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Vengeful, undermining biological relatives

Seneca's picture

I am a step parent to children ranging from 5 to upper teens. Long story, but there is religion in the background that led to the multiple kids, and also to some very poor boundaries in the immediate and wider family. The children’s biological father ended his coercive and emotionally abusive relationship to my partner by hitting her in front of several of the children. The fallout from that has of course been dramatic at times.


My partner has been a lioness in trying to protect the children since, by immediately reporting her ex-H to the police and kicking him out. Thanks to the pandemic, he was not able to see the children much for the best part of two years, during which I met their mother and have become very attached to the children. I love her very dearly – we are blessed with a very deep connection - and have tried to be supportive as far as family drama was concerned. Let me be clear that our relationship is not in doubt and our communication is frank and constructive.


Throughout, as can be expected of an abusive narcissist, the exH has been vile to their mother and has tried to use court to continue attacking her. My partner was extremely wise in her legal approach and got the best outcome she was ever likely to get re finance and contact with the kids. Bear in mind he was both violent and had a history of CSA in his past: the judge sided with him and was adamant he have full access to the children. My partner, for her efforts at safeguarding, was saddled with debt to pay the legal fees.


For the first time since court concluded, the children have had a holiday with him and his new wife. We knew it would be hard when they came back, but for me it has been worse than I could ever have imagined. They were brim full of the junk food he fed them on the car journey home and fizzing with tales of the holiday they’d had, during which the father had showered them with treats and other goodies which my partner and I can’t afford. All this incredibly galling given the father never used to even go on family holidays in the past, let alone fancy ones like this.


But the worst part was that he had taken the children to see my partner’s mother – a woman so vindictive and disturbed that she once tried to get her daughter fired from her job! This woman favoured the violent ex over her own daughter, in the aftermath of the abuse that took place. Biological father did this without asking my partner, and in full knowledge of the pain it would cause her. Indeed, he did it because of the pain it would cause her – because while they were married, he had no time or interest in his mother-in-law.


I am an inexperienced and naïve parent. I adore the children’s mother, and have tried to love and care for her children as if they are mine. But they are not mine. And when I heard all of this – the deeply vindictive and toxic behaviour of these adults, using children as pawns to punish my partner, I am sorry to say I melted down. I had to leave my partner to be the saint that she is, showing enthusiasm for the kids’ tales of their shiny holiday. I was incandescent with rage at the injustice of it all. That’s not something I can hide from the kids so I hid myself a bit. Next door, I listened as the youngest cheerily said that he had forgotten all about his mum and the house he lived in.


Later, as I was talking to my partner and the awfulness of the situation was sinking in – the realisation that this abusive, undermining behaviour would never end so long as the father is alive -  I was just hit with the realisation that I am no one to those kids. I have no rights where they are concerned. I cannot protect them. And it wouldn’t take long for them to forget I exist. I found myself wondering whether I am putting too much of myself into my relationship with them. 


Before you accuse me of sounding selfish, let me agree with you. I am selfish. I have only ever been a single and child-free person. I have no idea how you squash down these awful feelings and pretend everything is ok in front of children. I have no idea about this concept called unconditional love. (Especially having been brought up by a narcissistic mother myself.) I gamely involved myself in something that I could not have imagined was so toxic. I feel utterly heartbroken about what this will do to the children over time, that I cannot do anything to keep them safe, and that I am unlikely to ever be the superhero my partner needs to support her through this. 


I am completely out of my depth and would be very, very grateful for some advice. How do I keep myself sane and keep my expecations realistic?

ESMOD's picture

Unfortunately, as unfair as it may feel to you.. her kids do deserve to have a relationship with their father.. and the fact that he can enjoy nicer holidays now.. even if he didn't do that before?  well.. that is something out of your control.. and it's super normal for kids to end up eating a lot of junk on the road when traveling.. that's just what happens.. "I" eat more junk when I'm on a long car journey.. it just isn't always that easy to eat pure healthy food.  And.. it's ok for him to treat his kids to a nice holiday.. his mom is welcome to treat her kids to whatever extras she can afford.

but... yes.. as a SP too.. you need to be keenly aware that in the grand scheme of things.. your relationship with her children hinges on your relationship with her.  If you are to break up?  it's not likely that you would continue to see these kids.. be in their lives etc.   They may like you..enjoy time with you..appreciate things you do for them.. (or but in the end.. you leave her.. the kids are not in play with you any more.

