to control your fiancée, I don’t know what he did or didn’t do in their marriage, but I can tell you this: In couples therapy, whenever one person is labeled something by the other—controlling, passive, angry—often it turns out that both partners share these traits, even if the presentation is different.

For instance, it may be that your fiancée and her then-husband had trouble negotiating their differences and weren’t able to work together to find solutions, and one or both ended up feeling “controlled” by the other because each person refused to budge. Sometimes people “insist” on things when they don’t feel heard, when they feel that they’ve run out of more flexible options. And at this point, your fiancée’s ex may feel that he has to “insist” on these photos because a request would be declined. (“She’s so controlling,” he might say.)

This brings me to ask: What makes you and your fiancée “dread” these joint photos of a little girl with her parents? Why does it feel “awkward” to you that two people can move on from each other but still jointly celebrate their daughter’s milestones? And why do you assume that his fiancée also finds this odd? She may instead find it lovely—a grown-up way of co-parenting that touches her and makes her love her fiancé even more.

So what might happen if you “shut him down” and “stop him” from being in these photos with his daughter? All kinds of unpleasant things, including a power struggle, increased tension, and the loss of something potentially meaningful for their daughter. On the other hand, what might happen if you and your fiancée dig deeper into what’s behind your discomfort, put the girl’s needs first, and choose to see her father from a more positive perspective?

Several things. There will be less tension among all involved. Their daughter will reap the benefits of having kindness, respect, flexibility, and teamwork modeled for her by the adults around her. She will get to see her parents bonding over the common ground they do share—love for their daughter. And just maybe, over time, she’ll find that the photos start to get more crowded—with step-parents who also care about her needs, and maybe step-brothers and -sisters someday too. Instead of keeping some adults out of the photos, how nice it will be to have even more people in them who love her.


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. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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