How to stop your or your partner's adult children ruining your new relationship
Category: Better Relationships | Author and Publisher: Elly Prior | First published: 19-06-2018 | Modified: 05-07-2018
Can your grown-up children really be so 'selfish'?
So, your partner's adult children are interfering with your relationship. And now perhaps, sadly, you're wondering if your relationship can survive.
If we're talking about your children here, know that I'm keeping you in mind too and I have a few comments for you in particular further down.
Maybe you recognise any of the following...
Your partner's adult (aged 18+) children are...
- refusing to meet you
- not including you in cards and invitations
- ignoring you at family events
- unpleasant, disrespectful or even abusive towards you
Perhaps this has been going on for months, or even years. If so, I wouldn't be surprised if you're beginning to wonder if you're wasting your time.
In this article, I’ll first shed some light on why those grown-ups might be behaving negatively towards you. Then we'll take a look at how you can help and encourage them to accept the relationship and you.
Know what you can and cannot control
Why are those children so 'nasty'?
You and your partner are in love. You’re both overjoyed that you’ve got a(nother) chance of happiness in a committed relationship. Your partner may have been very careful about how and when they told their children about you… but the news really hasn’t gone down well.
Why? Well, your partner and his/her children may be feeling abandoned or hurt by the other, for different reasons.
To help you begin to get to grips with it - before deciding on your next step - here's what might be going on...
10 Reasons why your partner's children can’t accept you (yet)
- The family has a history of troubled relationshipsThe more troubled the family was before the parents separated, the less flexible, more scared and therefore defensive the children will be. Why? In an emotionally fragile environment, they've learnt to protect themselves from any further pain. They've not had the chance to practice conflict management skills and make mistakes in an emotionally safe environment. Their energy had to go into surviving as best they could. That means that they may well be emotionally immature, therefore a 20-year-old might, for example, react like a teenager.
- The family was a close-knit unit
And the children just haven't yet come to terms with the losses associated with their parents’ break-up. They may not have had time to process what’s happened. Or perhaps they haven’t had the emotional support they needed to learn how to cope with the upheaval and huge changes they’ve had to face. Whatever the reason, if they haven’t overcome the hurt of the break-up, they definitely won’t have the capacity to welcome a new person onto the scene.
- Long-standing jealousy and/or resentment
One or more of the children may have been feeling resentful or jealous for a whole host of reasons for a long, long time before you showed up. But your arrival will sadly exacerbate those underlying problems (through no fault of your own) and you’ll become the scapegoat.
- The children are jealous of the attention you’re getting
Your partner will, of course, be paying you (and your children, if you have any) plenty of attention, especially if the relationship is new. Your partner’s children may feel jealous of the attention you’re getting. Or, they may feel it’s totally OTT or inappropriate, in which case they won’t take kindly to witnessing it on a regular basis.
- The children are protective of the absent parent
They may feel fiercely protective of their other parent, and go to great lengths to try and shield them from further pain. Or the children might resent your partner for finding someone new and ‘abandoning’ their mother/father. They might also feel like they have to choose between their parents and pick a side… and chances are, that’s left you completely out of favour.
- The children are protecting themselves
They may feel that their other parent will be angry if they accept (or even like) you. The children may perceive acceptance of you as a betrayal of their other parent, and they’re likely to be keen to avoid causing any further pain. They might even be told point blank that liking you is a betrayal, in which case they’ll have found themselves between a rock and a hard place right now.
- The children are still grieving for their losses
Be that through the death of a parent, or the loss of a stable home through a family breakup. Grief is a complex and often lengthy process. Any child (no matter how old) still grieving the loss of their parents’ relationship simply won’t be ready to see their mum or dad with another person.
- They've been through it all before
Perhaps several times! In which case, they’re unlikely to see the point of investing in building a relationship with you, because they probably think you’ll be gone again in X months’ time.
