Q: For six months I have been seeing a woman who lets her 8-year-old daughter sleep with her every night. She started doing this three years ago when she separated from her former husband.
In addition, this girl constantly interrupts our conversations, intrudes if we are holding hands and acts rudely to her mother when she feels she isn’t getting enough attention. The daughter and I get along fine, as long as all of my or her mother’s attention is focused on her (or if she has a friend to keep her occupied).
Her mother says she doesn’t want to enforce stricter discipline or make her daughter sleep alone because she fears the daughter might resent me if she does.
I am crazy about this woman but don’t want to remain in a situation where the child is in control and the mother isn’t willing to change. What can I do to make this relationship work?
A: This little girl already resents you. She thinks there is a competition going on — Mom will choose between him and me.
After a divorce, it’s not uncommon for a child to imagine that love comes and goes. Mom and Dad stopped loving one another, the thinking goes, so maybe Mom will stop loving me.
As a result, the threat that her mother’s love will vanish is especially intense when someone new enters the picture. She feels she may be kicked out and replaced by the boyfriend. It’s natural she would react by being clingy and demanding.
You’re right, this situation cannot continue. You must show this girl that you are not engaged in a zero-sum game, where one wins Mom and the other loses.
Most of the work here, though, is going to fall on the mother. In the end, it is she who must come to terms with what is going on and realize that it is best for all concerned to foster some independence in this child. She needs to learn that not only is the situation affecting everyone now, but that her daughter also will have trouble separating and developing strong relationships later in life.
It may seem odd, but it’s not uncommon for a mother to let her child sleep with her after a break-up. Guilt often makes a parent bring a child into their bed. Probably both of them find this comforting.
In your letter, you don’t explain the level of your relationship — in other words, whether you are staying over at her house or not — but, either way, you cannot have a good, adult relationship with the mother if a child is in bed with her.
(Incidentally, this is why I suggest that recently divorced parents who let their child sleep with them don’t continue for more than a few months. Otherwise, there will never be room for a new mate.)
Your part of all this is to de-fuse the idea, for both mother and daughter, that you are competition.
Make sure her mother knows you are crazy about her and wish for a long-term relationship in which you will be a good stepfather to her daughter.
Have the mother explain to her daughter that she loves her — that she will always love her — but that she needs adult time for an adult relationship.
Then she can slowly steer her daughter in the direction of more independence. The daughter can stay in bed with Mom a few days a week, then one day, then none.
She should have a routine and a relaxing atmosphere at night — a nightlight, music, new bed linens. Her mother can tuck her in with a bedtime snack and story, and sit in her room while she is falling asleep.
Her mother should also set aside special time for her daughter, to read books, go shopping or cook a meal together.
Maybe the daughter needs more activities that create independence and engagement with peers, like after-school programs or more time with friends. Consider getting her a pet. A dog, in particular, will demonstrate its loyalty and keep her company (even in bed).
As for you, you shouldn’t be sleeping over at their house yet. You have already established yourself as a competitor to the daughter, and sleeping over reinforces this idea. Assuming your intent is to be permanently in their lives, sleep in your own home until this situation settles down and the girl is comfortable in her own bed.
In addition, there’s no need to emphasize your romantic relationship in front of the girl — you don’t need to hold hands, hug or kiss when she is around. This should be done in private, especially because the girl is so sensitive to this.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: To save your relationship with this mother-daughter team — and even to become a teammate — you must go into a lower gear and proceed slowly, making sure not to act as though you are in competition for the mother’s affection.
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2005 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.