Life is stressful. We have pressure on us from multiple sources. But as a partner in a stepcouple we can add on many more layers those in first time families NEVER have to contend with: spousal support, child support and the spin-off financial constraints, court battles, appeasing demanding and unaccommodating exes, grieving children who present with challenging behaviours and loyalty binds, in-laws, ex-in-laws – the list can go on.
The best way to handle and navigate the stress is to team up. Two heads and hearts are better than one. And remember, the one who has your heart, should also have your back. The stepcouple weaves the fabric of 2 worlds together. The successful stepcouple is the foundation for a successful stepfamily. Children and angry exes can’t come between you. You can be unbreakable. How? These are 5 ways to start the New Year on a strong foundation, so it can carry you through the trials and tribulations of the coming year.
1. Talk to each other. The good stuff. The bad stuff. Get to the nitty-gritty of the heart of the matter and the heart of your spouse and your relationship. Conflict can be hard and really scary. We typically want to avoid it. But, if you can reframe it through the lens as an opportunity to make things better and to change your trajectory as a team, then grab the opportunity. You don’t have to wait for the conflict to arise before you talk. In fact, having good heart-to-heart talks can prevent the conflict.
The successful stepcouple is the foundation for a successful stepfamily.
Men and women communicate differently. Our patterns come from our past experiences and not all of those patterns are healthy or helpful. Get help if you get stuck with not being heard or are having a hard time listening while not reacting. There are loads of resources to keep your boat afloat. It fends off resentment and assumptions.
2. Touch each other. It doesn’t have to be the physically intimate kind but if it leads there then all the better. Do you remember how much you looked into your partner’s eyes when you first were together? That’s how you touch each other’s heart. That’s how you bond with your partner. It was nature working its magic, to build the chemistry required for long-term coupling. Do you remember how often you held hands, tucked her hair behind her ear, rubbed his arm in reassurance or squeezed his leg saying, “Hi, I want you?” Go back to those magic moments and sneak a little squeeze in, but keep the heavy groping behind closed doors. In other words, be discreet, especially if your stepfamily is new. Where do you start if you are feeling shy? Try the above step in earnest; it will bring your hearts closer together. Date nights are a great way to get and keep the ball rolling.
3. Be tenacious in your relationship: Tenacity means you have determination, purposefulness and perseverance. It’s commitment. And it’s a key ingredient for stepcouple success. When the going gets tough you dig in. It’s a trait in all stepparents and stepcouples and, to have tenacity you have to have the above two areas covered. You have to spend time talking about where you are going to focus your energies as a team. There can be so much noise and distraction from the kids and exes and, and, and. But, as a solid stepcouple, you prioritize your relationship, nurture it and each other. It’s a great way to fend off monotony.
4. Be tender with each other: Be kind. Harsh words, swearing and cruel criticism have no place in an intimate partnership. When you are angry, take a deep breath before you lash out. Stop and remind yourself how you would like to be spoken to. Start soft and have respect for the person you’ve chosen a lifelong commitment to. Let the lens that you look at your partner through be one of compassion and understanding. Maybe they had a bad day at work. Maybe they heard some bad news they haven’t yet shared with you. Everyone has a battle they struggle with. Likely you know what their battle is but let the tenderness soften your heart and don’t assume anything. If you can find the tenderness, that will set the tone for how your partner treats you.
5. Trust in each other: Trust is not a onetime event that is present and no longer requires attention, energy or work. According to researcher and therapist, John Gottman, “The work of trust building occurs as you move through life together. This is not to say that the trust you have now isn’t real. It’s an acknowledgement that the trust you do have is not yet as strong as it one day will be.” Without a strong commitment to talking, touching and turning to each other when you are seeking refuge from life’s challenges, trust erodes. Gottman says it’s not only the big things; it’s the small daily things. Your partner is your person, as you are for them. You are each other’s refuge. Make it a safe refuge.
The more you talk, touch, have tenacity within your relationship, share tenderness with each other and nurture the trust, the deeper your relationship becomes and the more unstoppable you will be this year and beyond and for many, many years to come.
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.