- They're angry because of the way they found out
It makes a huge difference how the children found out about your relationship. Was it accidentally, through a public display of affection? Did they happen to come across some communication - text, letter, email? Were they told lies about their parents’ whereabouts and relationship status (possibly with the best of intentions)? Were you having an affair and was the secret catastrophically exposed? Or were the children told carefully, with their feelings of anger, hurt, doubt and angst listened to and acknowledged? (Even if they were told in the best way possible, they still might have a hard time coming to terms with the relationship - for any or all of these reasons listed here.)
- Your partner is still emotionally attached to his/her ex
(I.e. the children’s other parent.) This is particularly relevant after a death because there may be a lot of unresolved love and pain that your partner hasn’t dealt with. Or perhaps s/he didn’t choose to end the relationship and has never quite been able to get over his/her ex. Whatever the reason, if the children know your partner is still deeply attached to their other parent, they’ll have a really hard time letting you into the picture.
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What about your partner?
Your partner will be having a tricky time trying to keep the peace. They have to broker new relationships between you and their children, themselves and their children, and maybe themselves and their ex. They’ll be trying to keep everyone happy - which is a hard task when there’s so much opposition coming from more than one direction.
For you, it might be really frustrating to be able to do no more than watch your partner trying to build bridges with seemingly little success. But it might help you to know that there are plenty of reasons why s/he is having such a hard time getting it right.
Here are some potential explanations:
- Your partner is feeling guilty...
… about not spending enough time with their children
… for causing the breakup of the family
- They feel at the mercy of their ex…
… for the love of their children
… for a successful outcome of a yet to be finalised divorce
- They've always pleased their offspring...
...and may have had problems setting firm, appropriate boundaries even when the children were young
- They fear losing all contact...
...with their children if they don’t do exactly what their children want them to do (or what they think they want them to do)
- They only see one choice...
...and often, that’s not a choice that works well for the new partner. But too many emotions get in the way of clear thinking about alternatives and compromises
What about you?
Dealing with the emotional fallout from your partner’s adult children will no doubt be taking its toll on you. It might be draining your energy and causing you sleepless nights and/or endless frustration. Or perhaps it’s draining your partner’s energy too, and either or both of you are losing your zest for this relationship and your new life together.
Maybe you’ve been hurt by the children’s negative judgements about you. Or perhaps they’ve refused to meet you at all - and that kind of cold, hard rejection hurts just as much.
It might be tough to understand this, but I hope you’ll believe me when I say that it’s unlikely to be about you personally - particularly if the children haven't even met you. Just read the list above again to understand why.
A parent’s new relationship is bound to be challenging for the children, no matter their age. And if your partner had chosen someone else to share their life with, no doubt they’d be on the receiving end of the same treatment too.
So, what can you do? Is there hope?
We’ll start with the tough bit: managing your expectations...
Expect for this to be a long-term issue
If you see a future in this relationship and you really want it to work, then I’m afraid you’ll have to be patient with the children. Yes, I know - you were really hoping I'd come up with a different bit of advice here! :-(
Also know that...
- Some issues may never be resolved
Constantly trying to appease the children without any evidence of progress isn’t helpful. There has to be compromise on both sides. If the children aren’t willing to compromise on a particular issue after a reasonable time, don’t keep trying. You’ll just be banging your head against a brick wall.
- You can’t change your partner
If your partner has never been able to set boundaries, don't expect that it's going to happen now. He or she will only change when they see the need, in their own time and when they totally believe in a positive outcome.
- You can’t change the children
If you’ve been trying to change them, my best advice to you right now is to stop. We as humans can’t change anyone else, and nor should we try. You may have been endlessly patient, gentle and understanding but unfortunately still see no signs of progress. If the children are ever to accept you, they’ll do it in their own time - and you mustn’t try and change yourself to fit in with what they want you to be either.
Empathy will help to take the wind out of someone's sails.
How to cope when your partner's children are causing a rift in your relationship
Before we move on to my 3 steps towards a more hopeful future...
7 Ways to help you deal effectively with the situation
- Accept that the children and your partner's feelings are different
The children may be experiencing loss, grief, anger, hurt, resentment or frustration. You and your partner, on the other hand, may be feeling happy together and hopeful about the future. Acknowledging that your perspectives and feelings may be poles apart can help to create understanding and patience in a difficult situation.