and to the "thankfulness" for "all you may do for her kids".. to be clear.. it is not necessarily a child's nature to be thankful for the roof over their heads.. the utility bill paid. the food on the table.  It' is their MOTHER's job (and father's) to ensure that happens.. and if you help HER to pay for those things.. SHE is the one who should be displaying the gratitude.  Of course.. you buy them a birthday present?  sure... they should be taught to say thank you.. but for day to day support? no.. it's mom's job to provide it.. so she is the one you are doing that favor for.. if you are helping to cover the kid's costs.

And... I get that you are hurt that the kids went off and weren't pining for you and your SO.. but they had their father.. and the vacation.. and it's good that their mom was able to be happy her kids had a positive experience.. she wants her kids to be happy.. so they were.. and to her.. that's great.

NOw.. as to the visit to her mother... it's possible that her mother is still very much on team SIL (your wife's ex) if they are involved in a religion that values women's submissive nature to their husbands? and male dominance.. and her leaving could be almost considered a sin in her mom's eyes.. well.. that's a tough situation.. and unfortunately.. it will be hard for her to prevent her EX from allowing her mom to see the kids.. he may not be doing it for overly nefarious reasons.. but it could end up being confusing for the kids.. and your wife needs to be vigilant to correct any misunderstandings the kids may have about her or her relationship with her EX and/or mother.

But.. it does sound like your feelings were hurt on your own behalf and on behalf of your SO because her kids so easily went and enjoyed time with their father.  But.. you need to understand.. it's not some betrayal of you or her that they love their dad and the things they got to do with them.. in the end.. the day to day loving home they are in will probably shape their lives more.. and while they may not fully "get" that until they are much older.. that doesn't mean it's not worth giving them now.

But.. if you aren't personally able to be part of that? it's ok.. step life is hard.. not for everyone.. so sometimes it's best to realize it and gracefully move on.

paul_in_utah's picture

As one of the few men on here, let me give you the same advice that my dad gave to me when he learned I was marrying a single mom:  "Being a step-dad doesn't mean shit."

I apologize for the crudity of the message, but sometimes you need the blunt truth.  He was absolutely right.  I was engaging in the same kind of white knight behavior you are, saying the same sort of things, doing so much to help these kids.  In the end, it meant nothing.  In fact, my presence was a huge problem for them, and they relentlessly campaigned to break up the marriage that I had.

Sure, there are a few Brady-bunch type of success stories, but in my experience they are rare.  Step-situations, although common, are in many ways an affront to nature.  In a perfect world, people get into stable long-term relationships and take care of their own bio-kids.  Bringing in an unrelated party is unnatural.

In short, I encourage you to distance yourself from these kids.  Be pleasant, and be helpful to your SO if you think that is warranted, but guard your heart.  It is very likely to get broken by these kids.


The fact that the judge upheld the bio-dad's rights is a pretty strong sign that you are misguaging the situation.  Not sure what country you are in, but most of the time dads are marginalized.  So if the judge is siding with him, that is a pretty strong indicator that the situation is not as clear-cut you think. 

Stressed19's picture

Completely agree... be respectful, but sk will always trade you in a heartbeat for a bio parent. Don't take it personally!!!! Know your place , don't expect much and do not invest too much where you compromise yourself or become resentful.

lieutenant_dad's picture

Being a SP has a limited number of positives, but one of those is that YOU get to choose how involved you are with the kids (up to their point of comfort, of course). Read up on disengagement. It's entirely possible to be supportive of your partner without having to become a "bonus mom" to the kids.

Speaking of being supportive: your job is NOT to be protector and the "white knight". Your partner has to be that for herself. She needs to be doing what she can to rebuild herself, whether it be through therapy, self-help books, support groups, etc. As her partner, your job is to stand beside her and support her on this journey, not stand in front of her and take on her problems.

Additionally, she needs to be the same for you. She needs to be able to stand at your side and offer you support. You both need to be able to walk together in life and head in the same direction at relatively the same speed. Trauma bonding or "white knighting" FEELS a lot like a healthy relationship because it brings up all the warm-fuzzies. But when you get beat down by it, or she doesn't put in the work to get better (and that includes being able to raise her kids with her abuser still in the picture, unfortunately), your seemingly-healthy relationship will turn volatile and resentful really quickly. Mixing kids into the picture only makes that happen faster.

