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Help! My Wife is Disengaged

When I originally came here I was very anti-disengagement. I didn't think it worked. I thought that there was no way any woman should give up any say whatsoever in her own household. The reason I felt that way was because in my situation, my husband backs me up 100% when it comes to setting household rules, boundaries, standards and expectations for his daughter. He trusts my judgment completely, never questions my motivation for anything I do, any rule I make, or any consequence I dish out. My husband and I parent TOGETHER, we discuss things that happen, we discuss ‘what ifs’ in advance as SD ages and becomes interested in new things and matures and develops. There are times when we don’t agree, but most often we can manage to reach a compromise or one of us can manage to see the other’s point and concede.

It was amazing to me when I first came here to see all of you talk about disengaging, to insist that it was the only way, to sing it’s praises…I couldn’t imagine for one second living that way, even after reading the disengaging essay, it simply didn’t apply to me. But after being here for so long, watching all of you struggle with your husbands and their contradictory statements and actions with regard to what your role should be, I have amended my opinion and I think disengaging is necessary in certain situations.

My new opinion is this:

DISENGAGEMENT IS NECESSARY WHEN THE CHILDS FATHER MAKES IT CRYSTAL CLEAR TO YOU THAT HE WILL NOT PARENT HIS CHILDREN, OR STAND UP TO HIS EX UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

In my opinion, there is only one reason why a person would get himself into this position. FEAR. For my husband, his fears are summed up in one sentence:

HE IS AFRAID OF LOSING HIS DAUGHTER.

It may seem silly, but in a time when husbands get shafted and treated as criminals in the family court systems, and we rarely see fathers getting equal parenting time or any kind of say in raising the kids post divorce, who can blame him. All his daughter needs to do is tell her mom that he’s ‘mean’ to her, or that I’m ‘mean’ to her, and poof…she’s gone. Consider the kinds of things kids refer to as ‘mean’… “I wanted to stay up late and they said no.” or “They made me eat green beans.” We all know how silly things like this, which would be a non-issue in a nuclear home, become phenomenal off the chart blowouts in blended families.

Men, if your wife has disengaged let me tell you a couple of things:

#1. Don’t bother to throw the ‘you don’t like my children’ argument at her. It’s futile and it’s untrue, and having that argument will only prolong the problem. Most women disengage for the exact opposite reason: She loves your children and she loves you and she wants nothing more than to see you have a positive, happy, loving relationship with them. She wants you to form a bond with them. A new bond, a stronger bond, a bond that men in nuclear families often don’t have.

There is a movie I adore called “Bye Bye Love” which is a story about several families who have been split up by divorce, and the different problems they have with the kids and the ex’s and each other, and there is one part at the very end where one of the divorced dads makes a speech about how, when he was married, his wife handled all the emotional stuff, and she was good at it – but now – he was the one who shampooed the hair, bandaged the boo-boos, etc…and he was much more fulfilled as a father having that right. I know … it’s a movie, I know … but that idea, that attitude, that joy that he expresses…doesn’t that sound like something you’d want to have with your kids?

#2. Disengagement doesn’t mean she is throwing in the towel on reaching a compromise. Many men feel that when the stepmother says “That’s it, they’re your kids, YOU deal with it!” that it means she will never again have anything to do with them, or with you as long as they are there. This is not the goal of disengagement. The goal is not for you to see it as a green light to let your kids be nasty, rude, spoiled little monsters and she has simply decided to let them roll over her again and again and be treated as a stranger or criminal or scapegoat in her own home. She took vows with you, she expected that the marriage would be a partnership, not a house divided every other weekend, not you and your children as a family and she as a live in maid and cook with no say and no control under her own roof. Marriage is supposed to be a partnership. It’s supposed to be 50/50. If you felt you loved this woman enough to marry her, you should feel she is deserving of equal say in all matters…including your kids.

The goal of disengagement is to reach a place in your marriage and in your blended family where you and your spouse are a team, and the kids understand that they are not in charge and that they have to accept that you have chosen a wife and they need to adjust to it. In order for that to happen, the children have to first see you as an authority figure, a rule maker, A PARENT. Until they feel it’s necessary to listen to you and to follow your rules, they will never accept her as your partner in parenting. If they see you as the one who’s word is law, then when you say “You will mind my wife” they will listen. Then there will be peace.

If your wife has disengaged, you need to ask yourself some questions. You need to look at things objectively. You need to step outside yourself and be honest with yourself about the answers.

Do your kids get treated differently since the divorce? Do you or your family members or your ex treat them as victims? Do they receive pity…pitiful looks, pitiful tones of voice, pitiful hugs (awwww….my POOR little Jimmy…) from grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc? Do they receive ‘guilt presents’ from you, your family, or anyone else?

