I've been reading your advice column for a long time and felt it was time for me to write you. I am a happily married woman in my 40s living a passionate life. I have my own business and am a traveler. My husband works in the media.
My husband and I are carving a new path of what "marriage" is. My husband has been married before and has two children. This is my first marriage. We both need a lot of space and alone time so we decided to live separately after six months of marriage. Also, for me, coming from living alone to living with a man and his two teenage boys would not work for me. We live about four blocks from each other. It works well for both of us. We have been together for five years and still feel as if we just met. We see each other when we want to not because we have to. We are very much in love and have a great partnership.
We also have many differences in interior design, how we spend time, when we sleep, interests, etc. So, living separately resolves all those issues. When we choose to spend time together, we're together. My husband usually comes to my place five nights a week and either stays over or not, depending on his work load. He is also a snorer. So, I prefer him to sleep at his place if I have a big day ahead of me. But we do have some common interests and our sex life is still strong.
One thing I love to do is travel solo. I feel I meet more people and it gives me a chance to recharge. I have been taking a one-month trip a year alone for over a decade and my other travels are usually with my husband or a friend.
My issue comes from my husband's two boys. They resent that we live separately and feel that if we're married we should live together. They don't like the idea of my solo travels or our choice of lifestyle as a married couple. One son is 19 years old and the other is 16 years old. They feel that it's a waste of money and are worried about their inheritance. Since I moved out they have been difficult to be around. They are rude and divisive. I have ignored their behavior and focused on my life and life with my husband.
A few months ago, we decided to adopt a newborn girl. It happened fast and was a magical experience. My husband and I are very happy. His kids however, are furious and refused to meet our baby girl and became more angry. They said things like they feel I manipulated their dad into adopting a child and again, they are worried abut their inheritance. (Their dad told them that they were going to get a certain amount regardless of how much money he has. He reiterated that he does not believe in trust-fund babies. However, my husband doesn't even make that much money).
I also don't like the way my husband and his ex-wife parent their boys. I feel like they are running the family and not the parents. There don't seem to be boundaries or consequences. I feel sad for my husband whose kids would rather him be alone than be in a loving relationship that makes him happy.
Do you have any advice about how to handle the kids? Should I ignore them and ban them from being around me because they are so toxic or should I continue to accept and endure narcissistic, angry teens taking jabs and insults at their father with digs and sarcasm and act pissed and angry and say rude things behind my back (because they know if they say something to me in front of my husband, he will get upset). Not the company I choose to keep but I want my husband to be happy and what would make him happy is to all try to get along. I would, but the kids aren't capable. This has been going on for about one year and the cumulative effect of their negativity and divisiveness is taking its toll.
Thank you in advance ...
Dear Fed Up,
Since I care so much what commentators say about how I write, and since I am frequently stung when they complain that I meander and cogitate and weigh issues until in the end one cannot tell what I truly think (as if what one truly thinks could be summed up in one simple instruction! but let that pass), I will say upfront here in this very first paragraph what I think you should do, in concrete, easy-to-follow instructions. After I say clearly what I think you should do, I will, as usual, provide an exposition of the ways in which I thought about it, the issues I weighed, the images and memories that came to me as I considered it. So right here in the very first paragraph is what I think you should do. I think you should make a concerted effort to win the boys over. I think you should approach them as individuals and attempt to get to know them. I think you should spend time with them while your husband is not around. I think you should take them somewhere they would like to go and give them what they want. I think you should devote a year or two to this, every week or two presenting yourself to them, asking them what they need, seeing how you can be a supportive person in their lives and how you and they can have fun together. I think you should endure their rudeness, or respond with cheerful disapproval. I think you should spend a lot of time listening to them and observing them. I think you should hear them out on why they feel it is a bad thing for you to live apart from your husband. I think you should buy them things.
So there. That is what I think. I can imagine already what some will think about what I have said but there it is. I think you should attempt to win their love. Here is how I came to think it.
If I were the boys, I would be angry too. I would be angry with you. I would be hurt. I would be embarrassed by your unorthodox arrangement. I would be hurt by the changes in my family routine. I would be afraid for my future. That is not to say what you are doing is wrong. It is just how I would feel if I were a teenage son. If I were a teenage boy and my father divorced and remarried and embarked on a novel arrangement in which he was not at home most evenings I would be angry. I am sensitive. I don't care whether his life makes sense or not. I want him home. But I would not tell you, his new wife, that I am angry at you because you are taking my father away five nights a week, or that you are exposing me to peer ridicule by having this unusual arrangement, or that I am wounded already by my parents' divorce and part of the rage I feel toward them I am now aiming at you. Instead, I would simply try to hurt you. I would find ways. I would observe that when I am rude it makes you stop for an instant; I would watch your face and see the anger flash across it, and then the impotence, born of good breeding and values, where you must force yourself to stop the anger and not show it, and I would see that I had found a weapon. I would see I had found a way to hurt you for what you had done.
