Reader At My Wits End writes,
I have been dating an amazing man for the past 3 years and we are recently engaged. We have 3 kids from our prior marriages, one 6 year old boy from mine, and a 4 year old boy and 9 year old girl from his. He proposed to me in December and I said yes and thought I was the happiest woman in the world. I believe he's the love of my life and we are very happy when we are together.
Here's the rub, his daughter has been having severe anxiety for the last year or so in regards to spending time with us and we haven't been able to blend our families at all. We even had to alter our living arrangements where he lives with us during the week but goes back to his ex's home on the weekends (the ex usually heads out of town to be with her boyfriend so he and the kids are alone.) The anxiety is so severe now that we rarely spend any time together on the weekends unless we each get sitters for the kids.
The daughter's anxiety attacks start right when he tells her we are going to do something together. He cannot snap her out of it nor calm her down for long periods of time. His solution has consisted of cancelling our plans 90% of the time. We have also gone months without spending any time with the kids together.
He tells me they are in therapy, but it's pretty inconsistent with very little improvement. One thing that has come out of therapy is that her mother has been saying extremely negative things, including how he is replacing them with us, and making the daughter feel like she is doing something wrong for spending time with us. These attacks have only intensified recently and I find myself on the outside looking in but ultimately unable to change anything.
I want to move on with our lives, blend our families, and enjoy the simple and normal things families do on the weekends. I feel that I am held hostage by the horrible things his ex has done to his 9 year old every single weekend and I can't seem to move past the idea of when will he say enough is enough and force her to spend time with us. We know we can never stop the ex from committing this emotional abuse and I also know that anxiety is not something you can simply ignore. I'm nearing the end in regards to my patience and I am really starting to doubt we have a future. Are the patterns and behaviors too far gone for any kind of fix, or is there any hope?
This is an extremely difficult situation all around. Your fiance's ex-wife appears to be a severely troubled, anxious, and angry person who likely has no idea the extent of the emotional abuse that she is perpetrating on her daughter. The most frustrating part is that she herself has a new boyfriend, yet she will not allow your ex to move on, and continues to poison their daughter against him and you. Although everyone in this situation is suffering, I feel the worst for the daughter, who has been taught that hanging out with you means losing her father and upsetting her mother. You are showing wonderful empathy for the daughter's position in all of this.
I believe that the next step needs to be including you in family counseling sessions, which need to be weekly. You have been around for three years, you are empathic and caring, and you have been giving this girl all the space she needs, which is why I am recommending that your fiance takes a stronger approach here (versus my advice to this woman). You are going to be marrying this girl's father, and she needs to see you as a loving and stable presence in her life. The daughter may panic and protest at your inclusion in family sessions, but if your fiance wants to ever establish a family unit that includes both you and his daughter, he needs to stay strong and force this issue.
The only way to recover from anxiety is to confront it, via exposure. The daughter needs to be exposed to you to realize that you are not the enemy. Also, if she is "forced" to spend time with you at first via this "mandatory" counseling sessions, then she will not have to worry about feeling guilty that she "chose" to spend time with you, which she likely associates with betraying her mom. (You can read more about what kids may think about their parent's new significant other in my book, How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Divorce.) Spending time with you and her dad will also allow her to see that he can in fact be with you without loving her any less, contrary to the nightmare of abandonment that her mother describes. Eventually, with therapy and consistent reassurance from her dad, I hope that this little girl begins to feel less anxiety and fear around you, and even to like you.
If your fiance cannot or will not try this, though, then there are bigger problems. He is likely struggling with a lot of guilt due to all of this, and may be unable to bring himself to cause his little girl any more distress, even in the short term. If he cannot see that this situation has only been getting worse since she has been allowed to avoid you, then you need to try and gently point that out. Anxiety thrives when avoidance is allowed. Nobody will confront a feared situation without some gentle pushing, and if your fiance wants this relationship to work, he needs to take a new approach, as I outlined above.<
Keep me updated and I truly hope this works out for you long term. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Blending Families Is Not For The Faint Of Heart.
This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. Learn about Dr. Rodman's private practice here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.