My area of expertise is working with couples in stepfamilies. Divorce rates are up to 70% the second time around and increase again for the third time. Those statistics are shocking, and for me heartbreaking because of the work I do. There are many more complicating factors in second marriages that don’t exist in first marriages and the more common challenges stepfamilies experience are often intense. Alimony, child support, ex partners (who may also be jealous and vindictive), court battles, grieving children who present with challenging behaviours and loyalty binds are never experienced by first families.
Those challenges are hard enough to deal with. But there is an important piece that often goes unacknowledged, and maybe even unnoticed, as having a very significant impact on how successful the stepcouple will be. That piece is finishing the old relationship before launching into the next one. Now, let me explain while you say to yourself “of course my previous relationship is over, why else would I be in this one?” I have seen it time and again in my professional and my personal life. Someone is unaware of how the previous relationship eclipses the new relationship they are in because of unfinished or unresolved business, which has negative consequences for moving forward and creating happiness. By virtue of children being present in your relationship, there is going to be spillover from your previous relationship.
Human nature as it is is full of opportunities to dig both our head in the sand and our heals in the dirt. It’s one thing to bring baggage into a relationship; we all have our share. It’s another thing to pretend we don’t have any baggage at all. Denial is a safety mechanism. It’s a part of the grieving process and is a necessary pit stop along the route to grief resolution. Denial should not be a permanent residence. Denying that previous relationships have no bearing on the one we are in is naive, especially for those who experience divorce or the breakdown of a serious relationship.
Digging your heels in and refusing to check what’s left leaking into your new relationship is setting your new relationship foundation on very unstable ground. When you meet someone who gets your heart pumping and puts the stars in your eyes, it’s hard enough to see reality. Everyone has their best foot forward in the beginning, but denial about unfinished business is dangerous. Unfinished business can be repetitive, unresolved issues or unhealthy patterns of behaviour that keep tripping you up. It can mean a death sentence for the next relationship.
How do you prevent this?
You must be willing to ask yourself some tough questions: what have you done to resolve whatever was your contribution to the demise of your relationship? Yes, I asked your contribution. In the vast majority of relationships, it is not solely one person’s fault for the termination of a relationship. Regardless of the reason for the demise (usually it’s a complicated mix of reasons), there was a pattern of interaction, a pattern of communication, a choreography between the two of you that went from annoying, to troublesome, to destructive. It deteriorated over time. For some couples it is slow, other times, it is lightyear fast. If you take a long hard look at your contribution you can set it up as a warning sign not to be repeated in your current relationship. For example, mistrust due to infidelity. How would mistrust play out with your new partner?
Moving into a new relationship should take time and discernment, especially with children involved. What does discernment mean and what do you have to finish before you move on? It depends upon how aware you are of your strengths and your flaws and how willing you are to take a look at patterns from not just the last relationship, but the relationships before as well. Discernment is about giving yourself some time to grieve the loss, gaining clarity and perspective, growing, stretching and changing as a result of that loss. Yes, there were plenty of things you weren’t happy about and plenty of things that went wrong and you will have to grieve that. But you also need to grieve the loss of the good things. There were some good times, good memories and your previous partner did have good qualities otherwise, you would never have been with them.
Retired therapist Susan Wisdom wrote the book “Stepcoupling”, a book about creating a strong stepcouple relationship in spite of the challenges of stepfamily life. She stated that a successful remarriage begins with a successful divorce. A successful divorce starts with grief resolution first. Asking yourself hard questions like:
- What have I learned about myself as a result of the divorce or break up?
- What changes do I need to make to be successful in the next relationship?
- What is my style of communication? And how do I resolve conflict?
- What do I love about myself?
Asking these questions are necessary for moving forward. Then, you need to negotiate a new relationship with your ex, your kids and even former extended family. Family is different post-divorce and you need to figure out ways to work together if you have children. Wisdom also stated that there are new dynamics that have to be recalibrated for. That is not always easy to negotiate and takes time, but is also necessary for moving forward. It’s easier to part ways when there are no children.
If you are carrying the baggage from your previous relationships, it’s never too late to finish up the old. Especially if you are already in a new relationship. It is necessary to do as you create the space and the energy for your new relationship and as you create a foundation for relationship success. Letting go of the old energy from the previous relationships frees you up for your new relationship. Letting go first requires that there is something there from previous relationships impacting you today.
Keep asking yourself the hard questions, keep an open mind and above all else, keep an open heart. Opening up and being honest with yourself only serves to open up and be honest in your intimate relationship. It can be hard work, I won’t deny that. But the work you do on yourself is incredibly powerful and is very much worth it. I promise.
Ali Wilks has a BA in Psychology and an MSc in Human Ecology specializing in Family Studies. She is also a certified stepfamily coach and the owner and founder of Step by Step Mom – a stepfamily/stepmom coaching business. Her other job is with Children’s Services, since 1998, in Edmonton, Alberta. She is currently a trainer on Edmonton’s Caregiver Training Unit teaching classes on building skills, providing advocacy and support for foster, kinship and adoptive parents. These classes include building the essential skills in raising nonbiological children from the foster care system who present with special needs. Ali is a stepmother of 3 adult children (with a couple of grandkids too) and the birth mother of 2 beautiful girls.