Dilemmas

This week: weekends from hell with my stepdaughter Ever since she married, Moira has dreaded her eight-year-old stepdaughter's arrival every other weekend. The child is rude to Moira, flirts with her father, won't eat her food and winds her stepmother up. Now Moira's husband has announced that in future she'll be coming every weekend. Moira burst into tears, having never made her feelings known, but her husband, though sympatheti c, says he can't undo the plans because his daughter will feel rejected

Virginia Ironside

When Moira married her husband she must have realised that she wasn't marrying a man with a past, she was marrying a man with a present. And it was naive of her and her husband not to sort this present out before they got to the floods of tears stage. It was naive of Moira not to tell her husband how she loathed his daughter's visits, and naive of her husband not to consult Moira before making a plan that effectively writes off their weekends together for the next 10 years.

However, the harm has been done. What is needed now is a strategy for the future. And if Moira can understand that her stepdaughter's hatred of her comes from the situation rather than anything personal, she may find it easier to be tolerant. Every little girl flirts with her father, and as far as this child is concerned Moira is her sexual rival, so no wonder she loathes her. Not only that, but at some level she must blame Moira for the break-up of her parents' marriage. Not logically, for maybe Moira came on the scene long after the marriage was over, but, in the child's mind, if Moira weren't around there would still be a chance of her parents getting back together again. Third reason for hating Moira: no doubt her mother refers to her as "that woman", and it would be tremendously disloyal of the child to show - or feel - any affection for her at all. One parent has already gone. She has to be very careful not to lose the parent she lives with as well.

Moira's place is in the wrong, however she plays it, and although it is tempting to suggest she makes a huge effort to woo the child by taking her out shopping, making her bedroom nice, asking what she'd like to eat and so on, it might almost put the child in an even more difficult position. Perhaps in a few years she will be mature enough to respond to such seduction techniques, but now it might be better for her to say, at least one day in the weekend: "Now I know you'd prefer to be alone with your dad, so I'm going out." This way the child will learn that she has nothing to fear from Moira, even if she still dislikes her role in her life. Perhaps Moira could ask them to get something nice for them to eat for supper, and then they could all help with the cooking. If the child had helped choose the food with her dad she could hardly refuse to touch it later. The child's armoury consists of flirting and food fads, and Moira's defence tactic is to disarm her rather than to fight her.

Moira's role is not to rise to any windings up, to laugh if her stepdaughter flirts with her husband and, by translating any irritation she feels as evidence of her stepdaughter's acute pain, became more tolerant and loving towards what is clearly an extremely damaged little girl.

Moira is clearly insecure, and needs to know that occasionally her husband will say no to a weekend so they can go away together or just spend the time mooching about at home. But she must also remember the irrefutable truth: she is the adult and her stepdaughter is the child. And since she is an adult she has to behave like one, because it is the only way she will be able to cope and improve the situation for herself and her wretched, unhappy and understandably manipulative little stepdaughtern

What readers say

Put rivalry aside

It sounds as if Moira is falling into the trap of seeing her stepdaughter as a rival. If it is hard for her to bear, think how much harder such a situation is for the child, who is still shaken and unable to rationalise her parents' break-up.

Weekly trips to buy groceries would enable Moira and the girl to spend time alone together and the routine would bring a greater sense of normality to their relationship. Moira could demonstrate her respect for the girl's previous knowledge of her father by asking her what he might like to eat. Giving the girl some choice in the matter may well solve her reluctance to eat Moira's food.

Being a parent and a spouse isn't an either/or situation and the father must make his dual loyalties clear. However, Moira shouldn't feel threatened when her husband spends time alone with his daughter. As the girl's sense of security increases Moira can join in.

Finally, Moira must never disparage the girl's mother in any way. Nor should she try to force or fake affection for her step daughter. Love can grow, in time, out of mutual respect.

Lucy, London

The problem is the marriage

The available facts show that Moira's real problem is that her husband does not love her. If she is self-supporting she should start looking round for a place of her own to move to.

If she is not self-supporting now she should set about becoming so; the situation will become worse when the stepdaughter becomes an adult, as mine was. The rudeness, fuss about food and being landed with her without being asked, are all evocative. I did not go, partly through lack of courage and partly because I thought what mattered was that I still loved him. After 15 years he died and I found I shed no tears; his many disloyal acts had little by little killed my love. I regretted wasting 15 years of my life doing the washing, making meals etc for a man who did not love me.

If she does have to stay, she has nothing to lose by leaving them alone together; so she should arrange to go out at the weekend, and he can make a meal his daughter will like. Moira should make a life for herself and not be there awaiting odd crumbs of affection. On no account should she let him see her weep - it will merely irritate him and cost her self- respect.

Mary

Don't worry - it'll be all right

I laughed out loud when I read Moira's problem, and felt I had to comment. All eight-year-old girls flirt with their father and are rude to their mother. I have a dearly beloved daughter of nine (going on 35), and three other children, and she and her friends all behave like that. Moira can only hang on - if she loves her husband and can put up with his daughter - and go out and leave them alone for a bit! Things will improve (in about 10 years).

Mrs Rosalind Thwaites, Cheshire

Make her feel wanted

Twelve years ago a friend faced the same confrontations, resented them and showed it. Her husband is no longer in touch with his daughter and their marriage is not a happy one. I think Moira should appreciate that she's opposing a little girl disturbed at the thought of losing her Dad and fighting back. She should be generous in her new-found happiness, write to her stepdaughter and say that she's pleased Mummy can spare her every weekend as Daddy is missing her and she would like to know her better. Suggest they shop together for a duvet cover of her choice and that she brings something from home to make the room at Moira's more like her special place. I'm sure only good will come from friendliness instead of enmity.

Anon, Canterbury

Next week: my husband has run off with my friend

Dear Virginia,

My husband of 15 years has left me for my best friend. I cannot tell you how angry and upset I feel. I trusted them both and I feel quite bereft as I have lost two of the people I used to love best in my life. Half the time I am in tears; the other half I am so angry and want such revenge that I barely trust myself. One friend says the best revenge is living well, but I can't do that at the moment; others encourage me to make some kind of wild gesture, like slashing the tyres on his car. They say it will make me feel better and I should let it all out instead of torturing myself. By doing nothing I feel I will have let them get away with it. But I am reluctant to do anything too active only because I wonder if it will just make me look a fool. Do you have any advice? I am in unbearable pain.

Yours sincerely, Paula

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