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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships - April 2011

It could be you ....

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor in private practice after 20yrs with Relate, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet as we pass our half-way markers. 

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column. 



Troubled Step-mum

Dear Maggi

 (Although I suspect this email came from someone younger than the usual Laterlife age range, the problems posed are ones affecting people of many ages – either directly or as parents of adults who go through this tough test. And it is good to know that Laterlife is visited by more than our target membership!)

My partner and I live together and have his daughter living with us for half the week. Things went well to begin with but she is now being rejecting towards me.

During the early days of our relationship my partner’s mood swung from happiness to desperate sadness and guilt at the consequences of leaving his marriage. The marriage had never been good but he’d stayed for the sake of his child.

The only independent support I’ve found is through self-help books. Friends and family think I am doing incredibly well and should stop worrying. The books say relax and be prepared for tough times or I will be continually disappointed. I want to make sure I act in the best way to create a happy and supportive structure for her. We are all focused on fun and playing when together and I hope that I keep the anxiety at bay in her presence.

My partner thinks I am over-reacting but supports my ideas. He reassures his child that we all love her, including her mum, and that won’t change; he says that she won’t be abandoned by any of us, particularly himself or her mother, but that there is no possibility of him living with her mum.

His parents make it coldly clear they disapprove, continually talking about his wife in my presence. They acknowledge nothing I bring or do for them.

I am increasingly worried by lack of action on the divorce. Not wanting to provoke his wife by citing their personal issues as the reason for the failure of the marriage, my partner seems afraid that she may create difficulties with his daughter as a consequence.

She seems unwilling to begin procedures too. I am confused and hurt that he seems so unwilling to finalise other things;. There’s still a joint account, which he agrees to dissolve but does nothing. He still has possessions at his wife’s home; at best this stops her making it solely hers, and at worst it feels that he has not properly left.

Our financial situation is very stretched, coming mainly from my income; the majority of his wage goes to his wife in maintenance. My job is not secure. If I lost it we’d be broke.
We love each other very much and know we’ll spend our lives together, but I often get dreadfully low and feel very isolated. I don’t know what to do, or how to change things.


Maggi replies

First let’s look at the child’s needs. I hope this will be of use to grandparents who need to offer stability to grandchildren caught up in their parents problems as well as those experiencing upheaval first hand.

You appear to be trying very hard indeed to do everything you can to minimize the effect of her parent’s break-up on this little girl who is coping with a troubling but sadly not uncommon disruption to her family. You are right to make her the focus of much of your attention but beware of trying too hard. Her parents are the ones who need to work out what is best for her in such circumstances.

She is at a stage where Daddy is the most important man in her life. Once a child’s initial bonding with mother is fixed and strong the father becomes key to normal development. The concept of family, of parents being together under the same roof is also being fixed at this time. So this girl is having her view of the world shaken badly. I’m glad that her father reassures her and shows his love for her is unchanged, but the books are right, there will be tough times ahead and it isn’t unusual for a child to be challenging towards the perceived imposter. At each stage of her development she will need to adjust. This can be hard for parents and step-parents. At every stage a child is observing and absorbing its idea of how to be an adult. The example of all influential people close by is providing the model. By example she will learn how women are; how to socialize, how to be loving/angry/sad/happy/funny etc., how to talk to and be with a man and what opinion to have of them. She is, as all children, like a sponge, and will soak up all she sees and hears. Her way of being an adult, when the time arrives, will be based on these experiences.

You say that as a couple you are ‘focusing on fun and playing’ when she is with you, to keep her anxiety at bay. If this is how her everyday life is with mummy too then you are maintaining normality for her. But I have a feeling that life in her other, original home isn’t exclusively fun and playing. To offer stability she will need quiet time, time to be naughty, time to be singular rather than have two adults constantly there providing amusement and taking her out for treats. Real life has gaps between these things, where adults get on with adult things. That is how the child has space to amuse itself, learns that it isn’t always needing attention – or the centre of it. The attention, when it returns to them, is all the more enjoyable. Children need routine and a feeling that things are relaxed and normal. Special treats all the time stop being special and are tiring too.

As the ‘incomer’ to her father’s life you will need to step back a little, to be in the background, welcoming and happy to see her but not over demonstrative. Always be willing to spend time with her, listen to her, care for her, but never obviously parenting her – she has two of those already. When she adjusts to what is an upsetting situation for her and has learnt that she can trust you she will move closer and a mutual love can grow from that and from seeing that her father loves and trusts you too. Her anger with Daddy could also be a problem for her. She loves him but sees him loving someone else – other than mummy or herself. She might be possessive and try to disrupt any sign of intimacy. This is a normal reaction. It hurts her that someone else has Daddy’s affection. It would be kind to keep adult affection low key in her presence until this life has become her accepted norm.

Now to your other difficulties.

It must be really hard for you to see how long it is taking your partner to extricate himself from his marriage. If he is so sure of wanting to be with you and that the marriage is totally over then further delay is counter productive. It helps no-one involved that things are not settled. His fear of upsetting people draws things out and has the opposite effect. His concern for maintaining access to his child holds him back. This might lead his wife to hang on to hope he’ll return, or, if she is wanting to show her hurt by punishing him, it will only give her more confidence to do so. She cannot get on with her recovery until he is truly no longer a presence in her life other than parenting their child. It is so important to talk about these things often, until it is settled. Talking this over with a counsellor would help him face that fear and move forward, and for you to find further ways of supporting him through that. Relate has always attempted to help those who can’t pay the full fee so it is worth asking about this.

Parents who are grandparents often feel caught between a rock and a hard place in these situations. There is a need to try to understand and support their son or daughter, but also to mourn the loss of their grandchild’s other parent as their daughter-in-law. The distress caused to the grandchild is upsetting for them and a source of worry. Grandparents need to maintain their role as close to normal as they can. Their parental role though, might lead to feeling angry at their offspring but isn’t always voiced. No wonder then that it is displaced onto the new partner. Time has to be the healer, but it can’t happen until the ending marriage is closed.


You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

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