potted plant-smDear Mr. Dad: I’m engaged to an amazing man with a 9-year old son who’s with him every other weekend. When I first started going out with his father, the boy and I got along great. But the closer we get to the marriage, the worse things get between us. I’ve tried to talk with him about it, but he just screams at me that, “you’re not my mother!” and runs to his dad, whose usual response us to take his son’s side and spend more time with him. That leaves me feeling completely left out and unheard. I’m not trying to replace my fiancé’s son’s mother or interfere with his relationship with his dad. At the same time, I need more attention and understanding from my fiancé. How do I have these conversations?

A: The dynamic you’re describing is incredibly common, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant for anyone involved. Think about this from your boyfriend’s point of view: He’s trying to balance being there for you and being a good dad. Because he sees his son only every other weekend, he wants those precious days to be as conflict-free as possible, which may explain why he seems to be taking his son’s side over yours (although there really are no “sides” here). He may also be feeling guilty about not being able to be more involved, which may explain why his response to conflict is to spend more time with his son. Unfortunately, that leaves you out in the cold.

From the boy’s perspective, the fact that his father is about to marry you is dashing the fantasy that most children of divorce have: that mommy and daddy are getting back together. He’s probably afraid that he’s “losing” you and that his dad won’t have enough love to go around. He may also be lashing out at you because he likes you. Sounds crazy, but in his mind, by liking you he’s somehow betraying his mother.

It’s always dangerous to try to predict the future, but what’s going on between you and your prospective stepson is a mini version of the next 10 years. Things will probably smooth out over time, but in one way or another, the two of you will always be competing for his dad’s attention.

Here are a few things to try:

  • Encourage your fiancé to have some special dad-son “dates” without you. That may help make him feel a little more secure about his relationship with his dad.
  • Ask your boyfriend to schedule a time when the three of you can get together (having dad there will make the boy feel safer talking with you). Remind the boy that you’re not trying to replace his mother, that you know how important his relationships with his father is, and that you’ll never do anything to undermine that.
  • Words aren’t always enough. So after a few three-way family meetings, try to schedule some one-on-one time with the boy so you can start building a relationship of your own, one that isn’t based on the father. Don’t put pressure on him or yourself to love each other. That may not happen—ever. Even if it does, it could take a long time.
  • Ask your boyfriend to hire a sitter so you and he can have some adult time together. Schedule these dates after the boy is asleep so you won’t be taking away and dad-son time.

This is an extremely delicate situation. If your boyfriend ever feels that you’re making him choose between you and his son, he’s going to choose him.