I have been in a relationship with my girlfriend for four years. I have a nine-year-old son; she has a 12-year-old son. I have been a single parent for the past five years; she has been one for 10. We both share residence of our children with our previous partners. We do not live together, but go back and forth between our houses. As a couple, we are very close and enjoy spending time together. However, the kids don’t get on and we have not been able to overcome the challenges of taking the next step towards building a family. My son is pretty open-minded about things and does not seem particularly bothered. On the other hand, her son commonly acts out when we are all together.
I have made a big effort to interact and engage with her son over the years, and to make sure he feels included. But his tendency is to go to his room and avoid the group, or be competitive and unkind towards me and my son. I hoped things would improve, but they seem to be getting worse as he gets older. Lately, he doesn’t want to do anything together, and has made it clear to his mum that he simply doesn’t like me and my son.
We have recently discussed moving in together, and when his mum tried to talk with him about it, he warned her that he will move out of the house and live with his dad. His dad is newly married and about to have a baby, and he appears to be close to his stepmother.
Though I am not an only child, I can empathise with his point of view, as I grew up in a split family, so none of this is new to me.
I don’t want to pressure my girlfriend or damage her relationship with her son, but I am starting to have real doubts about the future. I realise these things take time, but I am running out of ideas on how to break through to him. M, via email
But what you describe does sound like a family – just not the Waltons. When a family has lots of elements to it, like yours, it is easy to blame the situation for everything. But even if you were his dad, he might well be acting out as you say.
Gill Gorell Barnes (aft.org.uk), a couples and family therapist, has written several books on families and is hugely experienced in this area, and she wondered if your ideas about a family were rather “idealised, perhaps based on your own wishes as a child of separated parents that a family is two people who live together in one house and are happy. Each of your children already has a ‘family’, which in your partner’s case is the only model he has known from the age of two, and, from what you say, works well for him.”
Gorell Barnes and I wondered about your first wife, too. What happened there – where is she? Gorell Barnes advocated the adults talking more. For example, what does his dad think about the situation? Could you redress the balance between households about where he spends time?
Although you sound sympathetic to this boy, and very involved – qualities to be applauded – I sensed a slight detachment. Perhaps I’m wrong. Gorell Barnes suggested that you “remember that this boy has known nothing but him and his mum for most of his life. The ‘man of the house’ syndrome is very common with young children who have not lived with a man, and needs sympathetic attention in a realistic way. Plus the testosterone is kicking in.” I wondered if that tapped into something historical for you, too.
Some practical things to think about: this boy is coming up to adolescence, when the brain rewires and children naturally start the process towards independence (read David Bainbridge’s Teenagers). So, as I said at the start, this would probably be happening in the most traditional family setup. Try to give him some space instead of asking him to do things all together. Try to relax a bit more. You need to accept that, even if he were yours, he would be different from his brother.
Stop thinking he doesn’t like you and your son. “He doesn’t like the situation,” stresses Gorell Barnes. When he says he wants to go and live with his dad, don’t panic and see this as a reflection on you, but sit him down and talk through the practicalities: such as where he would sleep, how he would get to school from there.
“You are likely to be more successful,” says Gorell Barnes “if you stop talking about ‘family’ and talk about ‘household’. Like many children, your son and her son will be part of a ‘three-household family’ and to talk practically about arrangements, to reassure him about his future position and role, to demonstrate respect for how he has managed and may manage in the future, will be likely to get you further than talking about ‘family and love’.”
First published in The Guardian Family section on 13 September 2013.