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Disengaging versus Emotional Abuse

Marie7859's picture

Hello all, just joined so pardon me if this was a prior topic of discussion; I didn't find it in my cursory search.

I've got my own situation after recently becoming a new SM. During my last conversation with DH about our situation I caught myself saying, "I'm not sure how much more I can take before it starts to affect my interactions with them."  That got me to questioning my intent of that statement.  Which led me here...after relating an awful lot to the droves of SPs discussing disengagement.

Here is my question.  I understand how disengagement can provide a sense of relief and control into a SP's life, but are there negative consequences?  I ask this because I have always been taught (in college, life, etc.) that withholding attention, affection, interaction from someone that you have a close relationship with is considered to clinically be emotional abuse. 

Are there any professionals or studies that have addressed this comparison and offered some tangible commentary?  Sometimes I definitely feel like I just want to stop doing anything but the bare minimum for my SKs; but inside I'm struck with the understanding that this is abusive - especially when I have biological children that I wouldn't disengage from.  Is this unhealthy for my SKs, our future relationship, or their relationship with their BF/my DH?  Or is it okay to shrink back and expect that their BM fill that void just as I do for my biological children? 

For what it's worth, we have sole custody of the SKs in question...with EOWE and some holidays being spent with their BM.

I certainly don't judge anyone who had to disengage in order to salvage their marriage.  I'm just trying to make the most educated decision for our family.  I'd love some input from those of you who did disengage as well as those who chose not to.  Thank you!

Areyou's picture

There are many sides to this. Here are just a few of my thoughts. I may add more later.

1. Kids need to see the adults in their house be in their best state of mind. If the adult is so exhaused that they are not in their best state of mind, it sets a bad example for kids, and sets the norm that it's ok to be not at your optimal state of mind. Disengaging helps the SP find peace and be in a better state of mind so that she/he can be a good partner.

2. SPs are not the parent. You are another adult in the household. You are not to take over the responsiblity of caretaking for the bio parent's kids, that includes the emotional caretaking. That is the bioparent's job. You are not being abusive by simply being another adult in the household doing your own thing. You COULD, however, be abusive if you say or do anything mean, spiteful, cruel, neglectful to the skids. So there is a difference between disengaging and emotional abuse.

For example, a lifeguard is an authority figure that children need to respect. The lifeguard does not say anything mean to the kids but ensures that they are safe and their needs are met. The SP is like the lifeguard. The kids know their boundaries and don't expect love, money, time, or special treatment from the lifeguard. The children learn to respect the lifeguard because they know they can trust the lifeguard. The lifeguard has to be in his or her best state of mind to do her job.

Marie7859's picture

I think that your description of a SP is generally pretty spot on.  The issue in our situation is that DH's work schedule leaves me to be the primary caregiver 90% of the time for our children.  And BM is a non-parent for the most part so there is a gap in care there as well.  Because of this I feel like I'm more of a foster parent as I've assumed all of the responsibilites for all care?  Does that make sense? I'm not resentful at having to care for them, I need to make that clear...I genuinely enjoy running a household and taking care of children - mine or otherwise.  It's the lies and discord that she manifests, regardless of how great we treat her, that are causing the issues.

Areyou's picture

Yes that makes sense. In your case you play a parent role. You need to be given more say and power over skids. DH needs to discuss this with them. 

elkclan's picture

What I would ask is why do you feel you need to - what is going wrong in the household that makes you want to withdraw? And how would you with withdraw if you also have bio children in the house?

Almost everything I've heard here about disengagement seems to be driven by resentment and has these four 'relationship' horsemen - usually for romantic partnerships - but could apply anywhere really.

One of them is stonewalling - aka - disengagement. 

Another is contempt. Contempt is the biggest predictor of divorce and I think if my partner treated my child with contempt it would devastate our relationship. 

Marie7859's picture

This is why I question if it's the right thing for me to do, I do not want it to ruin my marriage or damage his children.