If so, you need to put a stop to this and you need to do it yesterday. It’s true that most grand parents will spoil the kids, divorce or not, but really consider if you think your parents are going overboard with your kids. Really consider if the level of spoilage went up after you and the ex split. Really consider if you, your siblings, your parents, or anyone else is smothering the kids with an unhealthy level of sorrow since your divorce. It’s almost impossible for them not to in most cases, so really look hard at things before you form your answer.

The spoiling and coddling and allowing the kids to play off of people’s sympathy is a major problem. Not just for your wife to have to deal with them, but for YOUR KIDS AND THEIR FUTURE. Remember, these will be adults some day, do you want them growing up being drama queens and kings? Or would you rather they grow up well-adjusted, self reliant, strong people?

I know this is cliché, and I know it seems like common sense, and I know you’re probably heard this a hundred times...but kids NEED structure. They NEED to know that the rules are in place, that they will be enforced and that they can count on getting punished if busted breaking them. Sounds like psychobabble, you say? Sounds like [censored]? Wants to know: Why, then, are kids always trying to get away with murder? Because it's a part of the normal 'pulling away' process that kids go through.

This sounds dumb...but have you ever watched nature shows when they show baby animals grow to maturity during a half hour show? It's the same thing...the baby needs the mother 100% there for X amount of time...then they begin to venture out...but they stay within the mothers reach and sight...then they venture a little further...they get into trouble...a predator spots them... and the mother comes to the rescue...then they venture a little further and practice fighting with other cubs their age...then they venture a little further and try to hunt...they fail and mother still has to feed them...they try again and once they are successful they are out on their own. Some animals actually chase their own young off when they know it's time for them to be on their own. It the same story no matter what animal is being profiled...and we're no different.

The child wants to know you're there, watching, teaching, guiding...but they want to break away, too, and live their own lives...make their own choices...but in order to do that they have to have you there to parent them while they are still children or they will never reach that goal.

Structure is key, IMHO, without that, they have nothing. The family unit they depended on in formative years is dissolved. If the individual parents crumble out from under them as a result and allow them to founder…there’s just nothing worse than that. What are they supposed to do? Figure out all of life’s lessons for themselves?

Do they use the “upset about the divorce” excuse for everything? Or worse, do you use that excuse for them?

Kids will initially be upset over a divorce, obviously. Some kids will have a difficult time adjusting, some kids will adjust more quickly. However, if one or more have your children are having difficulty dealing with the situation, spoiling, pitying, and coddling them is not going to help. What will help is COUNSELING. Now I know there are those of you who feel counseling is pure B.S., or it’s for the weak, or it’s airing your dirty laundry to strangers, or it’s psychobabble, or you won’t learn anything you don’t already know for yourself. I used to feel that way, too. In fact, it wasn’t until I took my SD to counseling that I changed my opinion. The first time I went in there and got some things off my chest it was like being reborn. It was like…WOW…I can talk to someone without censoring myself, I can say the WHOLE TRUTH about how I feel and not have a fight with my husband or feel guilty because of it. For kids, it’s just the same. Your child needs to be able to vent, they need to be able to talk to someone…an adult…who is 100% outside the situation. They are people, too. Whole people with feelings and emotions just like you, and they need to deal with how the divorce affects them, too. It’s a different kind of adjustment than the one you’ve had to make, but it’s an adjustment just the same and no less important.

Don’t think for one second “But he/she can talk to me!” because as much as you would like to think that…No, he/she can’t. It’s not the same. You’re too close to the situation and you’re part of the tangle of emotions they are trying to get through. I’m not saying they can’t talk to you AT ALL, they certainly can…but there are certain things they cannot bring themselves to say, certain questions they cannot bring themselves to ask, certain feelings they don’t quite understand, and counseling really does help.

By showering a child with guilt and pity and treating them as though they have been wronged and as though you are willing to spend the rest of your life trying to ‘make it up to them’ you are worsening the problem. The sooner you start to be a parent, set limits, stop babying, and start rebuilding a real parent-child relationship, the sooner things will get better.

Before you remarried were your children having a say in household decisions that should have been ‘adult only’ choices? Do they expect to be treated as ‘equals’ with you and your wife? Do they get upset when they aren’t ‘consulted’ about household issues?

If your children were consulted on matters dealing with finances, or if your children were playing adult roles in your home in any capacity…especially the girls, there could easily be a conflict going on between the children and your wife over whose house it actually is. I have first hand experience of this, so I’m not guessing, here.

