Eleven fifteen, Sunday night, settling in for sleep in anticipation of a short workweek with the upcoming Thanksgiving Holiday. Benny, my college senior stepson, is on the telephone from Southern California. His mother hands me the receiver with a worried look. "Benny wants to speak to you. It's important. He's upset." She leaves the bedroom and closes the door.
Our nine-year history is complex and we are struggling to work out this stepfather-stepson relationship. I approach the conversation with the familiar sensation of wariness and anticipation. "Hi Benny. What's going on?"
I hear sadness and anxiety in his voice as he tells me of his need to talk to me about his feeling. "I'm upset about coming home. The last time I was home we had that big disagreement and it really upset me. We need to talk about it some more."
On Benny's last visit, now six months ago, an argument that had been reoccurring in many forms for our entire history had resurfaced. This had been a particularly nasty version and I had spent many hours brooding, depressed and disappointed in myself for my part in it. Benny and I had talked about it before he left and seen each other over the summer in Las Vegas, yet the feelings were still sensitive and the wounds had not healed. Responding to his tone, I encouraged him to talk about his feelings.
Benny has always been independent of thought and sensitive to feeling. His college degree will be in philosophy, his intellectual curiosity is all consuming and his ability to synthesize and conceptualize ideas is remarkable. "I need to know how you are feeling about my coming home", he plowed ahead. "You hurt me very badly and it's still upsetting me. We need to talk about why that happened". And so we did. We went over our last battle, each of us sharing our view of the events leading up to the hurtful encounter.
Intense sensations filtered through me. My thought flowed to our painful past and the feeling of shame I knew so well when Benny talked about his pain. He was twelve years old when we met. His parents' separation was barely a few months old when I met his mother and come into his life. We got along well until we decided to marry and Benny had to move forty miles away from the New York City home. The stepfamily issues hit us hard; we were so unprepared for the realities of living in-step. How could I have treated him so insensitively for so long a time?
We talked about our last battle. Benny led with his feeling but the quality of this conversation was very different. He was looking to understand, not to assign blame. Our history was mixed from his point of view. There were man wonderful things we had shared in addition to our battle for control. He credited me with helping him to develop his ability to argue rationally. He wanted to know how I saw our relationship. He wanted to know where he stood with me. "Robert, do you respect me?"
There are significant moments in our lives that we recognize after they have occurred. We can look back and see their importance. This conversation was a significant moment in process. Both of us were aware of the flow of feelings and ideas and the deepening sense of working towards a new level of understanding between us.
I shared my feelings with Benny clearly and calmly. I told him of me admiration for him as a person and my love for him as my stepson. Together we explored issues that previously were mentioned but now we were both ready to understand.
We talked about my pain, too. My father's long illness forced him to be placed in a nursing facility three weeks before our wedding. He died four months later. My mother was unable to care for herself and moved into our home for one difficult year until she too was institutionalized. Benny encouraged me to talk about my pain, my grief, and my loss of a sense of control of my life. He understood that our battles were partially an attempt to maintain control in our home while my parents were in failing health. We understood his grief of the loss of his family of origin, his resentment to my coming into his life as a new father, his resentment of his lost friends, home, neighborhood, and sense of his life as he knew it.
We shifted or focus to our styles of relating to men. We have different styles on the surface. Benny is intellectually argumentative and challenging of authority. He explained how each encounter with a male is fraught with the danger of competition for dominance. He shys away from more traditional male athletic competition, yet talked with envy about those who could compete in that arena.
My relationship style with men is more noncompetitive on the surface. I realized that Benny's envy of my athletic prowess matched my envy of his intellectual acumen. And that while I have adjusted to the role of coach rather than competitor, the pleasure I experience in the success of my charges is a poorly veiled sublimation of my own competitive instincts. He asked me how it felt when my son, Steven, defeated me in a tennis match for the first time. I told him my emotions were strongly mixed: sadness in my own loss and the realization that this was the first of many such athletic encounters and pride in my son's powerful game. For a period of time prior to his first victory Steven's athletic skills were greater than mine; now he was able to face the emotional scar of a victory over his father. Benny and I agreed that our battles for control become clearer if were recognize the need both of us have had for dominant male status in our newly structured stepfamily.
Benny's awareness of his family of origin issues and his struggle with his own powerful sense of masculinity showed me he was battling with these dilemmas in many arenas. When I told him of my love for him he responded by telling me that he did not know if he could love me in return. he already had a father he loved and that was a difficult emotion for him to share with another man. I explained my respect for his love for his father and my belief that it is possible to love men in different ways. I told him of my love for my son, his grandfather, and for him. All of these were experience uniquely, but all were forms of love.
My respect for his insight and admiration for his understanding could not be tempered when he argued that his struggle for self-awareness was achieved through thought provoking discussions with friends and teachers. Benny argued these were more than adequate substitutes for good psychotherapy! He explained his view of the male world has been similar to the ideas expressed by Nietzsche. "Men relate to each other by standing on two sides of an abyss and screaming out their latest conquests, accomplishments, and sources of pride", he explained. His frustration with this style and his more relaxed and gratifying relationships with women are pushing Benny to attempt to find new styles of male relatedness. We agreed this was a valued struggle, since both of us place a high priority on interpersonal communication and the traditional male role leaves little room for meaningful dialog between men.
We spoke of other intimacies and of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. My affection for him flowed through the telephone across the continent and the same sensations seemed to be traveling east. The sense of connection across the abyss was calming and deeply gratifying. I noticed the hour and told him I needed to get to sleep so I could function later that morning. I told Benny how I looked forward to seeing him on Wednesday evening and of my hope that we could continue our conversation over the next weekend. He agreed and I said good bye.
"Yes, Benny. What is it?" I asked.
"I love you. Bye"
This article appeared in the Stepfamily Quarterly Magazine, Fall 1997 issue.