My significant other and I have been together for 7 years now, starting when my daughter was 8. He moved in the first year, and everyone got along well. Her dad and I divorced when she was four, and he moved far away.
Two years ago, my partner had some serious health issues and he went into a depression,. That depression became severe after our family suffered a series of losses. He repeatedly refused help.
I decided to move on. It broke my heart, but I put a down payment on a condo and planned for my daughter and I to move out. At 15, she was thrilled that she would have Mommy all to herself! We had been through a lot of changes and she thought we would have a “girls club.”
After a series of intense conversations, my partner agreed to get help if I wouldn’t leave. He is working hard on his mental health and we remain together.
The problem is, my daughter is very cold to him. He feels very hurt by it. I’m not sure how much is teenage behavior and how much is “dislike,” for lack of a better word. I’m not sure how to handle this without pushing her away.
What do you think?
My goodness, what a wild ride you’ve been on the last two years.
The teenage years are so tough, and made more complex by stepfamily dynamics. Layer on health issues and marital problems, and you’ve been carrying an enormous load.
Your sweet girl suffered through the last two years right beside you. She’s trapped inside a changing body and a swirling social environment that makes no sense (we all remember our teen years). She’s grieved the loss of her biological father, and likely proactively grieved the loss of her day-to-day dad, your partner. You told her something big was happening and it didn’t. While that may be the right answer for your family, it probably felt like a breach of her trust. Your daughter is also carrying a heavy load.
I think we should think about health and happiness separately. I’ll start with the two things that have to happen to keep your family healthy.
First, I am glad to hear your partner is receiving treatment. That treatment should continue until the medical professionals involved think it is no longer necessary. To create the stable environment your daughter needs, your partner must remain focused first on his health. Depression is a chronic illness, just like diabetes or MS, and requires medical intervention.
Second, I think it would be helpful for you and your daughter to seek professional counseling as well. The sheer amount of stress you’ve endured in the last two years merits some extra help.
You say your daughter had a close relationship with your partner prior to his depression, and that through his illness, that changed. That could be as simple as her entry into the teenage years, or be a sign of something deeper. A therapist can help your daughter sort through that, and chart a path forward.
I recommend you each seek help independently, and as a family.
With treatment in place for each of you, we can be assured of your health. Now let’s focus on getting back to happy.
Treat your daughter with gentle kindness, as you might if she were much younger. Don’t take her teenage bait (mamas of teens everywhere know what I mean). Tell her you love her. Hug and touch her. Remind her of why she’s awesome. Show her that your love for her is permanent and unconditional. Be loud.
Spend time alone together. Make a standing Girl’s Club date. Don’t include your partner (more on that later). Let her pick what you do. Hold the time holy; while she might change her mind or reschedule, you don’t.
Focus on repeated, familiar routine. The changes in your life recently have made your heads spin. What’s familiar? Dinner together? Bedtime routines? School drop offs? Invest time in routines and ritual that feel like home.
Perhaps there are routines you thought you’d outgrown as a family that could provide comfort if resurrected. After my divorce, I began reading aloud to my tween son. We hadn’t done that in years, but it was a familiar comfort to us both. We chose a difficult book, and settled back into a routine we’d enjoyed together before all the change.
Listen to your girl. Make conversations easy and comfortable. Find ways to be alone. My best tip? Take her along when you run errands with the promise of a coffee. Don’t pry or force intimacy. Conversations that start about school or friends are sometimes just testing the water for deeper topics. Keep listening.
Allow her to confide in you and show her you can be trusted. She’ll likely say some tough stuff – that’s okay, it’s been a tough time. Don’t overreact or get defensive. Don’t try to broker peace between your partner and your daughter. Just listen. Include her perspective and feedback in decisions where appropriate.
Don’t parentify her. Older children can handle more information than their younger peers, and that puts them in a tricky position. Sometimes parents give them too much information, especially when a parent is feeling vulnerable or less than his or her best.
The last two years have brought you and your daughter together in a different way that before, and she may be seeing you as more of a peer than a mother. Don’t confide in her or share information before you and your partner have made a decision. Let your actions be a gentle reminder that you are the adult, and she can relax safely in her childhood.
Remember, changes often spark regression, Lower your expectations. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hold your daughter accountable to house rules, like basic respect for your partner. It simply means that you as her mama know that she isn’t her best self right now. A great day for the two of you might be one where only one of you melts down.
Finally, two reminders for you, Seraphina.
You are responsible for your daughter, not your partner. Let him do him. Don’t be a go between, force intimacy between them, or negotiate on either’s behalf. Just don’t. Focus on your daughter’s health and happiness and continue to make it clear to your partner that your relationship depends on him continuing to manage his own health.
Finally, take gentle care of yourself. Chart a path to happiness. Read a book, meet a friend, go to yoga. Eat healthy food and get plenty of sleep. Find somewhere quiet where no one needs you and rest, for five minutes or a weekend.
You will find your way back to your daughter and yourself, Seraphina. Start slowly and give yourself time.
Sending you all the love and strength I have,