Taken from Psychology Today, May/June 1995, pg. 96.

Dear Dr. Frank,

My 18-year-old son lives at home.  Since he never liked school and has a police record, it's hard for him to get a job.  He has taken to selling drugs and has to deal with some unsavory people.  The other night he brought home an assault weapon.  His father, my ex-husband Spike, thinks a young man needs to carry protection, but I don't trust Spike's opinion because he is so childish and irresponsible.  Besides, Spike used to get abusive with Buzzy when trying to make him go to school.  My current husband, Marvin, is uncomfortable letting Buzzy keep the gun.  He says it is dangerous and illegal.  But I think he's always resented Buzzy; I don't trust his opinion either.  

A few days ago, Marvin tried to kick Buzzy out but Spike refused to take him, so Marvin moved out.  He won't come home until the machine gun is out of the house.  Buzzy threatens to run away if I take his machine gun away from him.  But I know he can't take care of himself on his own.

Buzzy is in trouble.  Someone is out to get him.  He needs a father, but my husbands (I've had four) have never really understood Buzzy like I do.  They get so strict and abusive, I have to set things straight.  I've long tried to get him to a therapist, but he refuses to go.  What can I do for the safety of my son?

-Frantic Mother

Dear Fran,

You are probably right that no one else sees Buzzy the way you do.  I am impressed with the wisdom of Spike and Marvin, who refuse to live with this armed menace as long as you protect him from reality.

Your ex-husband may well be more interested in undercutting you than in turning his son into a competent adult, and your current husband may well be ready to get the kid out of his life.  But the triangle in which one parent is seen as the rejecting or abusive overpunisher and the other as the benevolent rescuer is guaranteed to mess up a kid and more than likely to create a criminal.

Stepfathers are walking through a mined field when single mothers bring them into the family to straighten out rebellious kids, especially when the rebellion is being cheered on by angry absent fathers.  No matter how often you change husbands, you and your son will entrap the poor guy in the same triangle, in which your function in life is to protect Buzzy from the men who might hurt his feelings in their efforts to protect you and the world from him.  All Buzzy has to do is irritate your husband of the moment and he can get by with doing whatever he pleases.  You've made a monster.

You could get together with both of the guys and all three of you agree to rules and regulations.  It does not matter whether you are being strict or lenient; it only matters whether you really mean what you say.  Consequences needn't be severe, just predictable.  Don't try to do this at home, you'll need a family therapist to keep you from turning it into one more triangulation.

If the three of you can't agree on anything, turn the job over to somebody who neither loves nor hates your son.  Might I suggest the nearest police officer?  The cops don't care how Buzzy feels; they just care what he does.  And they might put him someplace safe where he won't need a machine gun for protection.

Dear Dr. Frank,

My Fiance Seth presented me with a 30-page prenuptial agreement.  He wants me to agree to cook a certain number of meals each week, to clean the house to certain specifications, and even to have sex with him a specific number of times each week.  I'd have to pay a fine if I didn't do what was spelled out, or if I showed anger, talked on the phone to mom too long, or gained weight.

Seth couldn't understand why I was upset.  he said that this would be the operating manual for the perfect marriage, one without disagreements because everything was spelled out ahead of time- so we wouldn't get divorced like his parents did.

Seth pays attention to me and is always even tempered.  Yet this agreement shows him as picky, and panicky about marriage.  Does this mean he doesn't love me?

-Prenuptial Jitterer

Dear Jit,

You should worry.

Your would-be-groom is anxious about commitment, and that is good.  Anyone in his or her right mind distrusts the permanence of marriage in a divorce-happy world where the therapists regard divorce as the appropriate treatment for depression and boredom.

Seth is picky about the details of living, and that is also good.  At least he is thinking about such matters and trying to figure out how the two of you handle them.  I don't know why in the world you doubt he is in love with you.  He seems willing to marry you even when the whole idea scares him into an obsessive-compulsive dither.

But you should reconsider marrying Seth because he is afraid of conflict, and conflict is the business of marriage.  It is impossible for a couple ot get through a lifetime, or even a day, without having different ideas about various things, and the life of the marriage is in the respectful comparison of the differing points of view and emotional reactions.  If everything were settled ahead of time, the marriage would offer no adventure or emotional exercise.

Unlike most people who want prenups, Seth seems intent on staying married.  He's just afraid to be married.

Perhaps his parents left him distrustful of marriage.  They may have told him they were destroying his family because they "fought too much," were "incompatible," or, worst of all, because they "weren't in love anymore," rather than telling him the truth:  marriage can survive just about anything as long as there is no infidelity.  (Almost every marital problem is solvable if there is no accomplice standing by in a getaway car.)  If the marriage is a closed system, the two people are so interdependent they must work out the details as they go along.

One of the legacies of divorce is that the children who survive this ineradicable assault on their security in relationships divorce many more times more often than other people do.  They tend to keep parts of themselves outside the unstable institution.

I have my doubts about prenuptial agreements in general, unless there are unusual financial considerations, such as children from previous marriages who need to be reassured about inheritance.  The heart and soul of marriage is not love, but equality, whereby anything that affects one partner affects the other as well.  If there is not financial equality, if there is not equality of risk and of access to resources, it is hard for the two people to achieve parity of power.

Respectfully reject the prenup and negotiate the issues without emotional fireworks.  If you can keep the emotional level low enough, this picky and panicky victim of divorce may learn to fight it out with you like normal married folks do, and he may turn out O.K.

Dear Dr. Frank,

My wife is trying to get me to go to a psychotherapist.  I haven't been a perfect husband, but I'm just a normal man.  I drink, but I don't get drunk most nights.  I've had other women, but she can't prove it.  I hit her a few times years ago, but she always provoked me.  I don't know much about raising girls, but I always went to my son's football games.  Now my wife is threatening to divorce me and find all my money if I don't see a therapist.  Therapists are cheaper than lawyers, but I don't like her choice of therapist.

If I've got to go to a therapist, I want one who'll understand there's nothing wrong with the way I've been.  My wife's therapist is a woman!  She's young and she's single.  Her values are just different from mine.

-Just a Good Old Boy

Dear Boy,

I would hope so.  The point of therapy is the discovery of where you're screwing up in your actions,  your thinking and your system of values.  Your therapist, to be therapeutic, has to see it differently from you.

I realize there are therapists who would, for a fee, tell you or Jeffrey Dahmer that you've done nothing wrong.  It's tempting.  And I know you're afraid of having someone tell you what you already know: you've been a jerk.  But if you admit it, you may save your life and marriage.

Your brutality, cheating, and drunkeness is a measure of your own self-loathing, but your wife sees some good in you.  She may be foolish, but she's giving you a chance.  Get real therapy, not the ego-massaging  pseudotherapy you want.

Every good old boy could use a tough young woman therapist who can show him what a pig, rat, skunk and dog he's been, and what a mensch he could be instead.

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