This is the second in a series about the most common and most detrimental challenges that a blended family faces.
If you have a blended family, you have already read the statistics on separation and divorce that pertain to your situation. The chances of you splitting up are up there (some say 40%, other’s say 70%, depending on the study you’re reading). That’s so depressing. A study published in THIS BOOK reported that one of the major reasons for these splits is stepparent dissatisfaction.
What would cause a stepparent to become so dissatisfied that they want to divorce or break up?
PROBLEM 1: Dischord between the parent and stepparent on matters related to the stepchildren. Every week we get queries from stepparents who are desperate to be heard by…their spouse or partner. You might expect that most complaints would be about the stepchildren being disrespectful, and yes, that is an issue. But we hear about problems between the parents far more often. Think about it: If you are in lock step with your partner, you manage challenges with the kids together. You don’t feel isolated. You aren’t an outsider. You can handle the challenges because you have a true partner. But if you are on your own because your partner doesn’t communicate effectively with you about parenting decisions; doesn’t make you a part of the decision-making process; or openly disagrees with you in from of the children–that inspires contempt. Once you start looking at your partner as an adversary, it can be the beginning of the end.
SOLUTION: The biological parent is responsible for including the stepparent and establishing his or her legitimacy. Insecure biological parents who don’t feel confident in their parenting role might be less likely to include the stepparent in parenting decisions. Another interesting dynamic: When a child rejects a stepparent, it can make an insecure biological parent feel powerful. But in healthy families, the biological parent feels safe in their role as primary parent, and can confer with the stepparent and guide the children to respect him or her.
PROBLEM 2: Animosity between the stepparent and stepchildren. Blending is hard. Parents and kids both feel it. It is natural to question huge changes in life, and what change is bigger than a total rearrangement of your family structure? It hits closer to home than anything else because it IS home. We think of children being especially resistant to stepparents, but it goes both ways. According to THIS STUDY, children ages 9 to 15 are most likely to resist a stepparent. The fact that the age range is so specific means that the resistance is developmental. But what causes adults to resist stepchildren? For one, grown-ups already have a fixed point of view about how they believe life should be, and they place expectations on their stepchildren. They can’t help it. Secondly, stepparenting is intimidating. If you need validation from your new stepchildren, chances are, you’re not going to get it.
SOLUTION: The burden is on the stepparent to be gracious, understanding and free of judgement as much as possible, and on the biological parent to guide his or her children to be respectful. Grown-ups are able to exercise self-control, and for kids, discipline is a work in progress. It is one thing for a stepparent to set reasonable boundaries for behavior, but it’s another to demand perfection. An “old school” stepparent who believes his or her authority is automatic and not earned over time will learn the hard way that stepfamilies just don’t work like that. Instead, dish out the love in heaping servings. Constant kindness goes a long way toward establishing a positive relationship. Another key factor: The overly-lenient biological parent who allows their children to be rude to a stepparent is opening the door to a chaotic household. Just as with any other discipline issue (lying, hitting, stealing, ignoring parental instruction) there must be consequences for rudeness to a stepparent. Focus on the Family has a really good article on how to develop a warm and respectful dynamic between children and stepparents over time.
PROBLEM 3: Interference from a former spouse or partner. If only every blended family could be incubated in a conflict-free zone–but that’s never gonna happen. The odds are that one of you will have an angry ex, because many divorces aren’t amicable. An angry ex is still connected to your family though the children, and so parenting issues can be a continuing source of conflict between the parties in a divorced couple. Unfortunately, the presence of a stepparent can become a significant focus of an angry’s ex’s irrational attention. Normal human imperfections and blown up ten times their size, and the stepparent is demonized. Flaws are invented, making the stepparent feel vulnerable to false attacks. Loving behavior toward the children can be interpreted by the angry ex as a threat. For the stepparent who wants to build a happy blended family life, all of these behaviors on the part of the angry ex are frustrating and painful, and can interrupt the development of a happy home.
SOLUTION: Your spouse or partner has the job of managing his or her ex. As a stepparent, there isn’t anything you can do to control an angry ex. As a matter of fact, if there’s a lot of tension in your relationship with your partner’s ex, you might be better off keeping your distance and avoiding interactions as much as possible until things settle down, if they do. Your partner, however, should be looking for ways to navigate the co-parenting relationship with the ex in a way that honors the children, protects you, and keeps conflict t a minimum. In some families, this comes naturally, in others, not so much. SO many different factors play into this, and there’s a learning curve. As the stepparent, though, the main thing to remember is that it isn’t your responsibility to handle it. As the biological parent, don’t avoid dealing with your ex to the detriment of your relationship with your new partner.