"I adore my husband, John, but my daughter is making us miserable," said a weary Lisa, 39, who's been married for six years and has two children, Ali, 16, and Cara, 12, from her first marriage. "Ali was 5 when her dad and I split up, and the divorce was rough on her. Now, 11 years later, Ali's still acting out, being disrespectful and insensitive to other people's feelings.
"Ken, my ex, is making matters worse. Suddenly this irresponsible father wants Ali to live with him. He tells her he won't impose a curfew the way John and I do — a perfectly reasonable 11:30 p.m. on weekends. He's even promised her a car! This kind of pie-in-the-sky nonsense is so typical of him.
"Ken and I got together at 17, married at 21 and divorced at 28. At first I was too young, or too infatuated, to notice how immature he was. Even after I wised up I struggled for years to make our marriage work. I wanted to get counseling, but he refused. Yet he was shocked when I left. That says it all.
"He has never remarried, and I think he's still mad at me for leaving because he never misses a chance to make my life difficult. To this day he'll promise to take the kids for the weekend, then never show. I can't count the times I've driven them over to his house only to find him gone. Or he'll drop the girls off hours behind schedule, throwing a wrench into our plans. This infuriates John, who then gets pulled into absurd arguments with Ken.
"The irony is that I tried so hard to do everything right. I met John four years after my divorce. He was charming, generous, and successful — he owns a printing business here in New York City — and I knew immediately I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. But when it came to introducing him into the kids' lives, I took it slowly, as the experts advise. Cara is crazy about John, but he and Ali butted heads from the get-go."
"And it's not all her fault. John is a 'because-I-said-so' parent, whereas I try to explain my position and listen to the kids' side. John thinks I'm a pushover, that I'm too nice with them. Well, I've been told I'm too nice my entire life. I don't know any other way to be. I was an only child; my mother was a nurse and my father, who was an alcoholic, owned a dry-cleaning business. I spent most of my childhood trying to make my mother happy, without much success. She finally divorced my dad when I was in college.
"Now I feel like I'm headed for another divorce. Things really fell apart last Friday. I was still at the office — I'm a bookkeeper at a software firm — when John called, furious. Ali had been on the phone for three hours, ignoring the call-waiting signal so the auto mechanic he needed to speak to couldn't get through. Excuse me? He interrupts me at work to complain about the commonest teen behavior imaginable?
"When I got home John started yelling at me, which set me off. It was surreal — the two of us in this face-off, getting madder by the minute. And we never used to even raise our voices to each other.
"Then, as Ali was leaving to meet a friend, I noticed she was wearing her sister's necklace. Cara was at soccer practice and couldn't have given Ali permission to wear it, so I asked her to take it off. She refused and shoved me out of the way, knocking my head against the banister. John grabbed Ali's arm and she erupted like a volcano, racing to the phone and calling the police. Two police cars roared up to the house and an officer took her statement. Fortunately, she had calmed down somewhat and the police concluded that it was a false alarm. But after they left, John looked me in the eye, said, 'When she makes it to Broadway, give me a call,' and stomped out. I spent two hours in tears before he came back. He apologized, but I just feel so hopeless, like I'm losing my daughter and my marriage."
"My stepdaughter has hijacked our marriage," said John, 52. "Ali was 9 when her mom and I met, and I really wanted to love her. But this kid has been a handful from day one. Cara, the little one, is flexible and lighthearted, but Ali is tightly wound and stubborn. She blames me for her parents' divorce, even though Lisa and I met years afterward. In her mixed-up mind, her parents would have gotten back together if I'd never come along.
"It kills me to see how torn up Lisa is about Ali. The spunky, upbeat woman I fell in love with is anxious and tearful, always waiting for the next storm to blow in. And it always does. We've tried grounding Ali, taking away privileges, bending over backward to please her. Nothing works. Nothing. She's always nasty. Believe me, this behavior wouldn't have been tolerated when I was a kid. My parents were old-fashioned, and when my dad gave an order, my brother and I followed it or faced the consequences.
