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"He's a Lousy Stepfather"

Sheila hoped Will would be a father figure to her daughter. But fights over parenting are tearing them apart. Can this marriage be saved?
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Her Turn

"The way Will treats my little girl is breaking my heart. Ever since we were married three years ago, he has done nothing but criticize Ashley, who's 8, and punish her for the smallest infractions. Once, he even spanked her, even though he knows I don't believe in spanking. 

"Will wasn't at all like this while we were dating. He said he was thrilled with the idea of a ready-made family, and he did seem crazy about Ashley; he would bring her little presents and play Candy Land with her for hours. I hoped he would become a real father to her and fill the hole that was left in our lives when my first husband, Charlie, did a disappearing act.

"Charlie was a college professor who became a hopeless cocaine addict. He'd be gone for hours and come home high. Then he just left for good one day and moved in with another woman. Charlie didn't contest the divorce, and he's hardly ever contacted us since then.

"The split was hard on Ashley. She became clingy, and sobbed when the sitter came and I had to leave for work. That's why I was so glad she took to Will right away. She seemed fine with the idea of having another man in the house. At the wedding, she was the most adorable flower girl. 

"We decided to postpone our honeymoon, so Will moved in the day after the ceremony. The trouble started the very next morning when he told Ashley to stop watching cartoons and go play outdoors. I couldn't believe it — he'd never ordered her around like that before. She refused to turn off the TV, so he did it himself. Ashley called him a bad name — I was stunned, but I guess kids do pick up those words — and Will threatened to wash her mouth out with soap. When I said, 'You'll do no such thing,' he yelled and said he had the right to make her behave. 

"It went from bad to worse. Will kept picking on Ashley, and we argued about everything from her bedtime to her chores. I did consider cutting my losses and leaving, but I got pregnant just a couple of months after the wedding. I felt we owed it to our baby to try to make things work.

"The only time Will showed any sympathy toward my daughter was when my ex re-entered the picture a year after my marriage. Charlie called Ashley every week for a couple of months, each time promising to take her for the weekend. I wasn't crazy about having him back in our lives, but I couldn't forbid him to talk to his child. Ashley would get her hopes up, pack her suitcase, and wait for her dad. When he didn't show up, Will would console her. Yet even after those tender moments, Ashley would inevitably do something to set Will off, and we'd be back where we started.  

"I'm not saying Ashley doesn't make mistakes — all kids do. But Will is too hard on her. You don't forbid a child to watch TV for a week just because she doesn't apologize for spilling milk. If I tell Ashley that she'll get the privilege back after a day or two of good behavior, Will gets furious. He thinks all parents should be as strict as his own were, but I pictured us being a happy, easygoing family, like the one my brother and I grew up in. 

"Will's job situation is making him even more miserable. After our son, Billy, was born, Will decided to leave the accounting firm he was with and start his own business. Unfortunately, he took a financial beating and recently went crawling back to his old boss. 

"The only thing that makes Will happy these days is Billy. He's a sweet 3-year-old with a big grin, and he never needs more than a little warning to make him behave. But Will still gets on Ashley's case, and now she won't even look him in the eye. She says she hates Billy, too; she teases him and makes him cry. Will and I are barely speaking, and our sex life is nothing but a memory.

"I feel so bad for what my poor daughter has been through. First she was abandoned by her father, then her stepfather turned on her just as she had begun to trust him. If I tried to leave, I'm sure Will would fight for custody of Billy, and I couldn't bear to lose my son. But if I stay, Ashley's life will be miserable — and so will mine."

His Turn

"I meant it when I told Sheila I wanted to be a real father to her daughter. My friends thought I was crazy to get involved with a single mom, but I was really taken with this beautiful, compassionate woman and her incredibly cute kid. It was so much fun to have a little girl to buy things for and play games with. I love children; if my parents hadn't pushed me to be an accountant, I'd have been a teacher.  

"When Sheila and I were dating, I thought she was being too lenient with Ashley, who could be a brat at times. I figured that once we got married, I could give Ashley the rules and structure she needed, and her behavior would improve. 

"Of course, Sheila and I also spent time alone. She would hire a baby-sitter and we'd go out to dinner and a movie, or to my place for a romantic evening. Those were very special moments. 

"Then we got married and everything changed. I found out right from the start that Sheila had no intention of giving me any say in her daughter's upbringing. It had always bothered me that Ashley spent her weekends watching stupid cartoons; as a kid, I was never allowed to vegetate in front of the TV for hours. But until I moved in, I didn't think it was my place to say anything. When I told Ashley she ought to get some fresh air, you'd have thought I wanted her to jump off a bridge. All of a sudden she was bawling and calling me names, and Sheila was sticking up for her and telling me to lay off.  