What we're dealing right now is one child (his 17F) heavily rebelling from the changes that are happening with our families blending together.  Things that are causing issues are her regular emotional outbursts, threats of harm to herself if she doesn't get her way (history of cutting, and recently said she'd kill herself if she didn't get her way), her telling her BM and family and even her half siblings' BM personal information from our home and bad mouthing us to them.  The worst part is that she facilitates verbally violent interactions from her BM and her half siblings' BM towards my DH.  She is the David Hogg of the family - existing solely to cause upset in an effort to create a hostage situation in our home, with the hostage being "peace."  Yes, she is in therapy, unfortutately, she has manipulated and lied to her therapist and is now enabled by her.  She refuses to be parented.  DH admits that this is his fault as he worked so hard to care for them that they were most often left to do as they pleased unsupervised - but now the situation has changed and she is rejecting it.  Respectful attempts to converse in a parental manner are met with lies, gaslighting, sobbing, and guilty statements meant to hurt DH.  She is not capable of reasonable conversation.

That is the situation.  It is getting worse as she is currently spending some summer time with her BM. With the hateful support of her BM it's nothing for this child to call her DH while at work at literally start screaming at him for the fact that her BM is behind in child support so she's losing her license - demanding that DH release her from support requirements or else.  She called screaming at him two days ago because her BM told her that DH is seeking custody of her half siblings - demanding that he not "hurt" their BM (who she remains friendly with) or else she would sabotage it by contacting the court. 

All of these things I almost expected from a teenager in her shoes.  But then she tells everyone how horrible not only I, but also her DH are.  This is where your question as to why comes in.  Her BM is a non-parent.  She pays no support, abandoned them and was no contact for several years, is a drug user, does not work, is uneducated, does not participate in any of the children's activities or schooling and moved over two hours away from her kids for a boyfriend.  Enter me.  I have done nothing for these kids but lift them up.  I do the carpooling, I do the doctor appointments, I am the parent at the games/practices, I get the crafts for projects, I take them shopping, I put the money in their lunch accounts, I was the parent that went to take the prom pictures and meet other parents, I made field trips happen.  I pick them up from school if they are sick.  They are children, I know that they cannot fully comprehend the sacrifices that I make for them and I don't expect lavish thanks for doing my job as a parent.  What I cannot seem to handle is that way that they speak about DH and I to all of the other parties involved.  It is a level of disrespect that enrages me.  For me to give so much of time, effort, money, and heart to them so that they can feel supported and flourish only to be met with screaming phone calls about how terrible we are makes me want to never show her another kindness again.  Contempt then?  Perhaps it is. 

To be fair, DH sees all of this.  He accepts responsibility for his prior lack of parenting and his schedule.  He is amazing and supportive and we are a great team.  But neither of us know how to handle this.  His other children are not generally a problem unless she manipulates them (which does happen often), and my own children adore DH so there are no isssues there.  Can I cut her out of my day save for basic "lifeguarding" as mentioned above?  Or is that dangerous for one or more of the other relationships in our home?  The word "depression" has been thrown out by her therapist, but as long as she gets her demands met she is pleasant, so I think that an actual personality disorder is at play (histrionic/borderline?).  This is why it's so important to me to make sure that this is a safe practice - becuase we are terrified that she will do something terrible if we use harsh methods.

elkclan's picture

OK - it seems to me like you're doing a great job, but the hand you were dealt is not one you can win with. It's great that your DH is taking responsibilty for HIS part in her upbringing. But he was not the only parent - and some of the drama can definitely be laid at the door of BM - with her non-parenting. Unfortunately there's nothing you can do about that. 

From her perspective, she was let to run wild and had a lot of control over her life - then she didn't have so much control. That's a hard thing to accept and I don't think any of us would like that and would no doubt kick back. Even though her having full control of her life was not good or healthy, it still represents a real loss to her. She is not far away from having a lot more control again in her life - unfortunately she probably won't make good choices. 

Depression may be at play. It doesn't always look like moping and hiding away. If she is prone to depression, why wouldn't she feel that way with a BM who essentially abandoned her and the loss of control thing. I've suffered from depression and anxiety on and off most of my adult life and in my teen years, too. I'm now much better able to manage with this, but it's still no picnic. I can seem very, very happy and bubbly even - even when I'm in a terrible episode, because I hide a lot of that away. 

She is old enough now that you can tell her that you're unhappy with her behaviour and while you don't expect her to understand the sacrifices that you make (no child can!), you are tired of x, y, z behaviours and that they are now having a negative impact on your wellbeing and the balanced wellbeing of the family.  Reassure her that you want her to be in the family but not like this. Explain the hurt that these thing cause.  A limited and conditional 'disengagement' may be exactly what you need to do. But not with contempt or stonewalling, but essentially using the lines I've seen here elsewhere "we don't do favours for assholes" and "we don't negotiate with terrorists". Try to find a way that when she's behaving she can get what she wants (sometimes) and that she always gets what she needs (as determined by DH and you). 

