Suzanne is the apple of her dad’s eye - 22, a beautiful, bright and successful architecture student who recently completed study in Europe for six months. Her parents’ divorce had been finalized shortly before she left, and she was dealing with it well - after all, she had a great relationship with both parents and was happily establishing herself in her own life... until she returned from Europe last Fall to the home of her childhood, where a woman had moved in with her dad.

Everything was suddenly different - and uncomfortable. She seemed not to be able to find any time alone with her dad; Cassie (I call her “stepmom” because although they’re not married, she is the placeholder for the stepmom in that home). The place looked and felt different, weird, with a new woman and her things in her mom’s place, cooking in her mom’s kitchen! Suzanne spent very little time visiting over the Fall semester, as her dad did not seem to understand her anger and awkwardness, and Cassie was always “right there” when she wanted to talk to him.

Everyone in the situation had a view of it that seemed right to him or her. Her dad thought Suzanne was being unreasonable - after all, he paid half of Suzanne’s apartment lease at school, so she had her own place now; why begrudge him a new home life - didn’t he deserve to find happiness again after his wife left him? Suzanne thought he should have consulted her before making this huge change in her house - the two of them had always been so close, and she felt he should have had the consideration to wait until she returned home to get to know Cassie and warm up to her a little. Cassie, who had sons but not a daughter, was unprepared for the emotional upheaval and felt at a loss over the whole thing. Forward to the Christmas holidays...

When Suzanne returned home for the holidays, the situation worsened quickly. The holidays had always been steeped in time-honored rituals and decorations that had meant so much to her - but here was her home, decorated to the nines for Christmas with another woman’s touch! At least she and her dad had the decency to keep the old family decorations boxed up, but she and her dad got into an immediate fight when she came home, and Suzanne left for her mom’s. She just couldn’t do it - the holiday for the family seemed to be doomed to failure, at least on that side and in the house where all her memories of Christmases past lay.

Fortunately, Suzanne’s mom listened as understandingly as she could (the situation was tough for her too), and encouraged her to be honest. And fortunately too, Cassie called Suzanne and asked her if they could talk. The two women did - the new “stepmom” and “stepdaughter”. They did nothing but share feelings, non-defensively - each one expressed where they were coming from, and Suzanne had a chance to get out her anger and shock about the sudden changes she had to deal with when returning from Europe and feeling the need to be “home again”. Cassie had thought the woman’s touches and decorations would make Suzanne feel more at home, but she hadn’t realized that they made Suzanne feel even more uncomfortable. Both felt better after the conversation, and afterwards Suzanne was able to spend several days of her holidays there successfully.

This situation could have easily become a chasm of misunderstanding, creating a cold distance between a father and daughter who in truth love one another deeply. When two people listen without becoming defensive, understanding naturally opens up. Fortunately, these two women were mature enough to do that instead of moving into their own corners, building blame and beginning to rupture the family even further than it had already ruptured through the divorce. A small step, this conversation - but it sets the stage for opening up further understanding and healing as this fledgling stepfamily begins to create its own memories.

Author's Bio: 

Joan Sarin, MS is a Master Coach trained by the Stepfamily Foundation, who has personally done the hard work of developing a successful stepfamily, with 17 years as a stepmom. A social psychologist and coach with twenty years of experience, her methods accelerate personal progress. Joan is also a school parent educator and appears regularly on radio programs.