Q. Chosen one: The quarantine has driven home what I’ve suspected for years but haven’t wanted to face: My wife, “Glenda,” favors our son “Fred” over our two other kids, “Shannon” and “Connor.” Glenda takes Fred’s side during sibling squabbles, praises him over Shannon and Connor, and chastises Shannon and Connor to be more like Fred. It’s incredibly painful to watch. Shannon is 11, Fred 9, and Connor 7. Connor seems aware that his mom treats him differently than Fred, but he hasn’t absorbed this reality the way Shannon has.
I’m ashamed I didn’t address this years ago and am determined to be a better father to all of my kids. I’ve tried speaking to Glenda about her favoritism and how it affects our children, but she becomes defensive. When I try to intervene when she favors Fred—say, punishing Shannon for an argument Fred began—Glenda accuses me of being unsupportive. She doesn’t seem interested in counseling. Glenda is an otherwise loving person. I want to believe that if she accepted her favoritism of Fred, she’d be horrified about the pain she has caused Shannon and Connor by ignoring or chastising them. But I’m no longer sure. I could afford to take Shannon and Connor and divorce Glenda, but I love Fred so much. I’d miss him terribly. And I still love Glenda, guilty as that makes me feel. What do I do?
I don’t think that divorce would inevitably result in a Parent Trap–style splitting of custody, where your wife gets to “keep” her favorite and you hang on to the other two as balance. Fred needs you, too; you can’t counteract his mother’s favoritism by ignoring him in favor of the other kids. I think you should start by going to counseling alone, since Glenda isn’t willing to go; look for someone who specializes in marital and family dynamics, particularly in confronting parental favoritism. This will prove useful even if you do end up divorcing. Even if you were to get primary custody of all three kids, they would still have to maintain some sort of relationship with their mother at least until they reached adulthood, so while there’s a lot you can do to mitigate your wife’s influence, you can’t shield your kids from it forever, either. Talk to a divorce lawyer, too, and get a sense of what custody agreements seem likely in your case.
Make it clear to your wife that this is a serious, likely marriage-ending problem, and don’t overlook future acts of favoritism. Talk to your friends and other relatives, and enlist their support, especially when it comes to making your other kids feel loved and cared for. Try to treat Fred as fairly as you can; you’re right to want to look out for Connor and Shannon first, but he’s a 9-year-old kid who can’t help how his mother treats him, and it won’t do him any good to get the cold shoulder for a problem he didn’t cause in the first place. Good luck—I hope your wife eventually wakes up to the pain she’s already caused and stops compounding damage.