The man and the woman are engaged to be married. But I don’t think they’re gonna make it. And they’re gonna blame it on their children.
Second marriage. And both bring teenage children to the equation. But her son and his daughter are fire and ice. Oil and water. Two great big giant adolescent egos — are there any other kind? — on a collision course. Neither willing to negotiate his/her status of Way Coolest Person in the House Around Whom the World Turns.
The kids treat each other with open contempt, with little or no provocation. And the man and the woman are fighting about it. And they are thinking about breaking up.
I don’t get it. So I ask them: “Are you sure you wanna give your children the power to decide whether/who you date, whether and with whom you fall in love, whether you remarry?”
That’s too much power to give children. At least my children don’t have that power. Of course, I wouldn’t date, love or marry a woman that was openly derisive, stupid or cruel to my sons. But, if my sons didn’t like her, or if they struggled in their relationships with step-siblings, well, I’d pretty much tell them that life is filled with people you don’t like and with whom you might struggle.
Blended families are hard, and I’d be there for my kids. Empathy. Compassion. Encouragement. Advocacy. But, in the end, my children don’t get to pick. I’m the grown-up. They are not.
Don’t get me wrong. If my theoretical girlfriend (I don’t have one) had a theoretical dog who bit my 6-year-old, I wouldn’t break up with my girlfriend. Where I would draw the line is if my girlfriend refused to get rid of the dog. Then I’m outta there. That’s when I’d protect my kids.
I don’t mind if her children are imperfect. (Mine sure are!) I would end it, however, if I did not have confidence in my girlfriend’s willingness to call her children to account (as I call mine to account.)
Not this man. Not this woman.
“I’ll always side with my son,” the woman says defiantly.
“I can’t afford to have my daughter go live with her mom, and she’s already threatened to do so,” the man says soberly.
I manage a pretty good poker face, therapeutically speaking, but inside, I’m incredulous.
That weekend I find myself lounging on the back porch with my two elder sons, and decide to run an experiment. “Gentlemen,” I say, “Help me with a little reality check here. Can either of you imagine me ever saying, ‘I’ll always side with my children?’ “
Jonathan, 17, lowers his head and glares at me out the top of his eye sockets, like I’ve just insulted him with a clumsy and obvious attempt to cheat him at cards. Aaron lifts the left side of his mouth and exhales a contemptuous chortle.
“That’d be a ‘no,’ then,” I confirm. Both boys nod their heads, looking at me with some dismay.
Their reaction fits my understanding of our relationship. I can say I’ll always be there for my children. And, if and when any of my boys are standing on the side of honor, truth, beauty, integrity — well, then you’ll find me on that boy’s side.
But, always side with my children? Absolutely not. Sell meth to third-graders? Treat a woman badly? Lie, cheat, steal? Practice gross entitlement, inhospitality, bigotry? Be willfully stupid? Freeload? Forget that respect is the most important rule? Nope, you won’t find me on that boy’s side. Not even close.
If one of them kills the president, I’ll visit him in prison, but I won’t be on his side.
“So, one more question,” I say. “If you came to me and said, ‘Papa, if you don’t (insert claim here), then I’m going to go live with mom,’ what do you think I’d say?”
Jonathan begins to smirk and giggle. He raises his hands, palms open, and shrugs: “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out?” Aaron shakes his head in wonder, laughs a sardonic laugh, and offers up, “Can I help you pack?”
Yip, my sons know me. Mind you, it would break my heart. Quite possibly create a rift months or years in the healing. Maybe it would never entirely heal. But no way do my children ever get away with holding me or my relationship with them hostage. That’s not in their best interest. And my commitment to their best interest supersedes my desire for them to like me better than they like their mom.
Or, frankly, to like me at all.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.