I wish I had known a few of the step-family pitfalls waiting for me. I jumped into marriage with Spencer with all sorts of assumptions about what married life would bring. I imagined our children bonding easily to one another and to each of us. I imagined a healthy family atmosphere with only the occasional flare-up. I didn’t think it would be easy. After all, I had been a single mom for five years and that wasn’t easy. But at least I wouldn’t be parenting alone. I would have a support to help me withstand the weight of the emotional, mental, and physical demands of parenting.
And I did get that in Spencer. And I didn’t. And he thought many of the same things when he married me, but I couldn’t be everything he thought I would be, either. At least we couldn’t be that for each other at first. I think we fell into all the every step-family pitfalls out there for blended families. What we had going for us was faith in God and each other. What we were up against was the emotional backlash of divorce, trauma, and abuse.
So I am writing this in order to let other step-parents out there know that they aren’t alone as they encounter various issues with their various offspring and each other. So my list of step-family pitfalls begins with my biggest unmet expectation and biggest shock when we began to live as one big family. The next two are some painfully learned lessons.
- We didn’t really trust each other with our kids. I castigated myself for my over-protective reactions, but I could not resist interfering between Spencer and my kids. He suffered the same thing. If I had a conflict with one of his kids, he was all over it, and not necessarily on my side. I was angry that he did not trust me to be fair with his kids at the same time I didn’t trust him to be fair with mine. Talk about a mess!
But here is the answer that we finally figured out with maybe just a little help from a family therapist. In a non-blended family, the mother and father have had time to really learn to trust each other. Our assumption was that trust is just given. But it isn’t. It is earned over time. A couple with five years of marriage behind them doesn’t have nearly the trust level a couple married for twenty years has.
How could we possibly have the trust levels that most parents of teenagers do? After all, most parents have the advantage of knowing each other longer than they’ve known their kids. We had to learn to extend trust gradually, but we also had to release control of each other’s relationships with our kids. It took time and lots of communication but after thirteen years of marriage, I trust my husband more than any other person on the planet. My kids trust him, too. But boy, this was one of the most painful step-family pitfalls.
- Triangulation destroys relationships. When at first you have two families co-habiting, triangulation becomes the weapon of choice among kids with competing agendas. Kids resent change and they resent anything that comes between you and the attention you give them more than anything else. Triangulation isn’t unique to blended families by any means. But when you have two parents inexperienced in step-parenting and whose trust levels are low, divide and conquer is a useful strategy.
My husband and I took a while to get on top of this beast of a behavior. After all, if your child complains to you about a step-sibling or about their step-parent, our natural inclination is to take sides. A few trips around this merry-go-round and we learned to host family meetings where concerns could be aired. Those were torture but they were useful. We also made those conversations increasingly unrewarding by implementing better boundaries. The one exception to this was harm. If one child was harming another, of course, we needed to step in. But that was not the case very often for us. The boundaries included insisting that they talk about it openly with whomever they had a conflict, refusing to keep secrets, and when there was a genuine issue, learning all sides of the story.
Once triangulation became less rewarding, i.e. parents reacting or taking sides, it happened less frequently. And trust grew as a result.
- A remarriage is often grieved by the kids. Divorce is ugly, though sometimes necessary. I don’t know that my girls grieved my marriage to the extent that my husband’s kids did. After all, their father is a cruel man with whom they still have no relationship. And their lives improved greatly with my marriage to Spencer. I think they did have quite an adjustment to make having a man around after the pain their father inflicted on them. But not recognizing this need to grieve is one of the most common step-family pitfalls.
My two step-children, who I no longer use the prefix ‘step’ with, did grieve. After all, a remarriage is concrete evidence that the divorce is final. While their mother had since remarried, the divorce was still fresh in their hearts and minds. Their grief had little to do with me, but it made bonding with them take time and understanding. My step-son harbored a lot of anger about the divorce, though, at age thirteen, he could not articulate it.
The only way out of that was some time, some counseling, and a lot of understanding. Fortunately, he is a verbal processor so lots of late night conversations and empathy went a long way. Over time he became reconciled with the idea that he could have a good life despite this trial.
The real secret of being a successful step-parent is learning to be ok when nothing is ok. When drama is raging or the kids are divided into factions (more on this another time), if you can come to a place of safety and well-being inside yourself, then your peace will affect the mood of the house. I generally needed time locked in my closet on my knees, but everyone has their methods.
Now, being the matriarch of a large family brings me more joy than I could have imagined. My daughters consider my husband their true dad. And he is. He has provided stability, support, and love for over a decade. I have a devoted relationship with my step-son and his lovely wife, and a good one with my step-daughter, whom I love dearly. But what fills my heart is when I see the kids, now all adults, acting as supports to one another, pulling together as a family, and bonded as brother and sisters.
The journey is a hard one, but it is worthwhile. It will require you to grow in areas that you might not have had to otherwise. But some faith, some love, wisdom where you can find it, and some good old-fashioned commitment will sort it all out in the end.