So, as much as you don't want to do this, taking a step back is precisely what you need to do. Support your partner in her journey to improve herself as a person and a parent. Date her like you'd date anyone else (though recognize she has kids so it may be less adventurous). Focus on the relationship you're building with her versus trying to build yourself into a parental figure. Act with her kids like you would a niece or nephew, or like if you were a teacher or coach: make sure they aren't in immediate danger, be nice to them and play games when/if you want to, and offer advice if they ask for it. Co-parenting communication, parenting decisions, parenting activities like baths and bedtime routines - those are your partner's responsibilities, and she has to grow into those. You stepping in and doing it won't help. Sure, if you're already making dinner, fix it for everyone. Or if you're better at math and can help with homework, go for it. But don't be THE person responsible for those things.

You also need to consider therapy or self-help for yourself. Being angry at the ex, especially when they're trash, is an entirely normal reaction. Walking away for a few minutes is a healthy response. Establishing boundaries around what you can and can't handle is a good thing. Don't beat yourself up for handling the situation in what was likely the EXACT RIGHT WAY to handle it. But, also make sure that you're learning skills to not let it overtake you or push you into unhealthy behaviors like "white knighting". It has taken me literal years to not get angry for hours or days at BS that the BM in my life has pulled. At this point, I expect her to operate at minimum capacity (and she sometimes doesn't even hit that bar). I can't let her decisions dictate my life, and I can't let my DH's reactions toward her behavior cause me stress and grief, either. She is trash as a person, and she hasn't done much in a decade to change that. There is nothing I will ever do to change that. Nothing my DH has ever done or will ever do can change that. Even her own kids distancing themselves from her won't change that. So why do I spend my time getting upset about it or trying to fix it? I try hard not to, and that's a good place for any stepparent to be. You didn't break it so you can't fix it, and when you try to fix it, you may cut yourself in the process or break it further.

Seneca's picture

Thank you for this response. I feel like you get it, but you've also challenged me to look at my own expectations and explore the 'white-knighting' side of myself. I have, in the past, been in 'rescuer' role, so I must not slip into that here. 

I think what panics me is that their father is not only trash but dangerous trash, as well as the sort that would love to undermine their mother in a variety of ways as she raises his kids mostly alone. The younger children just innocently love their Dad and there's a sense of having to be watchful all the time about what inappropriate words or deeds might happen. They also happen to be the children I have been most like a parent to.The older ones all dislike him to a greater or lesser degree. They recognise he's not a great human being and don't want much to do with him. 

I do need to focus on myself, and my boundaries. You're right: I cannot fix the f-ed upness of their background, though I can have empathy. Fortunately so far my SO and I are very much on the same page and keen to support each other's journey. I will talk to her again about the ideas in your reples. I'll continue doing the jobs I am responsible for, domestically, as it is easy to help that way. But I might disengage to some degree with the children. I don't know much about it - will have to read up. 

lieutenant_dad's picture

Loving younger kids is easier. They tend to be sweeter, kinder, more innocent, etc. They also need more from adults and tend to show their appreciation more through manners, hugs, expressing emotions, etc. I'm not surprised you've fallen more into a parental role with them because it's easy to do. My suggestion is to pull back more toward babysitter. You don't have to stop interacting with them or caring, but you also don't need to be the first person they run to when they need or want something. Make them go to Mom first, then help out Mom if you can.

Disengaging looks different for everyone, and it might vary kid to kid. It also takes time to figure out the right fit. I think, as I hinted at above, that the easiest approach to start down the road of disengagement is to make Mom first. Kids not following rules? You tell Mom and she handles it. Kids need to be tucked in bed? Mom. Kid wants a special treat or to stay up late? Mom. If a decision needs to be made, Mom needs to make it. If a kid asks you to help open a snack they're allowed to have or how to do a homework problem, of course you can step in. But make it clear that your SO makes the decisions about her kids, and make it clear to both the kids and SO. A simple "go ask your mom first" is a great first step in disengagement.

advice.only2's picture

There is a poster on here (halo1998) whose ex was a toxic NARC and she might be able to give you and your SO pointers on effective ways to gray rock the abusive ex NARC.  NARCs need a supply to feed off of and when they can’t get it they move on, sounds like the ex has with a new wife, but he still enjoys feeding off the pain and suffering of his ex.  Going forward giving no indications to the kids so they can relay that to daddy (him love bombing them with elaborate trips and treats are all classic NARC moves).  The kids will figure it out as they get older or they won’t.  I would make sure your SO is on the lookout if any of her children start to display NARC tendencies and how she can help combat that or nip it in the bud. 

