Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My husband of five years recently rekindled a relationship with his 21-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. She lives in another country, and had been estranged from her father for quite some time, but now they’re trying to make up for lost time and rebuild their relationship. I’m in total support of this except for the fact that I’m almost certain his daughter hates me and wants nothing more than to break up our marriage.
During her most recent two-week-long visit, she insulted me, stole things, broke things, lied, guilted her dad into buying her expensive gifts, and instigated fights between her dad and me. Whenever I spoke to my husband about it, he took her side, gave her the benefit of the doubt, or said I was being too sensitive. I feel like he’s blind to her actions and that his loyalty has now shifted away from me to her. I realize that she is his child, and I don’t want to hinder the growth of their relationship, but I also refuse to be treated so poorly.
She’s a part of his life, now and forever. If I can’t make him see the truth about who she is and how I feel, what am I supposed to do?
The Third Wheel
Dear Third Wheel:
Your husband of five years recently started doing exactly what he should be doing. He is building a relationship with his formerly estranged daughter. You described this as “rekindling,” which is a word usually applied to romantic relationships. You feel as though you are in competition with this young woman for your husband’s affections, which you are. You feel as though you are losing this competition, which you are, because you are competing in it. His daughter only has the power that you and your husband give her and, based on your letter, she is just crackling right now.
I do think that this young woman is trying to, at the least, hurt and, at the most, annihilate your marriage. She didn’t have a relationship with her father and now she does, but it isn’t anything the way she thought it would be when she was 12 and imagined seeing her father again and going shopping with him and out to dinner with him and back to her home country with him where he reconciles with her mother and life is, again, perfect. But that can’t all happen because you’re here. She needs to edit you from the script so the story may proceed as intended.
This isn’t your daughter. You weren’t estranged from her and therefore you aren’t desperate to build a relationship with her. And she isn’t desperate to build a relationship with you either. She’s focused on getting her father to prove, over and over and over, that he loves her, he missed her, he’s sorry he wasn’t around for her. You are, in her mind, totally in the way and will not leave already.
I wanna take a step back: 21-year-olds are the worst. Really, they’re fairly terrible most of the time. So much promise and hope and lack of responsibility and fear and just enough freedom to really ruin someone else’s credit. The only thing worse than a 21-year-old is a 19-year-old who’s just read Ayn Rand for the first time.
When I was an extremely self-important 19-year-old, I went off to spend a semester of school studying and living in Copenhagen, Denmark. I lived with a Danish family who opened their home to me, cooked me dinner every night, and showed me how to navigate both Copenhagen streets and Danish culture. And in return, I stained their towels with my acne medication, made their 5-year-old cry hot, angry tears when I ate all of their precious American Kraft macaroni and cheese, left the house for the evening with several candles still lit in my bedroom, didn’t call to tell them that I wasn’t coming home for dinner, and many other assholish things that I can’t even remember, such an asshole was I. But, luckily, this family wasn’t related to me. They neither wanted nor needed my love and thus they had no issue letting me know each and every time what a total asshole I was being. “These towels cost money and you ruined them,” “You need to change your own bed sheets,” “You should ask your family to send some Kraft macaroni and cheese here and then tell our son that you did that so he’ll stop crying,” “You almost burned our house down. That was wrong of you.”
When I got back to my parents’ house, I was doing the dishes without having been asked first and my parents wondered what sorcery had occurred in Denmark.
Here is an obvious sentence that needs to be said: Your husband’s daughter is a child. A 21-year-old is technically, legally, an adult but if you’ve ever spent any time with one you know that they are just very long children with advanced manipulation techniques and the uncanny ability to drink way too much tequila and still look amazing the next morning.
This child cannot ruin your marriage because she’s not married to you. Your husband, however, can. It is enormously difficult to be married to someone who doesn’t validate your feelings. Your husband needs to know that he doesn’t have to agree with your feelings to validate them. Feelings aren’t absolute. Yes, you are being sensitive. Yes, this child is out to get you. Feelings can be totally wrong, but they aren’t motivated by cosmic rightness. They’re heavy and nebulous and the only way around them is to look straight at them and acknowledge their full existence.
You want your husband to see the truth of his daughter, but that’s not the actual solution to this problem. Her intent is irrelevant. His realizing that his daughter is a typical 21-year-old monster isn’t going to solve your problem. Your husband needs to see the truth about who he is. He is your husband and therefore must—even if he disagrees with you—be on your side. He must acknowledge the validity of your feelings even if he disagrees with them, as you must acknowledge the validity of his.
Your husband’s reaction to his daughter’s bad behavior may be due to his guilt at having been absent from her life for so long, or it may be that he’s too scared of the new and tenuous nature of their relationship that he doesn’t want to criticize any aspect of her. I do feel bad for your husband’s position. Because what’s worse than being estranged from your daughter for most of her life? Meeting her again and realizing she’s kind of an asshole.
You need to see the truth that this new relationship between father and daughter is rocky, strained, and delicate. You need to see the truth that you are not in competition with this child. She is a child building a relationship with her father. You are an adult navigating a new period of your marriage.
This young woman cannot, by herself, ruin your marriage. Only you two can do that.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.