In my line of work, I typically receive dozens of emails early in the year from women saying they want to "improve" as stepmothers, asking how to “fix it” and better negotiate the difficulties of living with a man who has kids. Men with stepchildren get in touch with me as well, asking how to make things “work better” on the home front. In the New Year, stepparents generally resolve to “do it better” in the next 330 or so days.
With the majority of families in the US and Great Britian now being stepfamilies, these questions take on a particular urgency. Without exception these stepparents who reach out to me feel disappointed in themselves (“Why is this so hard?”) and frustrated with the challenges of stepfamily life (“I can run an entire company but I can’t get her kids to like me!"). Of course they do. Because every day, they are being forced to live a lie. Stepfamilies are not first families, and stepparents are not parents. Those are the simple facts, but there is nonetheless tremendous social pressure on stepfamilies. The pressure “to love them like they’re your own.” To win his or her kids over. To look, feel and act just like a “real” family. And the folk “wisdom” about stepfamilies is as endless as it is inaccurate. “Just keep trying and they’ll come around.” “If you love them they’ll love you right back.” It's as if anyone experiencing difficulties with stepkids has asked for it.
The facts tell another story. The research and anecdotal evidence alike suggest that the pressure on stepkids to embrace “another mother” or a “bonus dad” elicits internal conflict, which in turn creates a loyalty bind (the feeling of betraying mom by liking stepmom, or a conviction that “it will kill dad if I get close to stepdad”). These loyalty binds can hamper stepkids of all ages and their stepparents from forming any kind of relationship at all. After all, how do you connect with a seven-year-old who feels being nasty to you is the best way to show her loyalty to mom? Or a twenty-something whose every gesture tells you you are an interloper in the relationship between him, his mom and his dad—in spite of mom and dad being divorced?
Aspiring to feel and be just like a first family, or to be “another parent,” or resolving "to love them just like they're my own" is, with rare exception, a recipe for disaster. Here are some more realistic, research-based resolutions for men and women with stepchildren, resolutions that can help make this year the best one yet—for your own mental and physical health, marriage or partnership, and yes, your relationship with your parnters kids of any age:
Resolve to step back. Stepmothers are more likely than stepfathers to make the mistake of rushing in and trying to push the development of a bond with a stepchild or adult stepchild. After all, stepmothers are under more cultural pressure to “blend” the “family.” But experts tell us that waiting to follow a stepchild’s lead—particularly if he or she is a tween, teen, or twenty something—will work better for everyone. Giving a stepchild plenty of room and plenty of opportunity to spend time alone with mom or dad/your spouse will make you seem less threatening. And shoulder-to-shoulder activities with your stepchild of any age, like doing a puzzle side-by-side, cooking or baking together or even driving in a car side by side with the radio on are less stressful ways of bonding than sitting down and having a deep, heart-to-heart chat. Many stepchildren and stepparents alike report that some of their best moments together happen when they sharing a task, yet relieved of the need to relate directly, one-on-one.
Resolve to put your own mental and physical health first. Research suggests that stepmothers are dramatically more prone to depression than mothers, and clinicians who work extensively with stepfamilies report that stepparents have an increased incidence of stress and stress-related conditions and illnesses. This can make even normal stepfamily challenges feel insurmountable. Putting your health—emotional and physical—first might mean finding time to meditate; getting into a gym routine; or finding a sympathetic friend who is also a stepparent. Whatever the method, paying attention to your own well being is likely to have a big pay off for your marriage and your relationship with your spouse's kids, as well as you!
Resolve to give your partnership the priority it deserves. Remarriages and repartnerships with children are under tremendous pressure. From kids who may be hostile or rejecting toward their stepparent; ex spouses who may be unhappy about the remarriage and behave in disruptive and undermining ways; and friends and family members who don’t “get it” about stepfamily life. It’s no wonder those remarriage with kids end in divorce 60 – 72% of the time, depending on which study you look at! Finding a therapist who really understands repartnership with children (or adult children) can be your best ally in building a marriage or parternship that bucks the odds. And remember the good news: once they pass the five year mark, remarriages with children are less likely than first marriages to end in divorce.
Resolve to learn the facts about stepfamily life. There is so much misinformation out there about stepfamilies! That they’re supposed to “blend” for example. That they’re “supposed” to be close and cohesive. That you’re failing if you’re not best buds with your husband’s or wife’s ex. These misconceptions, perpetrated by the media and the well-intentioned-yet-poorly-informed majority, can lead us to feel inadequate and create a sense of failure. The truth is your best ally. Did you know that, while first families bond well as a group, stepfamily members bond best dyadically, or one-on-one? Did you know that there are plenty of successful remarriages or repartnerships with kids in which the stepparent and stepchild have a relationship that is anywhere from merely civil to very close? That the stepparent has less control than the parents in determining what her relationship with his kids will be? These are just a few of the less commonly known truths about stepfamily life. Educating yourself about the typical dynamics of repartnership with children can provide tremendous relief for individuals, couples and stepparents, and pave the way for authentic, satisfying relationships between a child of any age and his step “parent."
All studies and experts cited/quoted in Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way We Do (Houghton Mifflin, 2009).