Dear Mr. Dad: Six months ago, my wife and I divorced because she was having an affair. After our divorce, she remarried and my 3-year old son has become attached to her new husband, who showers him with expensive presents. I know my son loves me, but it isn’t easy for me not to feel hurt by their relationship. I don’t want to harm my son’s relationship with his stepfather, so how can I deal with these feelings?
A: Sometimes mothers think they’re the only ones who feel threatened by their ex’s new relationships, but it happens to dads, too. It’s never easy to watch another man come into the picture and “steal” your family. In your situation, such feelings might be worse because of how your marriage ended and how quickly the stepfather entered the picture. Rest assured, though, there’s nothing unusual about your reactions.
First, it’s commendable that you want your son to have a strong, healthy relationship with his stepfather. And you’re absolutely right about that being important. Your son’s transition during this difficult time will be much easier when he has security and support not only in your home but also in his mother’s.
Second, you may be right about the gift issue, too. At your son’s age, gifts probably are the quickest way to his heart. After all, even as adults don’t we tend to like people more when they’re giving us presents? However, your young son has no idea (hopefully) how this man (I’m assuming he was the “other man”) played a part in the break-up of his parent’s marriage.
It’s not easy to deal with the painful feelings you experience when your son talks about or runs to greet his stepfather. But you must continue resisting the urge to mention your negative feelings to your son. Even if you mistakenly told him why you don’t like his stepdad, a child of three could never understand. But if he senses there are some things he shouldn’t tell you, you might be setting yourself up for future problems. No matter how painful, you have to keep open the lines of communication between you—even when you are discussing his stepfather.
Also, you can’t allow your hurt feelings to interfere with your responsibility as a parent. You may have an urge to fight back against the stepfather by buying your son presents you can’t afford and by getting lax on discipline. Spoiling your son and permitting him to ignore rules may make you his favorite parent in the short run, but in the big picture you won’t be doing him any favors. And, if that’s the type of treatment he’s getting at his mother’s home, he needs you even more to be a strong but loving Dad.
Realize too that your feelings aren’t only based on the fear of losing your son to his stepfather. You also must have many complicated feelings about the divorce—especially one that ended due to adultery. You feel hurt, betrayed, and vulnerable – all things guys aren’t ‘supposed’ to feel. With time, the pain will subside. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen and eventually, your resentment towards the stepfather will also soften. You may never like him, but you will be able to tolerate his role in your son’s life.
Also, you need to keep moving on with your life. You don’t have to start dating right away, but go out and start living again. Go out with friends, meet new people, and get involved in activities. Something as simple as having your friends over to watch a movie or to play poker can improve your outlook on everything.
Above all else, though, keep being an active part of your son’s life. By making sure he knows you’re always there for him, in his heart you won’t be replaced by another man.