Dear Prudence: My daughter’s stepfather verbally humiliates her. Can I do anything?

Help! My Daughter’s Stepfather Belittles Her, and I Feel Powerless to Stop Him.

Help! My Daughter’s Stepfather Belittles Her, and I Feel Powerless to Stop Him.

Advice on manners and morals.
June 17 2013 2:42 PM

Flogging the Issue

In a live chat, Prudie advises a man whose daughter is being verbally humiliated by her stepfather.

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A: The most looming question is whether your brother's molestation was confined to that one sister or whether he has "played doctor" possibly with generations of little girls. At this point, I don't know how much more you can do than keep a close eye on his interactions with the young people in the family and have several of you who know the original story also make sure your brother isn't alone with any of them. It sounds as if your molested sister is still suffering from the after effects of her violation—compounded by the fact that all of you feel forced into jolly family get-togethers. For advice on what to do, I suggest you, and preferably both you and your sister who was abused, contact either the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network or Stop It Now. It sounds as if your sister needs therapy to work through what happened and to have a strategy for when she finds herself with her brother. The rest of you need to figure out how to proceed and whether there is continuing danger. Even if a family is close-knit, that doesn't mean you are required to be permanently tangled with someone who makes you ill. But you want to talk this all out with people knowledgeable about abuse and how families react when, or if, these long-hidden secrets are unearthed.

Q. Remarried Dad Upsets Mom: When I was young, my father had an ongoing affair (he is now married to the mistress) that eventually led to my parents' divorce. I don't think my mom ever really moved past it although she is remarried to an amazing man who I love dearly. My father and I have never been very close but have built a cordial relationship in the last few years. I'm not sure how to handle my mother on this, as she blows up whenever she hears about any interactions with my stepmother (dinner, a Christmas party, funerals, etc). I understand that the affair was painful, but they've been divorced for 15 years and she's moved on to a better relationship with a better man and is living her dream life. (I don't know how my stepfather deals with her on this matter; it has to be hurtful to him.) My brother also finds my mother crazy about this but has chosen to generally pretend our stepmother doesn't exist to keep the peace with mom—which I find absurd. How do I maintain my very close and wonderful relationship with my mother while still having one with my father and stepmother? My parents still talk on occasion, so I can't just hide it.

A: Your father hurt her a lot, but 15 years later and living her dream life with a more suitable man, it would be nice if your mother could start thinking, "This all worked out for the best." However unhappy the marriage, it is simply unfair, and very bad parenting, for one parent to try to ruin a child's relationship with the other parent. Your mother is not entitled to dictate how close you are to your father or how warm your relationship is with his new wife. Your father at least is doing you the favor of not trying to harm your relationship with your mother and her new husband. So you need to make some boundaries with Mom, and it would be good if your brother would join you in this. You don't have to rub things in her face, but you can start acting as if it's perfectly normal to see your father and his wife on holidays or at large family events—or even for dinner. If your mother blows up, the first few times you have to say, "Mom, I know your marriage to Dad ended badly, but it was a long time ago, you're both happier with other people, and he's still my father." If that isn't good enough, you have to re-evaluate your "close and wonderful relationship" with you mother because in part it requires your being bullied about your having any relationship with your father, and that's not wonderful. Refuse to listen to her rants or have her dictate who you can and can't see. Yes, this will be hard because you have a long pattern of kowtowing to her emotionally. But it will be better for everyone if you stop. And it sounds as if husband No. 2 must be a saint.


Q. From OP on Molestation Question: Thanks. I'll check into those organizations for sure. I would like to know if I should confront my brother with this knowledge. Also, I am quite certain that he has not molested any other young relatives. He cheated on his wife quite often over the years, but they both seem OK with that, so I've withheld judgment except for thinking, "Yuck." I'm guessing that's how he got his jollies as an adult. Also, I want to let you know that my sister is getting counseling now. She suffers from acute depression and was unable to work last year due to it. Now she has breast cancer. I think the depression may be the childhood trauma surfacing.

A: Talk to the experts, but you have to figure out what you want this confrontation to accomplish, because it certainly doesn't sound as if your brother is going to cop to doing anything more than "normal" childhood playing. Your big, happy family seems to have a lot of dark secrets. (This is a well-noted phenomenon.) It sounds, however, as if your energies should be directed toward helping your sister, not toward trying to get something out of your brother that he is not going to give. It is a relief to think that there haven't been other victims.

Q. When Should I Date?: My wife passed away around January 2012. I am blessed with two wonderful children, a 21-year-old and a 13-year-old. I still wear my wedding ring, and the thought of dating someone feels like cheating on my wife. I am also very nervous about dating. How long should one wait to date?

A: I think you're writing to me because you already know that it has been enough time, and as confused, nervous, and guilty as you may feel—which is all perfectly normal—something in you is saying you're ready to get back out there. Start by seeing what it feels like to put away your ring. This does not have to be something final. Maybe stop wearing it during the work day, but put it back on again at night, if that feels better. But you don't want to go out on dates wearing your ring. That just announces you really aren't ready. Of course you're nervous about dating—you haven't done it in years, and you are only facing it again because of your loss. Tell friends you'd like to meet some nice women. I'm going to guess that they'll have a list of names. Start by having lunch, which has the advantage of being a time-limited event. Be prepared to feel a whole bunch of roiling emotions. But consider if you were the one who died whether you'd want your wife to be alone or to find new love. I'm betting it would be the latter, so accept that you're not being unfaithful to her memory by hoping you can find someone else. That instead this is a tribute to the happiness of your marriage.

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Emily Yoffe is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.