My Spouse Seems Locked in His Former Life

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Reader’s Question

I recently married a man I love dearly. But we aren’t living together yet and, to make matters worse, he is living with his ex’s parents. He has three teenage daughters, and only one likes me. He spends the whole weekend with his daughters. He spends some week days with me but I have recently developed separation anxiety issues; I get very upset when he leaves, and I feel depressed. I am currently eighteen weeks pregnant.

Are these symptoms brought on by the pregnancy? If not, how can I get over my anxiety? Am I overreacting about him leaving for the whole weekend?

Psychologist’s Reply

Congratulations on your marriage and pregnancy, and I am sorry to hear that the marriage is starting out with so many stressors. Adjusting to married life can be difficult under the best of circumstances, and dealing with living apart, a spouse’s connection to a past relationship, step-parenting, and getting ready for a first child together just adds to the stress of adjustment. It would be understandable to have conflicted feelings about any one of these issues, let alone juggle them all at the same time!

You didn’t mention how long you anticipate living in separate households or the circumstances which have kept you living apart. Establishing a foundation of trust and security in your marriage would be the first step toward tackling the host of other obstacles you are facing. Planning and consistency can be helpful in maintaining the trust between partners living apart. The first step is to sit down and develop a plan of how long you will be living apart and when you can anticipate this phase of your relationship will end. Throughout the long-distance phase, continue to discuss and clarify expectations of when and how long visits together will last; anxiety at leaving may be relieved by knowing exactly when you will be reunited! Along those lines, commitments made should be honored — trust grows as partners follow through on their promises.

The fact that your husband’s relationship with his children seems separate from his relationship with you seems to set up a ‘me or them’ dynamic. So it may also be helpful to discuss a plan to develop unity in the family by planning activities that include both you and your new step-children. Developing into a step-parenting role can take quite a long time, and factors such as the developmental needs of the children and the relationship between their biological parents can be important. Keep in mind that his children need their father in their lives, and it is not a matter of choosing between his relationship with his daughters and the child you have on the way. A blended family has the challenge of identifying everyone’s needs, and that requires ongoing discussion and planning. The good news is that with good communication, co-parenting and step-parenting can be compatible.

It might also be helpful to consult with a family therapist who specializes in step-parenting and blended families. Therapy can be a safe space to express feelings of loneliness and anxiety with a spouse, and to learn strategies for managing conflicting needs and for increasing family unity.

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