My Step-Mom Is Causing Drama In My Family—What Should I Do?

Dear Newsweek,

I'm 43 and I have four adult kids, aged 19, 20, 22, and 25. My dad and I have always been close and he's always been extremely close to my daughter (22-year-old).

He's been married to my stepmother for 10 years and has consistently been driving a wedge between my dad and everyone. She drunk calls us telling us to stop calling him, she won't allow him to make my daughter the executor of his will, and won't allow him access to his money, though he's the only one working.

She frequently calls my daughter, who's six months pregnant and considered at high risk, saying that my dad isn't doing well and crying hysterically. When we ask what she means she hangs up and turns [the] phone off. I'm two hours away and my daughter is 20 hours away so we can't just run over and check. We've asked her not to drunk call us, my dad has told her not to call at all because she's said awful things.

drunk woman on the phone
A stock image shows a drunk woman on the phone. Psychologists advice Tiffiney from Washington on her dilemma. Getty Images

Last night she called saying he wasn't doing well, and couldn't feel his arm, and when I asked if she meant he'd gotten hurt at work or he was having a heart attack or stroke, she screamed and hung up. I called the police to do a welfare check because I couldn't get ahold of anyone else to check. Turns out she was beyond drunk and he'd slept wrong and popped shoulder out of the socket. [He was] hurt but nothing life-threatening.

Now he's annoyed with my daughter and [me], for suggesting he put a lock code on his phone so his wife stops harassing us. To add history, [during] the time he was in the hospital for high blood pressure she never let anyone know and refused to let anyone visit when we found out.

We don't like her sober but try to be respectful, for his sake. Sober or not, she has pretty much cut him off from everyone, my kids and I as well as other family and friends. Her alcoholism is getting worse, and my kids have blocked my dad's number because [my] stepmother uses his phone to call and harass them.

Tiffiney, Washington

The Healthiest Thing For You To Do Is To Start Making Adjustments

Dr. Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and the author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety as well as Dr. Chloe's 10 Commandments of Dating. Her approach is goal-oriented and emphasizes reaching our fullest potential through a strengths-based approach.

Dear Tiffiney,

Let me start by saying I'm sorry that you're going through such a difficult situation, it sounds like you really love your dad and you're worried about the relationship dynamic he is in, as well as the way that particular dynamic affects the rest of your family.

Your note suggests that you see your stepmother as potentially controlling your dad and making him do things he does not want, such as cutting off his access to his money and interfering with decisions about who will be the executor of his will. I'm not sure of his age, or of how literally you meant it when you said that she is "making" him do things and/or "not letting him" do things as you described, but if he is truly being taken advantage of then it may be appropriate to file a complaint of elder abuse with the local authorities.

On the other hand, if your father is actually of sound mind and making his own decisions about choosing to accommodate his wife's wishes, then it may be important for you to come to terms with the fact that she is not "making" him do anything-- assuming your father is a grown man of sound mind, then we must respect that he is making his own choices regarding whatever suggestions his wife may be offering. Rather than pinning the conflict on her, you may want to address and/or press the issue of his choices more directly and firmly with him (if he is actually a capable adult who is simply making his own decisions in consultation with his wife).

Regarding the midnight phone calls, it sounds like you're saying that you don't want to block the calls in case there is a true emergency, but at the same time being repeatedly awakened in the middle of the night to nonsensical drunken phone calls is becoming unbearable. It may be time to let your dad know this, and explain that unfortunately, you (and possibly your daughter, if she wishes) are going to set your phone to block calls from their number during your sleeping hours unless he is willing to help change his wife's behavior.

Depending on local laws about recording calls, you might also consider telling your dad and his wife that you'll be recording her future midnight calls to play for your father so that he can fully understand what you're really going through-- if she is as drunk as you say during the midnight calls, she might even be stirred to change when she hears a recording of herself during the sober light of day.

I understand that none of these solutions is perfect. What would be perfect is if your dad and/or stepmother were naturally willing to make changes on their side-- but it sounds like that is unlikely to happen, and depending on others to change rather than setting our own boundaries is a road to unhappiness. So, the healthiest thing for you to do may be to start making adjustments based on the reality of the situation.

In the meantime, I would also consider talking to a family therapist and/or looking at books that may be helpful. One of my favorites on this topic is Making Adult Step Families Work by Jean Lipman-Blumen and Grace Gabe.

Create And Maintain Some Ground Rules With Your Stepmom

Rabia Khara, is a marriage and family therapist specializing in adults, couples, and families, she is also a drama therapist and mindfulness meditation teacher.

Dear Tiffiney,

I am sorry to learn you are experiencing the unhealthy dynamic between your dad and his current wife. It sounds like her drinking has caused significant impairment and distress to everyone involved.

I empathize with you for the toll it must have taken on your relationship and that of your adult children with your father, however, you need to create and maintain some ground rules with your stepmom when it comes to such interactions as the well-being of your father. [You need] to be assertive in letting her know and have full awareness that it is not acceptable to drunk dial or to create stories for what would appear as a desperate need for attention.

It would be beneficial to enlist the service of a professional for her since she clearly needs help. From what I gather, your relationship with your father and that of your 22-year-old daughter and the other children has been impacted by your stepmom's behavior but also by your dad's lack of involvement in correcting it, as he seems to have taken a backseat approach to it.

She is clearly manipulative and controlling in what she does and the way she acts, alcohol merely amplifies it in a very negative way. I noticed that you stated she is "driving a wedge between your dad and everyone" and if it's deliberate, then I would recommend seeking a professional to help her.

Concurrently, I would recommend having a really long hard talk with your dad about how this has affected you and your children over the years if the topic has not been discussed at length before without taking sides. Express how it's affected you and reach a compromise with your dad while your stepmom gets the help she needs.

Good luck to you and wishes for s harmonious family dynamic ahead.

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