Partnerships in a stepfamily are different. Dr. Peter Marshall says in his book Cinderella Revisited that parents in a stepfamily could think of themselves as “normal people who have simply chosen to do things backwards.” This is because they have started off their partnership with children instead of having the romantic period of their relationship first. Dr. Marshall states that “relationships based on responsibility and problem solving can become more stable and fulfilling than one based on romantic ideals.” This is likely true, but I think there still has to be some romance for the couple too. It can’t be only about the children. Loving actions and physical closeness brings a couple together no matter what type of partnership they are in. In a stepfamily you just need to be clever on how you add some romance into your lives and take the opportunity to cherish each other.
That said, let’s talk about love in a stepfamily:
Most of you in a stepfamily have been “in love” before and it hasn’t worked out very well for different reasons. Or.. you may have lost your loved one to an illness. One way or another you may be starting another relationship with hope in your heart.
We know that love is fragile. A favorite quote I like is that “ love is a decision you make every day. And you have to hang onto that decision as hard as you can.”
My counseling supervisor once told me “love alone is not enough! It is the reason couples do the work.” So this time around your relationship is not going to be easier, just different. We have all learned from our first try at a serious relationship and now we are hoping to make this one work out.
What does that mean?
I think it means that this can’t be just about romance and looking starry eyed at each other. In a stepfamily it means you face the day- to-day things in life right away and you both understand this. This is your life and you have chosen to make your relationship and your new family work. This life includes children immediately so you need to be able to manage together the routines in life. For example making children’s school lunches, doing homework, the laundry, the meals and getting the car fixed etc. Then some days when you do go out you take the children with you while you hold hands in the front seat and order take-out.
Maybe we can call this somewhat more realistic romance a “real” romance. It is forged on focus and dedication and with nurturing will literly stand the test of time.
Let’s look at specific ways to make this romance work.
1. The most important thing needed is to find the time to be together. Go on dates together. Get a sitter and go! (No talking about the children more than 10 minutes on that date.) If you share your children with your ex partner, use that time to do things together and not always with other friends. If things are busy with family and work, make sure you get that cup of coffee together when the kids go to bed or when the teens are on their computers. You could get up early before the children and get that visit in. Use your down time wisely. Make sure you have a lock on your bedroom door for those private moments and consider not sleeping with children in your bed. It is hard to be sexually intimate with children always around.
Better still see if grandparents might take the children for a night sometimes. I bet they would be thrilled to have special time with their grandchildren.
2. There is no doubt that the responsibility of instant children puts huge pressure on the stepfamily couple and can get in the way of developing the relationship. Studies do tell us that issues regarding children are a huge conflict for couples in stepfamilies, so try to avoid them.
No one likes to have their children criticized. Parents love their children and don’t always see them the way the stepparent may see them. We are all defensive and protective of our own children. That is why the biological parent needs to deal with the disciple and organization of their own children. Children can play one parent off the other within the family also. You want to be aware of this and make sure you talk to each other privately about the children’s issues as soon as they arise and then let the bio- parent deal with it. However, as a biological parent you need to be willing to listen to your partner’s thoughts without being too defensive.
Children are the responsibility of the biological parent. He/she has been caring for them from birth. We love our children differently than we love our partners. It would be very unfair and disastrous to ask a parent to chose between a child and a partner. There are other ways to deal with problems. Counseling for the child or parents is one of the solutions.
3. Dr. John Gottman wrote a book called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. He says that the more emotionally intelligent you are, the better chance you have at a successful relationship. That means a partner who is aware of his/her own feelings can listen and understand their partner’s feelings also. As long as you can feel, and respect others feelings, you can deal with any problem in your relationship.
I think that Dr. Gottman is especially correct when talking about stepfamilies because every issue is about feelings… how your partner feels, how your children feel, how your stepchildren feel, how the extended families feels etc. Even so, knowing how others feel about an issue can be harder if you don’t listen carefully. Try to stop what you are doing and really listen to your partner. Validation always leads to empathy and understanding. However, you don’t always have to agree.
4. What does commitment to each other look like for you both? Is it a ring, a wedding, buying a house together etc.? Both of you need to know that you are committed to each other. There is safety and security in knowing each of you will try hard to make this partnership work. Commitment builds trust in each other too. (Children will bond with your new partner and the new family quicker if they can see that you both are committed to this family.)
5. Keep your expectations clear. Keep in mind expecting your partner will be able to read your mind will only lead to disappointment. Each partner interprets love in his/her own way. It would be a good idea to check in with your partner about what he/she might need in order to feel loved.
Withdrawing from your partner and not explaining your side of a situation won’t help the partnership. Tell your partner why you expected a certain behavior and ask your partner to talk with you about it. Never just assume he/she will know your thoughts. Actually it is best not to assume anything in a stepfamily. Just ask!
6. A partnership in a stepfamily requires teamwork. To be on a team you will need to feel like an equal partner. No one person has all the power or all the say on any team in a stepfamily. Dividing up the responsibilities and workload is necessary for all partnerships to thrive in the family. Each partner must be able to help decide on issues that affect the family. Open communication at all times is huge. No secrets between you. That is how you build trust.
Another power issue revolves around money. Most partners in stepfamilies share their income. They usually have a joint account for all the expenses for the family. That way both partners have equal use of the resources and all children are treated equally when it comes to material things.
7. Couples that have a social support group seem to do much better in the long run. Friends and family are important to the well being of everyone in the family. I know first hand how busy life is in a stepfamily. However, finding the time to keep in touch with those special friends and also finding new friends widens your perspective and increases your fun. Loving family members can give support and understanding to all the members of your family.
Remember, your children are only with you for a short number of years. Then they are off living their own lives, as they should.
Once that happens, the next years are yours to have lots of carefree fun with your partner. All those things you dreamed about doing really can happen without the same responsibilities. For example travelling and playing sports and games, also enjoying your grandchildren together. These are precious years and they are closer than you think. Keeping your relationship strong through the busy years will pay off later.
Research shows that the first few years are the hardest adjustment for the stepfamily couple. Over time partners learn to cope and grow together. They realize that a partnership in a stepfamily is an always changing and growing process. It takes time and effort but it is worth it!
Look after yourselves – yes, love each other and your ability to meet your challenges will greatly improve. We know that if you are doing well as a couple, then your children will do well also. In short it is very much a journey worth taking. Enjoy!