I don't think this is easy and this would not be easy in an intact bio-family. I think you guys need to be in counselling, too - but more a form of parenting coaching - helping you navigate through this difficult time. There's no earthly reason that you should be an expert in how to deal with this - you've never done it before! Yes, cutting one family member out WILL be dangerous to other relationships in the home, but so is the existing set up. 

fairyo's picture

Disengaging is not stonewalling- I have read the link and think you are perhaps getting confused. Disengaging does not seek to do any emotional or physical harm to anyone- rather it seeks to protect SPs from the often resultant anxiety and depression they feel about issues to do with their skids. I would say that if you have almost full time responsibilty for the minor children of your partner, and involved in their occasional physical care, as opposed to the almost constant care you seem to have for your skids, then not to give them that physical care failing the presence of another responsible adult, would constitute neglect, but not necessarily abuse. Abuse is a deliberate act of harm perpetrated against another person, as opposed to neglect which may just be a failure of awareness for the needs of someone in a position of vulnerability.

You speak in the plural about youself and your DH having sole custody- but the truth is it is DH that has that sole custody, not yourself. You say you are the primary caregiver 90% of the time- this means that DH is the sole care giver only 10% of the times, which I guess is possibly even less that BM gets?

You say you enjoy running the household etc etc and that's great for you- but I take it you are not enjoying the lies and the discord, as you put it.

If BM isn't the cause of the lies and the discord, as she has so little contact, and DH only has 10% of the contact- then can we assume that you are somehow responsible for the lies and the discord?

Your SD is 17 and suffering from what sounds like severe mental health problems, which DH has admitted may be due to his poor parenting skills, not to say BM's issues too. This young woman was seriously messed up before you came on the scene, and yet you seem to be waving a magic wand as superstepmum and making it all better?

No no no! She refuses to be parented, cannot have a conversation etc etc. My feeling is, isn't it all a little bit late in this young woman's life? She will have to find her own way through this mess to grow as a person that may eventually play a productive role in society but meantime she needs all the help she can get- from her parents as well as the other professionals involved. But not you.

Disengagement means accepting that you did not cause the mess, and therefore cannot fix it. Thinking that you can fix it is just arrogance I'm afraid.

Do you need to do more except basic safeguarding? I'm not sure what that means for a 17 year old- she can dress, feed and clean herself- what she needs is the emotional support of her parents. Disengage for her sake, and yours.


Marie7859's picture

In regards to the 90%, to be specific - that is how often I am the sole parent present during DH's legal parenting time.  BM has EOWE.  That visitation time is when the problems seems to begin, and are then carried back to our home after visitation for several days of tyranny. 

I can admit that I am a fixer.  I don't think I expected them to be "better" overnight; but I was surprised and shocked to find that they spoke so ill of both of us. 

Do I need to do more?  Well, that's a good question, and I don't know the answer.  With BM not here and DH working, who else but me to pick her up from practice an hour away?  Who else to take her to activities (like SAT testing or Prom) on Saturdays when DH works?  I'm supposed to support my DH as I see I feel that those tasks are up to me if he can't do them due to work.  If I stop doing all of this for her she will simply have no life, whilst her siblings and step siblings are carted around by me as normal.  Is this an exercise in favoritism?  And if so is that fair? 

fairyo's picture

I think you have to do less, not more. I still don't get the sole parent thing- sole adult maybe? So are you saying that 90% of the time you are the only adult?

It is very comon for the skids to play up after they have been at BMs for weekends- it is how you respond to the playing-up that counts.

Of course favouritism isn't fair- but neither is treating every child as as if it is the absolute equal of another. All kids have different needs at different times of their lives.

I'm not sure I can answer your question either, because it seems to me that you are doing too much for your DH, not his daughter, and wanting self-validation for playing the parent when you clearly aren't one (to her). You are supposed to support your DH? And does he support you? In a marriage that support should be equal for both sides.I'm just not sure DH is living up to his responsibilities here- maybe he sees himself as the big provider but doesn't want that emotional contact with his daughter?

