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By Mary Kelly-Williams, M.A.

Recently, I was asked by a new stepmother the following question:

bq. What do you do if your husband says that he and his ex make the rules for their daughter, even when she is living 50% of the time in MY house! I have no say in anything and his daughter knows it because she goes to daddy if I ask her to do something to verify if she really has to do it. My husband says that he and his ex have the last word, but ‘we welcome your suggestions‘.

What are your thoughts on this? Shouldn’t I have a say on house rules?”

tug war

My answer to this justifiably frustrated step-mom and any of you who are in the same situation is, quite frankly, a slam dunk.

Here is the distinction I make when it comes to our spouse’s children.  Your husband and his ex are in charge of making the “parental” rules.  In other words, they make the decisions for their daughter’s major  life courses; i.e. her education, how she dresses, when she starts dating, if and when she wears makeup, the music she listens to, driving privileges, etc.

Then there are the HOUSE RULES.  Your step-daughter lives between two different homes.  So, there’s Mom’s House and Dad’s House.  You and your husband decide the HOUSE RULES in your home.  Mom makes the decisions on  the HOUSE RULES  in her home.

These rules may be consistent or they may not.  They do not need to match.  Children can be taught that in one home certain rules apply and in another home they don’t.  It’s a good lesson in flexibility as they will eventually go out into the world and learn that different systems have different rules that they need to learn and adapt to.

There should be no “we welcome your suggestions“.  While your husband and his ex are a parental unit, they are no longer a marital couple.  You and your husband are a marital unit in your home, so you two decide the house rules.  Period.

These house rules are explained to your husband’s daughter by either him, with him making it clear that these are his and your house’s rules, or the two of you together.  

It really is not OK to be in your own home and have no power.  If your issues are over the parental rules, you need to let go of your end of the rope and let the parents be the parents.

A good book on this subject is Mom’s House, Dad’s House by Isolina Ricci.  I highly recommend you buy this book to further clarify this sometimes tricky issue.

Finally, as in any conflict, the tone of our voices and the way we negotiate things are critical.  If you are angry and frustrated, set that aside and speak from a place of compassion—both for  yourself, your husband and ultimately your step-child.

But you do not need to be a doormat in your own home (or any home for that matter).


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