"I've tried to lay down some ground rules and set consequences for breaking them, but Sheila keeps undermining my efforts. One day, I told Ashley that if she didn't clean her room, she couldn't watch a video that evening. Sheila told me to give the girl a break, and then straightened up the bedroom herself. She even let Ashley watch the movie. When is this child going to learn responsibility?

"I admit sometimes I go overboard without meaning to. The day after the video incident, I got irrationally angry when Ashley didn't thank me for passing the bread. And yes, I did give her a smack on the bottom once when she called me a dirty name. I'm very sorry I did that; I was just pushed to my limit. I'm shocked that Sheila tolerates that kind of language from her child. Fortunately, Billy hasn't picked up his sister's foul mouth. 

"Sheila accuses me of loving my son more than my stepdaughter. Well, I'm only human. Billy is a great kid who's always ready with a hug, but Ashley won't give me the time of day. At the dinner table, she'll say, 'Mom, is he going to pick me up from ballet class tomorrow?' She shut me out years ago, and I don't see how we'll ever change that. I give up. Right now, I'd just like to take my son and leave."

The Counselor's Turn

"Sheila and Will were a classic case of partners with hidden expectations. Early on, their relationship worked because Will, raised by distant parents, had a deep-seated need for precisely the kind of emotional support that came naturally to Sheila. She gladly gave him the undivided attention he yearned for when they were alone. After the wedding, however, Will had to compete with Ashley for Sheila's affections.

"For her part, Sheila thought of her ex-husband as being out of the picture, and believed Will could take his place. But expecting Will to become an instant parent to a girl he had known for only a few months was an impossible demand. A stepfather can be a loving and authoritative presence, but he isn't a clone of the biological father. 

"In addition, Sheila and Will had never discussed their child-rearing philosophies. A blended family situation is tricky because the birth parent and child come into the marriage with established habits. Will tried to change those habits by setting and enforcing new rules right after their wedding, which made Sheila resentful because he hadn't consulted her. Couples must calmly discuss problems as they come up, and agree on solutions to avoid tension and fighting.

"We addressed their hot-button issues one at a time, starting with how best to deal with Ashley. Sheila agreed to let Will take away her daughter's privileges when she misbehaved. In turn, he promised to make the punishments reasonable, and to enforce them only for true acts of disobedience. The next time Ashley refused to clean her room, Will again told her she would not be allowed to watch a video until she complied. Sheila stayed out of it. Ashley sulked for two nights, but she finally tidied up and earned the right to the movie. What's more, she didn't use any foul language the entire time. Ashley seemed to understand that her mother and stepfather were finally in agreement — and in charge.

"Sheila was surprised to see the change in her daughter's behavior. 'I guess I didn't realize it, because my parents never had to lay down the law like that,' she said. 'My brother and I pretty much did what we were told, but Ashley clearly needs more limits, and Will's system works well for her.' Sheila admitted that she had been too lenient since the divorce, and Will was gratified that she had found the courage to say so.  

"I suggested that Ashley see a counselor on her own to help her come to terms with all the changes in her life. Therapy has been very beneficial; Ashley's therapist helped Will to understand that she had been lashing out at him as a means of releasing the anger she felt toward her father for abandoning her. This insight, along with the fact that the couple have stopped thinking of Will as a 'replacement father,' has gone a long way toward allowing Will and Ashley to forge a relationship of their own. He told me, 'She's even letting me teach her to play chess now. I love it!'

"Beyond all that, Sheila and Will have grown closer as a couple ever since they decided to hire a sitter on Friday nights and go out together for dinner or a movie. They have recaptured much of the romance and chemistry of their courtship, but their love has also become more mature now that Will is learning not to see Ashley as a rival for his wife's attention.  

"Now that Ashley and Billy have the consistency and guidelines all children need, they are happier and getting along better. In fact, it was Ashley who taught her half-brother how to ride a tricycle, and Sheila and Will made a point of praising her.

"Finally, I saw Will alone several times to talk about his work problems. He thoroughly disliked accounting, so I encouraged him to talk to a career counselor. The counseling spurred him to earn his teaching certificate and become a third-grade teacher.

"Even though Will's new job pays less, he and Sheila are much happier as individuals, as a couple, and as a family. As Sheila said: 'Will is a better husband, father, and stepfather than I could ever have imagined.'"

"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Patricia Dunn Horn, L.C.P.C., a counselor on the staff of the Catholic Charities, in Alton, Illinois.  The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.

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