Steplife can be messy, exhausting and very unrewarding. Disengaging is not a choice you make at the beginning, but rather the fall back position when steplife doesn't come up to our vision of how we can play happy familes for ever.

Survivingstephell's picture

You are dealing with a 17yo, not a small child.  They are perfectly capable of learning the lesson that you get what you give.  That's how life deals with you anyway.  Give a child everything without holding them accountable leads to a deep sense of entitlement that only real life can undo, if ever.   

Disengagement is about putting the proper boundaries in place and putting that said responsibility on the correct person.  There's book called Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend that explain it perfectly.  

Does disengagement mean being cruel? No but it does mean letting consequences happen when they need to.  Toxic patterns would sacrifice someone in order to maintain that toxicity to survive.  Disengagement allows you to reclaim your life and sanity and health, physical and mental.  It allows you to engage on your terms.  If you feel motivated to, then you can, if not, you pass on the request.  

There is also a process that is a normal part of growing up that happens in the teenage years, and that is called differentiation.  Its the process of breaking away from the family of origin and becoming an adult.  

I see in your response that you suspect BPD.  If so you will need to research that and understand how it works and not be sucked into her self-made drama.   You might want to learn how to put limits on how much abuse you will take from her by practicing saying "I see you're upset, so we will stop this conversation right now  and approach it when you are in a better mood to discuss it" then walk away from it. Do not engage until she calms down.  She will learn if you are consistent.  If she whines to others and they come to you, just explain what happened and what you said.  If they insist you should take the abuse, ask them if they would???  If they would, they are just as toxic and you need to stay away from them too.  

Hang in there and I hope you and DH can stay on the same page concerning her.  I have BPD in my inlaws and possibly BM.  Its not easy.   

ybarra357's picture

IMO there is not ‘one size fits all’ when approaching disengagement.  It can mean different things to different people. 

For me, I was dealing with adults, or nearly adults, when it came to my disengagement.  Adults who refused to do ANYTHING for themselves.  Adults who refused to work or go to school.  Yet, expected others to feed them and provide them money for drugs and or alcohol (albeit unknowingly).  You can see where I’m going in this situation.

Also, there’s what I call the ‘foisting’ aspect of disengagement. Usually involving younger SK’s. Where parents completely abandon their parental responsibilities and foist their children onto their spouses/SO’s.  And the spouses are not allowed to say anything to the little darlings or the ‘foister’ will be angry!  I could never wrap my head around this particular situation – why would a parent not want to parent their own kid/s? Laziness?? Oh well.    

Actual parenting is not easy and not for the faint of heart.  Sometimes parents need to make certain decisions that may not be popular.  I get that BM is a tool, but your DH sounds like he's hasn't really stepped up either.   

Maria10's picture

Your SD is basically an adult. An adult with MANY issues. Issues exacerbated by BM. 

Your SD is emotionally and mentally abusing you DH as well as her siblings. You are not being emotionally abusive by drawing a line and saying enough. Are you sure she isn't doing drugs with BM? 

Disengage from her alone. When at BM house and calling acting crazy and all other skids are over there you could call for a " welness check" from police(anonymously of course). 

It does not sound like the skids should be around BM at all. Yes a babysitter would be a lot more psychologically affordable.

Some children do things like threaten to cut and kill themselves in order to get attention. I wonder what would happen if next time ashe does it you call the suicide hotline right in front of her.

Harry's picture

Is not going to change.  It too late for that,  Stop being nice to her,  don’t drive her, don’t go to DR,s  with her. Let BF and BM figure that out, They figure out how to make her, they can raise her.  Her lost is not your problem,  

Major Blunder's picture

I would disengage from her, it sounds like she is only pleasent when she gets her way and you doing for her is her getting her way (that's alot of hers lol) .  I went through and am still dealing with that with a now SD 26 and it hasn't gotten better.  You make yourself feel horrible trying to do for this child and it never being enough, if DH or BM can't take her somewhere she will need to find her own way.

I understand the struggle you are having I went through it as well but finally for my sanity I had to disengage, also once I did DW started seeing more and more what the problems were, even though at that point they were glaringly obvious.

My education was something I thought was going to help me with SKIDs, nope, no master's degree can help with such a fluid and demanding situation, all the books in the world can't help control feelings and heartbreak and that's where you will be headed if you stay engaged with her is heartbreak, she is going to hurt you if not physically definately emotionally, I can almost guaranty this.