Care and Feeding

My Husband and Stepson Bond in a Very Unusual Way

I don’t think it’s healthy.

A hand moves a tile on a board game board.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Shironosov/iStock/Getty Images Plus and World in Flames.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have been married to my husband “Jeffrey” for about three-and-a-half years now, and have been seeing him for almost six. He has a son from his previous marriage “David,” who is now almost 12 years old.

Jeffrey has a hobby, this immensely complicated and long-running World War II strategy board game called World in Flames. Sometimes I think it’s a little much, but there are worse hobbies a man can have. Since the time I entered into their lives, David has also been interested in the game that absorbs so much of his father’s time and energy, and one of the times I’ve seen him happiest was when he had grown tall enough to look at the gaming table without needing a stool to stand on.

There’s this tournament/convention that’s held every year (except the past two years due to COVID). Jeff’s been an almost religious attendee, and for the first time this year, he took David along to play as well. I was opposed to the decision, and it led to probably the worst fight of our relationship, and eventually he pulled rank in the form of: He’s the father, I’m the stepmother, so he’s going.

I was primarily opposed to David going because of the grueling schedule, from what Jeffrey has told me of the convention, it’s 16-hour long days, every day for over a week. (That’s not a typo, daily play starts at 8AM and ends at midnight.) I thought that was a bit much for a child, but some of it was also their weird relationship around the game. When they’re playing, their father-son relationship is entirely subsumed by their gaming colleague relationship. David’s normally this soft-spoken, sweet little boy, but when he and his father are playing, he’ll call his father’s plans stupid if he disagrees with them, and if he is more “senior” in a theater, he will order his father around like a lackey. Jeffrey, I’m sorry to say, encourages him in this.

Well, like I said earlier, they booked two weeks of vacation from Jeffrey’s job and David’s summer camp and went. They spent most of the time at the convention, with a couple of days to recover from it. I had entertained vague hopes that the stress and pace and competing with strangers would dampen some of David’s ardor and steer him into more age-appropriate activities, but he took second place on his board and beat his father’s score, something the two of them are both ecstatic about.

I am convinced that this is unhealthy behavior. I can’t seem to convince either of them that it is, and I don’t know what to do. Can you give me anything here?

—Flummoxed Stepmother

Dear Flummoxed Stepmother,

There are a few things to unpack here.

Even though I’d rather spoon with a porcupine for an evening than play a World War II board game, I don’t think it’s weird or strange that Jeff uses it as a way to bond with his kid. Like you said, there are worse hobbies a man could have. Not to mention, if David’s mom is still in the picture, it probably means Jeff only has access to David on a part-time basis, which could explain why he is way more intent on creating that bond with him.

I also don’t think it’s that crazy for a kid that age to be out and about at a convention for long hours (assuming that it’s a convention suitable for children, of course). Most parents I know have kept their young kids up ridiculously late during vacations or other events, and they all turned out just fine. It’s not like this is an every night thing.

But that’s where I will stop defending Jeff, because the rest of this is straight up bizarre. The fact that he allows and welcomes his 10-year-old to call him or his ideas stupid isn’t OK under any circumstances. I play plenty of games with my kids, and I promise you that the first time they called me stupid would be the last. Also, does David participate in any common age-appropriate activities? Does he have any friends, or is his dad his only social outlet? All of these are completely valid concerns to bring up to Jeff, even if you are only the stepmother in his eyes.

If we’re keeping it real, I have a feeling Jeff’s obsession with this game is also impacting your marriage. I’ve seen countless relationships strained due to video games, for example, so I absolutely get it. Heck, the dude took two weeks off from his job to go on a vacation without you, and that would bother almost any spouse on the planet.

One effective way to get your point across to him would be to use your fractured marriage as a way to get him to see the light. Deliver a warm demand for marriage counseling, and once you both speak to an impartial third party, they will probably agree with you that Jeff needs to dial it back a bit.

I’m all for people having passions and hobbies, but not at the detriment of loved ones.

—Doyin

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