I’ve been with my boyfriend for five years, but from the very first meeting, his daughter was standoffish and rude.
I put it down to shyness or needing to get to know me, but as time went on, I realised she was overindulged, selfish and arrogant. My boyfriend agrees she’s probably spoilt, but turns a blind eye and never disciplines her. Friends suggested I take her shopping (she wasn’t interested) and I’ve thrown parties for her and bought her gifts, but nothing changes.
She’s bossy and controlling with girls her own age and is a bully. Now she’s 13, she’s even ruder, but she is also very intelligent and takes great pleasure in correcting me. She sees her dad every other weekend, but we’re hoping to move in together soon. He says she really likes me, but I hate the way she makes me feel so much that I’ve considered ending our relationship, even though I really love him. I was a very shy child and suffered at the hands of bully girls like her and those painful memories are magnified every time I see her. I’m at the end of my tether.
Your boyfriend’s daughter may believe she’s the centre of the universe, but that doesn’t mean she has to be the centre of yours. In your longer letter, you say you feel she can’t help the way she is, but admit you dislike her intensely, which makes you feel guilty because she is only a child. Some children can be as unpleasant as some adults, but the adjectives you use about her are so strong, to the point of being harsh, that I feel you’re frightened of her, rather than simply exasperated by her snotty, smartarse behaviour.
Strong words are expressions of fear. As you put it, you hate the way she makes you feel. Nobody can make us feel a certain way unless we allow them to, but what their behaviour can do is trigger unconscious emotions that are so painful that we instinctively react defensively or with feelings of anger and resentment. Often, we’ve buried those emotions so deep that we’re scarcely aware of them, and are perplexed and puzzled by our violent reactions to certain people.
The underlying tone of your letter is one of extreme anger, which you’re probably not even aware of, and anger is often the mask we use to disguise deep-seated fears. As you say, she magnifies painful memories, so every time you see her, she reactivates the fear you felt when you were bullied as a child. In that sense, this is your problem rather than hers, and it’s something you are going to have to deal with on your own. You can’t change her behaviour, but what you can do is be aware of your own emotions and stop responding to her as you did to the bullies in the playground. If you read your letter again, you might see just how strongly you fear and resent her and are unconsciously competing with her in a childlike way (“She’s cleverer than me”).
You describe yourself as having been a very shy child and I suspect you’re still quite timid, so rather than standing up to her, you are hiding behind her father and expecting him to discipline her. Obviously, dealing with other people’s children is a delicate situation, so I’m not suggesting you suddenly start playing bad cop, but just try to be firmer in your responses. She has her own relationship with her father, but she also has a relationship with you, which is quite separate. It is perfectly okay to say, “I’d rather you didn’t speak to me like that,” or, “Your behaviour is not acceptable.” She may run crying to her father, but if you are consistently firm (but never unkind), she’ll eventually get the message. It’s a blessing that her behaviour doesn’t seem to have caused any friction between you and your boyfriend, and he is able to admit she has been spoilt, even if he is unable to discipline her himself.
The very last thing you should be doing is buying presents and throwing parties for her, because it’s going to make her feel even more entitled to be the centre of attention. She’ll instinctively know that you’re trying to buy her affection, probably think you’re a soft touch and treat you with even less respect. So take a step back emotionally and perhaps even make yourself scarce for an afternoon or evening and give her some time alone with her father. However unconsciously, she is vying with you for his attention.
The problem with being badly bullied as a child is that it leaves us without firm boundaries. Because we are frightened, we tend to retreat behind walls and fester in silent resentment rather than speak out. A boundary, in its simplest form, is the word “no”. Until we learn to say it, people who sense our vulnerability, just as animals sense fear, are likely to ride roughshod over us. That’s where you should be turning your attention. Not on her, but on yourself, unravelling the emotions that are causing you such difficulties. You may find counselling useful to help you disentangle the past from the present and make a happy future with the man you love.
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