Seneca's picture

You're right. Gray rock all the way with him - and my SO's mother! - he has no clue how his behaviour affects us. My SO is very practised in this. 

advice.only2's picture

Yeah him taking the kids to see toxic MIL was just another way for him to assert his power and control over your SO.  The sad part is NARC's know what your worst triggers are and will use those against you everytime.

Ispofacto's picture

You and your SO are better off limiting your exposure to exNarc.  Knowing what he is up to will do nothing to mitigate his scheming.  But you can live more peacefully not knowing anything, or knowing as little as possible.  Narcs are gross, and you'll need a shower just hearing about their toxic bs.


Survivingstephell's picture

Get a copy of the book Divorce Poison.  Inside there will be ideas on how to teach critical thinking skills for your skids.  Sounds like the ex is determined to sever the parent relationship with the mother.   She might lose this battle.   Educate yourselves on narcissism and the destructive type.  Character disorders.  You can't underestimate this type and the more knowledge you know, the better choices you can make. 

Seneca's picture

We've discussed how far it could go. He has no qualms treating the younger kids differently to the older ones (ie, with less interest and generosity), which has caused the older ones pain. We are particularly worried about the middle kid, who is likely his favourite. There's the religious element too, which we think the kids are immune to, but it's very much in the mix. I think he'd be happy if he fragmented the family, turning kids against each other. 

The one thing in our favour is that he is playing the role of church stalwart, which will reign him in a bit, and also he's lazy and not very bright. 

Rags's picture

default position as a SParent. His mom and I agreed early in our relationship that if we married we would be equity life partners and equity parents to any children in our home/marriage. Regardless of kid biology.

As it turned out, SS-30 is an only child in our marriage.  He is the eldest of 4 all out of wedlock Spermidiot spawned half sibs by 3 different baby mamas. #3 and #4 are full sibs.

If they were not abusive or neglectful of SS when he was on SpermLand visitaition, my give a shit was about them was zero. If they were neglectful or abusive, it was game on.  My position was to protect my son and my wife from them. Period. Dot.

I would align with the SO to parent and model healthy adult relationships for your Skids, address any oddities with the facts and the truth, and keep  your fee fees out of it beyond that.  As XMIL and the XH are part of some fringe cult deal, the facts need to be front and center with the Skids to counter as much of that noxious crap as you and their mom can manage to neutralize.

I have always engaged in conversations with my SS about his SpermClan visits. What they had done, how the shallow and polluted half of of his gene pool was doing (I of course never used those words with him and made significant effort to not show any disdain for them).  Even now, he turned 30 yesterday, I still ask him how they are doing when we talk.  He has very little to do with them and rarely has any contact with them in any form.  That is sad to me.  But... I completely get that my son uses this as a self preservation technique to minimize their manipulation, guilt tripping, etc...

Protect your SO and your Skids. Just as importantly, protect yourself as well.  There is nothing to by jelouse or envious of when it comes to a toxic blended family opposition.  You and your SO are in a strong relationship, are doing the right things for your blended family and for your Skids.  Even if BioDad has the ability to spoil them, they will not remember those things. What they will remember is a calm, loving, respectful home and family experience where their mom is happy and making a quality life with her partner.

My SS wants what his mom and I have, my parents have, what his uncle and aunt have (my brother and his wife).  He wants nothing he experienced on visitation with the SpermClan. He detests his bio dad, he and his sister (spawn #2) can't stand their father, and they both bang their heads against the proverbial wall trying to protect their two younger brothers from their idiot father and the toxic SpermGrandHag. Sadly, not successfully. #3 is a convicted felon inmate, #4 is not far behind that tragic example.  Their idiot father still fosters delusions of gang banger grandeur.