When my parents divorced, my older sister did laundry, housework, cooking, even got the bills organized and wrote out checks for my father to sign so all he had to do was drop them at the post office. He was working 2 jobs and relied on her to help out at home. Once he remarried, my sister had pretty much come to consider herself the ‘lady of the house’ and was not at all ready to hand the title over. She considered it HER house, HER kitchen, HER laundry room, etc. When another woman came along, there were catty arguments and my stepmother had to do some firm law laying to give my sister the hint that SHE was the ‘lady of the house’, not her husband’s 16 year old daughter, regardless of what she had been doing the past 4 years.

Are your children under the oppression of loyalty to their mother? Has their mother told them they aren’t required to respect your wife? Or you? Are the children afraid of hurting their mother by accepting this new situation?

Unfortunately, after a divorce or the breakup of a family unit, the children sometimes develop a ‘fear of abandonment’. Sometimes only one child, or the younger children who don’t understand as much, and sometimes the older ones who think that the divorce is in some way ‘their fault’. Even more unfortunate is the fact that sometimes the parents develop these same issues, i.e.; ‘If my husband left, I could potentially lose my children, too’. In these instances, they can place tremendous guilt on the children…perhaps not intentionally…by saying way too often or way to dramatically how much they miss them when they’re gone, or crying in front of them, or confiding in them as though they were peers, not their children.

The children develop loyalty issues. The believe that anyone you marry is the enemy. Anyone you marry is the living embodiment of their mother’s pain and suffering. Anyone you marry is to be treated as though they are an obstacle.

The thing to remember in this instance is this: You really can’t stop your ex from doing this. You can’t control your ex. What you can do is speak to your children about this issue in a manner befitting the situation.

I remember vividly one Friday night when my mother was on her way to pick me up, and my father…out of nowhere…suddenly says to me in this angry, accusatory tone: “If your mother asks you any questions about me or anything I do you just tell her ‘I’m not your little spy’, understand? If she wants to know anything she can ask me herself!”

Now, I have no idea what prompted this…I can only guess that they’d had a bad phone call that day, but up until that point my mother had never asked me one single solitary question about anything other than school or friends or other subjects unrelated to Dad. My first thought was that they probably had a fight, and she probably asked him a question he didn’t think was her business and she replied that the kids would tell her…but she never did ask us anything, so I doubt it. Regardless…I know what he was feeling and why he said what he said, but his choice of words and tone of voice were all wrong.

Your children know deep inside that you are BOTH their parents, they know that pre-divorce they had to listen to BOTH of you, heed BOTH your words, respect BOTH of you, and fear the consequences of they crossed EITHER of you. Many times, after a divorce, the custodial parent becomes the primary decision maker for the children, and slowly, they learn to dismiss your opinion as though you were no longer a ‘real’ parent. If your children have gotten to this point, if they feel that the only parent whose opinion matters is their mothers…you can certainly ‘refresh their memory’ a little and make it clear that:

1. Mommy’s rules are for Mommy’s house, and Daddy makes the rules at Daddy’s house. Mommy does not make the rules at Daddy’s house, and Daddy does not make the rules at Mommy’s house.

2. You are allowed to love everyone. You are allowed to love both of your parents, even if they don’t love each other. You are allowed to love step-parents, step-siblings, half-siblings, and yes, even step-grandparents.

You might be surprised to know that: Kids actually find these concepts a great relief.

Do your kids treat your wife with disrespect? Do they glare at her? Do they roll their eyes at her? Do they talk back to her? Do they refuse to do as she says? Do they come crying to you when she asks them to do something calling her ‘mean’?

And/or

Do your kids try to come between your marriage? Do they get upset when you hug, kiss, or otherwise show affection towards your wife? Do they say negative things to you about her? Do they talk about wanting you to ‘come home’ or get back together with their mother?

First and foremost…you are divorced from their mother. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances were surrounding the break up or who did what to whom, what matters is you are not married to that woman anymore. Therefore:

A. Your marriage vows to her are null and void, you have taken vows with someone else and SHE is the one your loyalty should lie with. Not your ex.

You need to speak to your children. They will continue to hold out hope of reconciliation no matter what unless they hear directly from you in a matter of fact, definite tone that there will not be one. They will continue to see every wedge they or anyone or anything else can drive between you as one more step towards you and their mother getting back together. I know, this was the way my sister and brother and I felt for years. If my father had ever stated, clearly and firmly…NO…Your mother and I are not going to get back together, EVER…we would have understood. It was the silence that continued to mislead us. If he had ever stated, clearly and firmly…I LOVE YOUR STEPMOTHER, SHE IS THE ONE I’M GOING TO BE WITH…we would have understood. It was the silence that continued to mislead us.