"I'm not proud of the way I handle Ken, either, but the guy gets under my skin. Whenever Lisa and I have something special to do, he manages to mess it up. One Sunday a few years ago we were getting ready to go to my parents' 50th wedding anniversary party and had no idea where the girls were. When Ken finally showed up with them three hours late — he'd 'lost track of time,' he said, and didn't have his cell phone with him — I lit into him and the two of us ended up in an ugly shouting match. That still happens more often than I care to admit, even though Lisa always tells me it's pointless to engage him.
"Lisa actually makes things easier for him. He can barely be bothered to have the girls at his place, so she'll be the one who drives them there. My wife is loving, thoughtful, and kind to a fault. She hates it when people say she's too nice, but it's true. She lets people walk all over her.
"That farce with the police was the last straw. I was already really angry at Ali for monopolizing the phone and then slamming her bedroom door in my face when I yelled at her about it. Lisa wasn't there when that happened, and it would have upset her because she has told the girls time and again that door slamming isn't permitted. Not that they listen to her anyway. Then Ali pushed her mom against the stairs, and that's when I really lost it. Okay, I grabbed her arm, but I certainly wasn't hurting her or whatever crazy story she told the cops. By that time I was so furious I had to get out. I drove around for a while and stopped for coffee before going home. I tried to tell Lisa how sorry I was, but I'm not sure she believed me. I know I shouldn't take my anger at Ali out on her, but I just can't help it sometimes.
"I wish I could love Ali. God knows I've tried. But I'm beginning to think that letting her move in with her father would give us our lives back."
The Counselor's Turn
"Lisa and John were clearly in love," said the counselor, "but Ali's behavior eroded the connection that brought them together. They needed to move their marriage back to center stage.
"For that to happen, however, Lisa had to be convinced that being happy wasn't selfish. In truth, she was too nice. As a child she felt responsible for her mother's happiness; in her first marriage she assumed a similar role with her husband. As a mom her guilt over her divorce led her to be too lenient. But her permissiveness gave Ali too much power. 'Her actions are dictating your relationship,' I told them. 'That sends the message that she's in charge.'
"Living with a teenager is trying enough for biological parents; a stepparent feels even more powerless. 'Ali baits you in ways she'd never dare with her mom or dad,' I told John. 'You're the lightning rod for a host of issues, many of them age-appropriate. As crazy as this may sound, you can't take her attitude personally. Teens are still coming to terms with who they are and where they fit in the family.'
"Stepparents assume that because they love their partner they'll automatically love the person's children. 'You may never love Ali,' I explained to John. 'While that's sad, it's also okay. But you do need to find a way to get along.'
"Our sessions also helped clarify John's anger at Ken, which was so white-hot that at one point I asked, 'Could you be transferring your rage at Ken onto Ali?' John nodded as tears welled up in his eyes. This breakthrough helped him temper his attitude toward his stepdaughter.
"Yet life at home was not improving, despite our sessions. Finally Lisa made the wrenching decision to let Ali move in with her father. At the end of three months, Ali asked to move back. 'Living with Ken wasn't so great after all,' said Lisa. 'True, he didn't care about curfews — but he didn't really care about her, either. And the car he promised never materialized.'"
"A still-guarded Ali returned home and agreed to join Lisa and John for several sessions. This gave her a neutral setting in which to express her confusion and vulnerability. John's feelings softened, and Lisa acknowledged that she'd been lax with discipline and outlined new house rules. She repeatedly told Ali she loved her but that her behavior was unacceptable. All three signed a contract stating that Ali would lose privileges if she broke the rules.
"To strengthen their own romantic connection, John and Lisa began going out by themselves once a week, leaving Ali in charge at home. 'We want to show her that we trust her and that if she's trying, we'll try, too,' John said. He now spends time alone with Ali, inviting her to hit golf balls or to grab a bite together. He and Lisa also schedule regular family outings for the kind of fun that had fallen by the wayside in the turmoil of recent months.
"Over the next year the situation gradually improved. At a recent session, both John and Lisa expressed cautious optimism. 'Things are far from perfect,' Lisa said, reaching for her husband's hand. 'But last week Ali told me she loves John and knows that he truly loves all of us. That was huge.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2008.