The number of second marriages that end is about 70%. It’s a shocking statistic. It also gives some context as to why this step-family journey can feel so challenging and fraught. It is hard. It is harder than two single people without children building a family together. It takes work to make it work. So how do we know whether our relationship is over, how do we know whether it is time to leave?
One of the things I tell my clients is that whatever happens with their relationship, I know they will be ok. I will hold the hope for them, while they figure it out. I honestly believe that the end of a relationship can be a positive thing. We have this idea that when a relationship ends, it is some kind of failure. We should have been able to make it work, we didn’t try hard enough, change enough, bend enough etc.
How about the idea that sometimes we just grow in different directions and sometimes get to a point where we are no longer compatible? I don’t think it’s a question of outgrowing or putting a value judgment on things. I don’t think that’s helpful. I think it’s more accurate to say, we no longer want and need the same things.
Sometimes this disconnect can be because the relationship was filling an unhealthy need, and as we deal with our challenges, we no longer want or need to fill that unhealthy need. It can be around entitlement. If we came into the relationship expecting very little in terms of getting our needs met, and then do some work and figure out we are actually entitled to get those needs met, it can cause a disconnect. The person we are with may not be able to meet our newly discovered and defined needs, or they may not be aware that our needs and wants have changed.
As a trauma survivor myself, I have noticed a trend with my stepmother clients, very often they too come from places of trauma. We have lower expectations of what life should bring us. We are used to a level of chaos and unhealthy dynamics can actually feel comfortable and familiar, so we are drawn to those situations. As we do the work to heal, our wants and needs can change. The chaos and dysfunction can become unbearable. They no longer fit our needs in the same way they once did.
It’s very easy at that time to start finger-pointing and blaming. You should step up, you should do this or that or the next thing. What we need to remember is that we are the ones who have changed the rules. Our wants and needs have changed, often without consulting or considering our partner. We have contributed to the disconnect. Does this mean it’s our fault? Should we have not grown? Not discovered we want more out of life than we previously imagined we were entitled to?
Not at all. We just need to be aware that this is not the fault of our partner. It’s not them failing us, it’s a shift in the dynamics of the relationship that is no longer sustainable.
How do we elegantly manage the transition? How much should we try to bridge the gap? At what point do we accept the gap is too big and we need to leave the relationship?
There is no singular answer to that, and I would strongly recommend getting some professional help to work through these questions. It’s some of the most rewarding work I do with clients. Sometimes the outcomes surprise us, the couple work on their own issues and find ways to reconnect. They come out the other side stronger as individuals and more united as a couple. Sometimes we work on an exit strategy, find ways to elegantly, and kindly end the relationship.
The question of ‘Is it time to leave?’ is a hard one. It’s not something I recommend deciding without talking it through with a professional. It’s not something to decide after a fight or betrayal. It’s a decision that needs to be carefully weighed, a strategy put in place to make a graceful exit.
Anita specialises in helping individuals and couples dealing with childhood trauma develop healthy couple and family relationships. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
She is the Lifestyle Editor at Stepparent Magazine and is a step/mum to 7, ranging from tweens to adults. She lives in New Zealand but works with clients in the US and Australasia. Her passion is mentoring divorced and step-mums to step into their power and couples to navigate the challenging waters of step-family life. She is a certified step-family coach, with graduate and post-graduate qualifications in psychology.