Your children see you as you present yourself. Don’t think for one minute that if you’re not parenting them, if you’re not being firm in your rules, if you’re not administering consequences for breaking rules, if you’re not letting them know that you and your wife are the bosses in the house that they will think you are in any way capable of making up your own mind about things. If you sit there wishy-washy and allow the kids to do whatever they please, if you say they are grounded and then you don’t enforce it, if you allow them to treat your wife like she’s the reason for everything that’s wrong in their lives, they will firmly believe that you have no backbone, which brings us back to why your wife has disengaged.

There is nothing more frustrating as a wife then to watch your husband be emasculated by his own children. (Unless, perhaps, it’s watching him be emasculated by his ex wife.) You may feel that it’s the court system that’s put you in this position, and in many ways, you’re right. But once the children are under your roof and are on your time, you are in charge. You are still their father. You are still a man.

If your wife has disengaged and things aren’t getting better, the kids are acting worse and worse and worse… it’s because as disengagement progresses and your role doesn't...they becomes increasingly frustrated at your wimpy, jelly fisted, pushover-fathering skills. I know it used to make me seriously angry when my SM would discipline us and he would stand there and not say anything. It wasn't an every day occurrence, but when it did happen I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him and scream: "SAY SOMETHING!!!" Truly it wouldn't have mattered to me *what* he said...just as long as he didn't stand there totally silent as if he had no opinion, no say, and no control over the house he paid to keep standing. Even if he had said "Did you hear what she said? Good, now do as you're told." it would have been leaps and bounds better than silence. It has been said that silence denotes agreement. This is not so in stepland. Stepchildren are convinced that whatever their bioparent says it's because the SP *made them* and because they are *brainwashed*.

Weather you like it or not, you are the common denominator in this family. Therefore it is YOUR job in life to keep a balance of harmony by setting rules, boundaries, and limits that are adhered to by all of the children...step, bio, half...whatever. It is YOUR job in life to understand that by not following through on things, you are your own worst enemy because you are, in fact, a human wishbone and unless you rule with an understanding, firm, and loving iron fist you will absolutely be ripped in half by the parties tugging on you, and nobody will benefit.

B. Do you want this marriage to work or not? Are you ready to go through another divorce?

If you want this marriage to work and not end in another divorce, then I suggest you do your part to help the disengagement process to come to an end. How do you do your part?

The first step is to sit down with your wife and determine what the reasons for her disengagement are. From there, decide what the solutions to these problems are.

I’m sure there are things your wife has complained about to you. You may or may not have heard her. You may have felt you did something about it, and yet it happened again anyway. You may not have agreed that whatever she complained about was a problem. You may have felt that she simply didn’t like your kids or didn’t want them around and was ultimately asking you to choose between them and her. You may not have any idea what the problem is. This is why you need to speak to her. Keep an open mind. Listen to what she has to say. Every situation is different, every family has their own ways of doing things, perhaps you’ve expected her to adjust to the way things were in your former marriage? Perhaps you thought all women do certain things the same? Whatever the case, if you have a good, productive talk, even if it takes place in a counselors office, you can come up with some basic ground rules for the household, you can come up with some compromises you can both live with, and you can save your marriage by becoming a father to your children.

Once you have come to an understanding with your wife, the next step is to take back your role as parent.

A good way to start is to tell the children that you understand that none of this stepfamily thing is easy. It's not easy for any of us, we all have adjustments to make, we all have to compromise, we all have to learn to talk to each other, we all have to make an effort. Next express that you know how confusing it must have been when your wife came along and so many big changes happened so fast, especially since we did things differently when Daddy and Mommy were together. Give them a chance to talk...they may not want to, they may keep looking at the floor or yell at you or keep heaving irritated sighs...this is normal. If they *do* by some miracle begin to talk...really really listen. Just because they’re children doesn't mean they’re stupid. They are whole people with feelings and thoughts and ideas and they feel out of control of their lives...that's a big thing and they need your guidance in dealing with it.

It is imperative that you tell them it's ok to be angry sometimes. It is imperative that you tell them that it's ok to feel mixed up inside. It's imperative that you explain to them that there are good ways and bad ways to deal with these feelings...bad ways are breaking rules and getting yourself into deeper and deeper trouble by constantly being disobedient and mouthy and not listening or doing as you’re told, or by having screaming matches with other family members. Good ways are venting to a friend or counselor, writing in a journal, or dealing with problems by talking them out and finding solutions everyone can live with.

