Stepmother: When your kids are here, I might as well be a piece of furniture.
Dad: But they’re my kids, what do you expect?
Stepmother: I expect you to treat me like I’m your wife!
Dad: How many times have I told you, don’t make me choose!
In a stepfamily, even though the new couple may be very much in love, the hard-wired, pre-existing attachments lie between parents and their children. So do the established agreements about everything from whether Grape Nuts is a breakfast food, or a form of cardboard, to the “appropriate” price for a new pair of sneakers.
This means that every time a child enters the room, or the conversation, the stepparent and the parent have very different experiences. The stepparent is a stuck outsider. Stuck outsiders feel left out and invisible. The parent is a stuck insider. Stuck insiders feel torn between the people they love.
It helps to know that this insider/outsider thing is not because you and your partner don’t love each other, although it may certainly feel this way. Nor is it because the kids are brats. It comes with the territory. It is a normal, if painful, result of living in a stepfamily.
If you both bring kids, you may switch insider and outsider positions, depending on which child is present. Even when both adults bring kids, the stepparent of a child who is struggling more than most, will be more of an outsider. The parent of that child will be more of the stuck insider.
Meeting insider/outsider challenges
Here are some tips. There are lots more in Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships.
- Connection in a stepcouple comes from empathizing with each other, not from feeling the same way.
If you are the stepparent, remember that your partner’s experience of being caught between the people he or she loves is also very painful. If you are the parent, remember that being rejected on a daily basis, up close and personal, is extremely distressing to the sanest of us.
- If you are the stepparent, try to reach for comfort rather than attacking or withdrawing
The experience of being left out is nobody’s favorite! It may be easy to begin telling yourself a story like, “Obviously my partner doesn’t care about me.” Do try to hold on to the real story: Stepfamilies make stuck insiders and stuck outsiders. Both positions are painful.Try to resist dealing with your feelings by attacking your partner (“How could you be so clueless?) or withdrawing (with or without sulking). Make requests that your partner can successfully meet. “I could use a hug.” “I think I know what would help. Could you look at me a couple times during dinner? Could you play footsie under the table with me?” Ask your partner for time alone together. Meanwhile, support your partner’s time with his or her kids.
- If you are the parent, remember that …
It can be very disappointing, and quite anxiety provoking, when your new love and your kids are struggling. Many parents urge their new partners to “just participate.” Try to remember that the realities make this very difficult for stepparents.You and your children have a bedrock of connection that your partner simply does not share. Furthermore, kids need their parents, not their stepparents. Children who are struggling with losses, loyalty binds, and too much change often need distance from their stepparents. You may not notice it, but often, your kids address themselves only to you without even looking at their stepparent. They may make hostile gestures to your partner behind your back, not because they are inherently sneaky. Rather, it is because they love you and need you and don’t want to disappoint you, but they are upset about having a stepparent.
You can’t make your kids and your new partner love each other. However, you can help them both feel loved by you. When your partner complains about feeling left out, believe him or her! Take a breath and open your arms. “That has to be tough. Let me give you a hug.”
What has it been like for you to be the insider or the outsider (or both) in your stepfamily?
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