The Reluctant Stepboyfriend

Dear Toni-
I am a 40 year old single male dating a wonderful divorced woman for just over 2 years. My girlfriend has a 15 year old son from a previous (unmarried) relationship, and the father is not in the picture at all.

Here is my dilemma , the 15 year old boy is really troubled. He acts up in school, is nearly failing, and is disciplined regularly. He shows no interest in pretty much anything other than hanging out with his friends and partying. This partying is further exacerbated by admitted drug use and drinking. He admits to smoking marijuana and drinking with his friends saying he does it "only occasionally". He also breaks rules at home, allowing his friends to smoke cigarettes in his room among other things. My girlfriend grounds him and makes him stay home but he is very unemotional and just doesn't seem to care about anything.

I am 40 years old, never married and I have no kids. I see her son's behavior as being a huge problem and it is certainly making me think twice about moving in with her. I know if we moved in together, I would not be holding my tongue when it comes to his lazing around and acting out. I can actually foresee him being 25 years old, unemployed, and doing nothing but lying on my couch and I know I do not want that. Am I being selfish? Should I be moving in with her as she wants or should I wait? Any thoughts would be appreciated. --Reluctant Stepboyfriend

Dear Reluctant Stepboyfriend--

As you may imagine, your problem is not unique--it is probably one of the top three reasons that second marriages fail at such a high rate. For when you marry someone with kids, you are suddenly cast in a parenting role with someone you are not biologically or (in many cases) emotionally connected to. Stepchildren carry issues from their early years that were shaped by the genetics and parenting strengths and weaknesses of others. Stepping into this and acting in loco parentis demands a lot--and it's definitely not for everyone. It's clear from your letter that you do not want nor look forward to such a role.

The problem is that your girlfriend and her son come as a set, at least for now. She has a responsibility to continue raising him and helping him to work through his problems and move into adulthood. From your description, this young man needs the kind of intervention and limit setting that can't be provided in his present environment--but the resources out there for dealing with this are expensive and difficult to put into place and follow through with. Therefore, unless your girlfriend can get him the intense professional help he needs, the situation is unlikely to improve regardless of you being there or not. However, if you are there, the situation could escalate and become very bad for all of you, which you have already anticipated.

The only solutions I see are his getting placed in the right school/residential treatment that would get him the help he needs and guide his mother (and you if you are in the picture) on how to interact with and support him in moving towards healthy choices. Again, this is a big commitment for a new live-in boyfriend who has no parenting experience.

Another solution is for you and your girlfriend to wait it out and continue to live apart until he reaches adulthood. Of course, this does not mean that he will be living on his own or be presenting less of a problem at home--it just means that his mother will have more flexibility in setting limits and exercising control over what she chooses to tolerate and not tolerate.

The third option if for the two of you to call it quits because you have decided you simply can't see the situation working given that he will continue to be a part of his mom's life and yours if you move in or continue seeing one another.

In order to make the right decision, you will need to be very honest with yourself about how important this relationship is to you, how much you want or don't want to participate in this young man's life--and how much you can even stand the idea of being in the father role. If you only see a happy future if he is not in it this may (sadly) not be the right relationship for either you or his mom.

(from March 2012)

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Toni Coleman, LCSW
Phone: 703-847-1768


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