Next tell them that while you 100% understand all of the feelings they’re having, you need them to accept that this is your wife. You love her, too. Tell them (no matter how elementary it seems) that Father/child love and husband/Wife love are totally different and they don't cross in any way. Getting married was something you did because you fell in love with a woman who loved you, too, and that’s what life is all about. While you love children, too, children grow up. They get married and start lives of their own. You got married because you want someone you love who loves you to share your life with. If they ask why you couldn't wait to get married you simply tell them we have no control over love. It happens when it happens; it's not something you schedule in. It doesn’t mean you love THEM any less.

You need to say that perhaps some of the reason that they feel anger or resentment towards your wife is because when it was just you and them, they were able to have a huge say in everything that went on in the house, and now all of that has changed. Tell them you’re sorry. Tell them you didn't mean for that to happen. Tell them you were doing the best you could but that nobody is perfect and you made a mistake. Tell them that if you had it to do over, you'd have done things 'a little differently'. They NEED to hear that. It releases them from feeling as though they weren’t enough for you. It releases them from feeling that they did something wrong. IT RELEASES THEM FROM FEELING THAT THEY HAVE BEEN REPLACED BY YOUR WIFE.

After you get through the emotional stuff, the part about understanding that things are tough on everyone, the part about you not being blind to what’s going on around you, it’s time to show them you still have a backbone. The next portion of this talk is where the real men, the real father figures are separated from the wimps. I ask you? Are you willing to be the real man inside or are you going to play act at fatherhood? Because this is it, fellas. This is real life, and this is fatherhood at its toughest. The house rules…and I don’t care whose family it is, are as follows:

1. You not only *agree* with the rules that are being layed out...you established them AS A TEAM with your wife, and no grumbling over "who decided that" will be tolerated, you are the child, you don't get a say in the rules.

2. You are their father and what you say goes, even if you’re not home. This is your wife and partner and they will mind you or else.

3. They will respect the rules or have consequences.

If your children have expressed to you that they “hate” your wife, don’t be thrown by it. Don’t be apologetic. Don’t sigh. Don’t throw up your hands, don’t roll your eyes, don’t even flinch! State firmly but calmly that: First of all, you don’t ‘hate’ anyone, and second of all, it doesn’t matter if they like her or not – SHE IS YOUR WIFE AND THEY WILL BE RESPECTFUL, POLITE, AND CONSIDERATE OF HER. Explain that if they give her a chance, get to know her, they MIGHT just discover all the wonderful things about her that you love, and find out that she’s really a wonderful person. And if not, well, too bad, they STILL have to be respectful, polite and considerate of her regardless.

Be sure to extinguish any sentence they utter beginning with “Mom says” by saying “What did I tell you? Mommy doesn’t make the rules in Daddy’s house, remember?”

You have to open your mouth and say something because until they hear it from you, they will never feel any different. With rebelliousness, rule breaking, and getting in your wife’s face, they are making a desperate, unconscious attempt to get you to parent them. They are pushing the envelope...how bad do I have to be before he'll finally look at me? How much chaos do I have to create before he'll see that I need him? What is it going to take to reach the last straw?

You have to find a way to get your kids to see that what they’re feeling or ‘going through’ is OK, normal, and they’re not the first or last people to go through it. Once all that has gotten underway, your wife will be able to remove herself from disengagement.

The last and perhaps the most pivotal piece of this puzzle is this:

NO MATTER WHAT, ALWAYS FOLLOW THROUGH ON YOUR WORD.

If you tell the kids you’re taking them for an ice cream, do it. If you tell the kids they can’t watch TV for the entire weekend, unplug the stupid thing and stick to it. This is the #1 most important thing in parenting of any kind. If a child feels you’re unreliable you’re sunk no mater what, and I really can’t stress that point enough.

Take back your household. You are the parents in the house, they are children and they are not in charge. You are 50% of a partnership and they are children under the roof that the partnership pays for, runs, and makes key decisions for. Your are the key factor in all of this.

Once you start being Dad again and stop being the schlep who pays the child support, drives the Friday night taxi, and walks around the house like an opinion-less zombie, things will turn around and your marriage will be a much more harmonious one. Not to mention the added bonus of developing a healthy, fun, fulfilling father/child relationship with your kids. You can do this, and believe me, everyone concerned will be much better off once you have…including you! You won’t be stuck in the middle anymore! You won’t be a human wishbone anymore! You won’t be a ping-pong ball being bounced back and forth by people who can’t get along. Doesn’t that sound nice?


This piece was written by Beenonbothsides (BOBS) on August 15, 2003. She is a regular contributor to the StepTogether Message Board.