Part Two: Dickens’ David Copperfield on the Family: Jealousy in Stepfamilies

by | Feb 8, 2012

One of the purposes of this blog and my work as a marriage therapist dude is to paint a picture of the dark side so people will refrain from moving inexorably toward self-destruction: “Oh, thank you, Dr. Wall.

I see now that if I go through that door, I open a door to hurt and agony and darkness and a world of unintended, but inevitable consequences. Whew! That was close!”

Unlike the postmodernist, I really believe that evil exists. A lot of people I’ve met don’t, however, and foolishly think they can do things that seem pretty on the outside, but inside are full of worms and maggots and darkness and death, and somehow escape the hurt themselves. “It won’t hurt me,” they say. The greener grass on the other side of the fence beckons them and they yearn for pleasures they should not have and, too often, they plunge into darkness and then wonder why there’s no light.

So I paint on this canvas what happens when people chose pornography or affairs instead of faithfulness and integrity and truthfulness of character. I expose the hurt of anger over-expressed or stuffed in hopes of steering people way from a life of impatience and selfishness and discontent (is there any crueler task master than discontent?). I lay out the folly of divorce and write over and over, no, the kids will NOT be Okay and neither will you, and preach time and time again that love is NOT a feeling and the goal of marriage is NOT for you to be happy and that the person who seeks happiness shall lose it. You can’t find happiness if you seek it any more than you can drink the sand of a mirage in the desert to satisfy your unquenchable thirst.

And then I read Charles Dickens’ description of a little boy’s first feeling of what it’s like to have a stepfather and I’m thoroughly chastened. Dickens gets to the heart of the matter in a couple of sentences.

Certainly there are some healthy stepfamilies. Indeed, the whole Christian faith is built upon a stepfamily metaphor: The believer was separated from God before he was a believer and is now adopted into God’s family through what Christ did on the cross. The tone of that stepfamily, like all stepfamilies, is set by the (step)Father: God accepts us into the family even though we don’t deserve it. We forgive as our Father in Heaven has forgiven us. He sets the example. We follow. Forgiveness in the family would be good.

But, more often than not, stepfamilies are fraught with tension and jealousies, some, of which, never go away. I write this today as a warning to those of you who are tempted to divorce, because, you think, you can always remarry and your new husband or wife will just be as enamored with your children as you are. NOT! MORE THAN LIKELY NOT! I also write this so those of you who are in stepfamilies NOW can find a way to infuse your family with grace and forgiveness, instead of animosity and scorn and, in some cases, even hatred.

Hatred? Cinderella may be a fair tale, but the mood of Cinderella is, sadly, the tone of many stepfamilies.

Why is that? In a word: jealousy.

Stepfamilies are born out of inequities and loss: divorce, death, failure, shortcomings. Stepfamilies, by definition, are trying to take something, that can never be fixed, and try to make it a little bit better. Sometimes they succeed. More often, the attempt ends once again in failure. The realities are stronger than the wish.

Check out this hint from Dickens’ David Copperfield. He’s a young boy at this time with Dickens’ writing in the first person. He’s so believable when he writes, that children who read David Copperfield oftentimes actually believe a child wrote it! Dickens gets into the heart of child, and sees the world through a child’s eyes, an amazing feat in itself. In the story, Copperfield is born to a young, pretty widow, who is left with a modest estate by her former husband, modest enough for her to afford a housemaid. The three of them are very happy together and the world the child Copperfield describes is almost Edenic.

But then the evil, potential stepfather happens on the scene: A man starts courting his mother. Read Dickens description upon Copperfield’s first meeting this fellow (called “Murdstone” by Dickens, his play on words: a murderer with a heart of stone):

“He patted me on the head; but somehow I didn’t like him or his deep voice, and I was jealous that his hand should touch my mother’s in touching me – which it did. I put it away, as well as I could.”*

In this one scene, Copperfield’s life is changed forever. What amazes me as a counselor guy is Dickens caught the feeling of a child of a stepparent and the feeling of a stepparent for a stepchild in two sentences. How could do that? I’ve literally talked to hundreds (thousands?) of people who grew up in stepfamily situations. Certainly there are some who loved and admired their stepparents. More often the stories of these people are full of sadness and rare do I hear stories of respect and admiration.

The reason is because there are jealousies on both sides with the birthparent caught in the middle. The birth child and the new stepparent are BOTH vying for the mother/wife’s attention. (Stepmothers have the same temptation). She’s torn between two people she loves. She can’t make both happy. She tries. She fails both. The child is jealous of this foreigner, this intruder, this interloper who is changing his life. The stepfather knows instinctively he can never be closer to his wife than Copperfield is to his mother. In Dickens’ story this tension kills his mother. In other families the tension kills the marriage or the child rebels or both. In any case, it is rare where the birth child feels close to the stepparent and vice versa.

Nevertheless, it happens sometimes. It’s easier for younger children to accept the new stepparent. Most of those seem to go pretty well…for a while. However, it is common for those relationships to get pretty difficult when the child reaches the teen years. It’s not just the child that has difficulty. The birth child predates the new stepparent and jealousies of stepparents are often off the charts. This occurred in David Copperfield and we’ll explore that common tendency in our next blog.

Dr. Bing Wall

Dr. Bing Wall

Dr. Bing Wall is a marriage therapist with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa. To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.

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