- Consider what you can accept and live with...
...even if it's not your ideal solution our outcome. Is there room for you to adjust your expectations about this relationship and how life with your partner could be?
- Make it clear that you don’t ever want to replace their mother or father
Let them know that you’re in no way trying to do that. Let the children know that they don’t have to love you - or even like you, for that matter. But equally, let them know that you are a person in your own right, and that you deserve to be treated with politeness and common courtesy at the very least.
- Do ask that the children respectfully accept that the situation is what it is
You and your partner are in a relationship. Again, they don’t have to like it - but they also have no right to sabotage the relationship or be deliberately cruel towards you. And let them know that you’ll both always be open to a conversation if ever they want to talk.
- Let the children know that you hope for their generosity of spirit
Tell them how much their acceptance and acknowledgement would mean to you and your partner.
- Know that it's unreasonable for your partner to always want you to play second fiddle
But truly accept that he/she does come as a package with his/her children.
- Be yourself and self-reliant
Ensure that your happiness, self-respect and self-esteem aren't dependent on what happens in this relationship.
- Get professional help
Particularly if the situation seems hopeless and you’re beginning to lose yourself, I highly recommend you talk it over with a professional counsellor. He or she can support you and help you to find the best way forward. Click here for further information on online counselling.
Unfortunately, when it comes to relationships and adult children, difficulties that have been going on for a long time make it unlikely that there’ll ever be an ideal solution.
If the children have caused a rift between you and your partner, you’ll now need to reconsider your commitment. Can you adjust your expectations in such a way that this relationship - in its current state - can work for you? Or would it require too much compromise and heartache on your part? In which case, is it time to close the door on this relationship?
3 Steps towards a more hopeful future
- Acknowledge the limits of your power
Acknowledge for yourself clearly what you have no control over and - based on your experience so far - what you know won't change in the near future
- Use this article to identify for each party precisely where the problem lies
"The children are feeling....., therefore I can....."
"My partner feels... , therefore I can....."
"I feel....., therefore I need to....."
- Decide what your boundaries are
Face up to what you can and can't accept and make a brave decision as to whether this relationship has any chance of survival
If we're talking about your grown-up children
If we're talking about your children, it may be time to stand firm and make a definite decision!
You're too old now to waste your time one way or the other. Step up to the plate - don't just hang on in there in the hope that something will happen. If you do that, you might just find that the something that happens is that your partner decides he/she has had enough and ends the relationship.
If you decide you want to make a go of this relationship, know that your children might come round eventually. It may take some time, but it might also happen sooner than you think.
There's one caveat, though: if your children are young adults and are still fairly dependent on you, you'll probably still want to put their needs first. In which case, you'll need to be clear with your partner that that's what you'll be doing. He/she may or may not accept that - in which case they can decide to continue with or end the relationship, depending on what feels right for them.
Can’t see the difficulties ever being resolved?
In that case, you have a choice.
- Reset your expectations, as suggested earlier. Aim to see the problems as challenges that need to be managed. Focus on what you do have, rather than what you can't have.
- Failing this, know that walking away from this relationship could be the right decision for everyone involved, most of all you. And remember, there's no shame in asking for help. Talking it all over with a professional relationship expert can really help. For further information, see my page: Online Relationship Advice.
Mull over what you've learnt from this article and take the time to consider and decide firmly on your needs, wants and boundaries.
Then set a time to have a calm, considered, open and honest conversation (see my article on how to have a difficult conversation). Tell your partner how you’re feeling, and what you truly want and expect from a relationship.
It helps to know precisely where the problems lie and therefore where to direct your energies. So, I hope the above has enabled you to understand the situation better. There's always hope. :-)
With a little time, effort, patience and understanding, there may still be a chance that your partner’s adult children will come to accept you as part of their mum/dad’s life. Sure, they won’t necessarily treat you like their new best friend, but there’s plenty of room for mutual respect, and recognition of each other as people of importance to your partner.
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The Complete Relationship Guide
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