Dr. Linda Nielsen
How well do you and your husband’s teenage or adult daughter get along? How comfortable are you around each other – and what causes the most tension? More important still: Is there anything you can do to improve your relationship with her?
As a psychologist and researcher, for more than 30 years I have been working with teenage and adult daughters, their divorced fathers and their stepmothers. I have been creating specific techniques that the daughter, her father or her stepmother can use to improve their relationships with one another. These ideas are described in my most recent book: Embracing Your Father.
So let’s look at two things you can do to improve your relationship with your husband’s teenage or adult daughter - starting today and without spending any money.
Change Your Expectations and Step Back
We’re bombarded with the message that you, your husband and his daughter are eventually supposed to act and feel “like a family”. Nonsense! This belief creates tension for all three of you – and for her mother, which , in turn, usually makes things worse for you. Unless your husband’s daughter spent most of her childhood living with the two of you, it’s unreasonable and unrealistic for you, or your husband or his daughter to expect you two to become close friends or to feel like family – at least not for many years and not unless you spend a lot of time spent together on a regular basis.
Frankly I wish we could get rid of the words “step mother” and “step daughter”. Those words support the goofy idea that a daughter and her father’s wife are supposed to become like mother and daughter – or become close friends. I would suggest that during the first few years of your marriage, you refer to your husband’s daughter as “my husband’s daughter” and refer to yourself as “her father’s wife”. Let her assume the initiate about referring to one another as “step” anything.
Once you change your expectations, step back: Stop trying so hard to become friends or to force the idea of your being a “family”. Of course you want to be friendly to her. But there’s a big difference between being “friends” and being “friendly”. Take a look at this list of friendly things you can do without giving the impression that you’re trying to become her buddy or trying to force her into a deeper relationship with you:
• Thank her for something nice that she’s done for you
• Tell her that you appreciate how happy she makes her father
• Show interest in her work, her family or her schooling but don’t expect or ask for personal details
• Remember her birthday with a humorous card but don’t go overboard with expensive gifts or a big party
• Compliment her on something that you know she is proud of.
• Ask her to teach you how to do something that she does well.
• Ask for her opinion on something – even something small.
On the other hand, here are the sorts of things you should avoid doing because they can make her feel that you’re pushing yourself at her or forcing her to become part of your life before she’s ready:
• Expecting her to make a big deal out of your wedding anniversaries
• Telling her personal things about yourself or asking her personal questions about herself unless she has initiated the conversation
• Making her feel guilty for not attending events with the new family that you and your husband have formed.
• Telling her to refer to your children as her brothers or sisters or your parents as her grandparents, etc.
• Being offended if she prefers to refer to you as “my father’s wife” instead of “my stepmother”
• Expect any kind of recognition on Mother’s Day – unless she actually lived with you on a regular basis while she was growing up
Give Her Time Alone with Her Father
I can’t tell you how many hundreds of times I have heard teenage and young adult daughters say they wish their father’s wife would give them more time alone with their fathers. Even when the daughter likes her father’s wife and even when they have become friends, this is the one thing most daughters wish for. Remember, your primary relationship and your main focus should always be on your husband – not on you and his daughter. And his daughter’s primary relationship and her main focus should be on her and her father – not on you and her.
So next time she and her father are planning to get together, make sure that you make plans ahead of time so that the two of them can be alone for at least 50% of the time. And during some of her visits, the two of them should spend almost all of their time by themselves without you or any other family members around. For example, if there is a Parent’s Weekend at her college, encourage her father to go alone. If it’s her birthday or his birthday, have the two of them go out to eat by themselves to celebrate. You can wish them well as they head out the door, but you don’t have to tag along or be waiting up for them when they get home. If she’s coming to spend the weekend at your home, you can leave them alone all day Saturday while you go off with friends – or choose that weekend to leave town to visit your own father. If you need to stay home to take care of your other kids, then have your husband make plans for him and his daughter to spend the day doing things together away from home: a picnic, a hike, lunch and a movie – anything that gives them the day alone.
Above all, remember: Whatever you can do to help your husband and his daughter strengthen their relationship will almost always improve your own relationship with her.
Dr. Linda Nielsen is a nationally recognized expert on father-daughter relationships whose most recent book , Embracing Your Father: How to Build the Relationship You Always Wanted with Your Dad, (McGraw Hill, 2004) offers no-nonsense advice to daughters, fathers and stepmothers. A psychology professor at Wake Forest University, since 1990 she has taught the only college course in the country devoted exclusively to father-daughter relationships. Her advice has helped thousands of daughters and fathers strengthen or re-establish their relationships – especially after parents divorce or remarry. Her work has been featured on a PBS documentary, National Public Radio, PTA National Magazine, more than 400 newspapers nationwide & monthly columns for the Stepfamily Association of America, Second Wives Club, & National Fathers’ Resource Center. Her web site offers more information for stepmoms & their husbands www.wfu.edu/~nielsen