When you began to come around and talk to me, at first I would be very mean. But I would also be afraid. I would be afraid that my meanness would make you go away. I would not want you to go away. I would want you to stay so I could be mean to you some more. I would fear your power to win me over. I would fear your power to render my meanness irrelevant. I would be afraid that this person whom I want so much to hate may actually win me over anyway, because after all I am just a hurt and frightened boy, hardly even a man, and she has won my father's love and admiration. I would sense the power you had over me and I would be wary but I would feel your desire to hear me out and after a while I would probably calm down and reluctantly appreciate your efforts, though I would never, ever tell you this in so many words.
Teenage boys are weak. They are not fully formed beings. Their attempts to hurt you are not sophisticated or persuasive. It is easy for me to understand the outrage of the teenage boys; it is easy for me to be dumb like a teenage boy, to be outraged without thinking it through. I spent many years in sputtering teen outrage; it seemed clear to me how things should be; when my parents divorced and started to do weird, embarrassing things with their living arrangements and took away from us the familiar, unchanging, unchallenging home where we could safely navigate our difficult inner course toward adulthood, well, I went pretty much into sputtering teen outrage. And I stayed there. And people came and went in my parents' lives and their arrangements shifted and they did this or that but I was not your gracious, understanding, loving son about it and I do not know many teenage boys who would be.
So as I say in the first paragraph above, which readers are free to go and reread if they find themselves now lost in a thicket of hypothesis and recollection, if I were you, I would do everything in my power to win these boys over. I would court them as though you were courting a highly desired client; I would sell to them; I would put myself in their shoes and think about what they want -- not what they should want but what they do want. I would wage a campaign. I would set it as a life challenge. I would crave their respect and try to earn it.
Why? Am I required to say why? I am just saying what I wish. Why do I wish it? It may be what I would have wished for as a teenage boy.
Can you connect to the idea of just wanting things to be the way you want them? Without judgment, without feeling your own hurt, your own feeling of rejection, can you connect to that wish, and then imagine how it is to have such a fervent wish and yet have no power to make it come into being, having few legal rights, no persuasive powers, no money or job of your own? Can you connect to a time when you yourself may have simply wanted what you wanted, without knowing how to get it, and you may have behaved badly, knowing only that you want this thing so badly that if you don't get it you feel you will die or go mad? This, I would imagine, is about where they are at.
Let us remember how we feel about a father. We feel that he is ours. He exists for us. That is how we feel. We grow and see that he has an outside life, but in the important things, we continue to feel that he belongs to us. We want to protect him and we want him to be there for us. We want to protect him from outsiders. We perhaps do not feel that he has such great judgment. We feel perhaps that he can be taken advantage of, that he does not know what is best for him. We think we know him better than the casual people who come in and out of his life. We feel that he is ours. And we will fight outsiders.
By the way, this is a separate matter about which you have not asked me and so I am not offering instructions about this, I am just directing attention to it: I am a little unclear about who cares for the infant. Where does the infant live? Does the infant live with you? And what are the boys' objections to the infant, really? I would give this some thought.
Now let us go a little deeper.
Something in you wants the respect and love of those boys. But something in you has prevented you from overtly courting it. There may be conflicts related to your power as a woman. In a sense what you have to do is seduce them -- emotionally. You have to sell them. You have to win them over. Of course this raises great conflicts. If you begin courting the sons of your husband you arouse the incest taboo. You may find unexpectedly powerful emotions surfacing. Your husband as well may be troubled by the sight of you trying to win the love of his sons. He may find himself, despite his own best conscious intentions, in competition with his sons.
This is the underlying territory. In this sense, your behavior and theirs makes sense: You are being tough to distance yourself from them. And they also may be trying to manage the incestuous possibilities of their father's new wife by distancing her, insulting her, keeping her at bay lest they find incestuous desires entering, with great destructiveness, into their consciousness.
So it's a hotbed for sure! But this is what I think you should do. I think you should seduce your stepsons. Metaphorically, of course.
(Oh, boy. Now I'm really in trouble.)
Heck, just read the whole book!
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