Dear Therapist: I Can’t Stand My Dad’s New Wife

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,

After an incredibly tumultuous and unhappy marriage, my parents got divorced when I was about 23. At that point, I hadn’t had much of a relationship with either of them for about nine years. I am now in my mid-30s and have two kids. Despite the fact that I have little respect for either of my parents, I have chosen to do my best to allow them to have strong relationships with their grandchildren.

About two years after my parents got divorced, my father met and got married to the mother of the most obnoxious kid I went to high school with. She is equally obnoxious, and my wife and children and I have made every effort to avoid spending time with her, and have made it clear to my dad that we do not have an interest in seeing her or becoming one big happy family. To that end, we haven’t seen her in almost four years.

My father, however, always suggests that we come visit them or that they come visit us. I don’t know how to make it more clear to him that neither my wife nor I enjoy her (or her family’s) company. His behavior is especially perplexing since the last time we all got together, it did not go well. I expressed my feelings that I did not enjoy being around my father’s wife or her son and she pretty much had a meltdown.

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I feel like if I am any more direct with my father, he’s going to blow his top. Having dealt with his temper enough as a child, I am tempted to just let him lose his temper and have an excuse to finally leave my relationship with him behind. How should I navigate this?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

Blended families can be challenging to navigate, and in your case, your father married the mother of a classmate you had strong negative feelings toward back in high school, adding to the difficulty. But if you truly want your children to have a relationship with their grandfather, you’re going to have to look more closely at yourself, which will require you to separate the past from the present.

Although you’re an adult in your 30s with a family of your own, you present this dilemma from the perspective of what sounds like your younger self. You may have had very valid reasons for distancing yourself from your parents during your teen years, and your parents may not have earned back your respect. But as much as your adult self sees the value in fostering a relationship between your children and their grandparents, your lingering childhood feelings toward your father seem to be getting in the way here—much more so than who his wife happens to be.

To tease this out, let’s consider your grievances with your father’s wife. According to your letter, you find her obnoxious. I don’t hear that she’s willfully cruel, manipulative, or dishonest. You don’t say that she has dubious motives, such as spending money that might be rightfully yours. You don’t mention any major issues that would require professional help, such as an addiction or a serious mental-health condition. She seems to make your father happy. In other words, she sounds unpleasant but harmless.

Most people would be annoyed by an obnoxious new addition to the family, but annoyance isn’t usually grounds for estrangement. Something else seems to be going on here, and you articulated it in your letter: When it comes to your father, you’re looking to “have an excuse to finally leave my relationship with him behind.” In other words, you seem to be using this battle over your father’s wife to work out something between you and him.

Instead of focusing on what you don’t like about your father’s wife and then ostracizing her, you and your children will benefit if you work through your anger toward your father (perhaps with the help of a therapist). If you do so, you’ll learn to relate to him as the adult you are now, not as a version of yourself from the past. This will help you view the situation through a much wider lens.

For example, you’ll be able to see that what you characterize as your father’s wife’s “meltdown” might actually be a very normal human reaction to repeated and profound rejection for, to her mind, no ostensible reason. My guess is that she feels like she’s made an effort to be nice to you, but being nice to somebody who’s overtly hostile is hard. Which is to say, your father isn’t the only one with a temper; yours just presents differently. You might also see that you’re punishing your father for his past parenting mistakes by putting him in an untenable bind when you make him choose between spending time with his son’s family, at the cost of causing his wife great pain, and being a loyal partner to his wife, at the cost of a major rupture with his son.

Another way to gain a more adult perspective is to try reversing the situation. What if your dad didn’t like your wife? How would you feel if he refused to be around her? Think about the stress this would create for you on a regular basis. Imagine what it would be like to love both your wife and your dad, and to know that your dad was hurting your wife and also hurting you by putting you in this situation. Wouldn’t you want him to find the good in your wife, to get curious about what you love about her, and to make an effort because he cares about you? And if he didn’t do that, wouldn’t you feel like blowing your top?

As an adult, you have to ask yourself a question: Can you let your father experience happiness at this stage of his life even though he made significant mistakes as a parent during your childhood? If the answer is no, then your children will miss out on what might be a nice relationship with a grandparent and his wife, and they’ll also miss the opportunity to observe their dad acting with grace toward people who are flawed but well meaning. And if the answer is yes, then ask yourself, What is the point of my behavior toward my father and his wife? How is this serving anyone?

There’s an adage that goes like this: If you don’t like someone, you should get to know them better. In other words, when you give someone a warm reception and approach them with genuine interest, you often find something likable about them. That applies to your father as much as it does to your father’s wife and even her obnoxious son. Most important, it applies to you. Maybe it’s time to let go of the hurt, angry teenager you used to be, and get to know the compassionate and open-minded adult he’s becoming. I’ll bet you’ll like him a lot better 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. 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.