I recently read a stepmom article on ways to gel as a stepfamily. I thought it was great and agreed with all of it except for one thing: the article stated not to put your marriage first. Of course, there is a time and place for putting children first; they are, after all, younger and more dependent on adults. Their survival depends on us.
BUT I caution about making this a non-negotiable rule. The parents are the foundation of the family. Without the parents, there would be no family.
Now, this might go against better judgment and what otherwise feels instinctual, but here’s the rationale: Statistically speaking, second marriages have a much higher rate of divorce than first marriages. It can be up to 70% according to some statistics, and then you can add almost 10% to that number for third marriages.
There is a multitude of reasons why that statistic is higher than first time marriages: dynamics that the ex-spouses and children bring, child support payments, alimony, access and visitation and financial burdens of lengthy court disputes – all of that totals up to stress and a lot of it! Then you add to the mix that divorce was a solution for things not going as planned the first time around, and you survived that, right? But therein lies the problem. If you put the right amount of effort of the right KIND in at the right moments, then your relationship can better handle the stressors of stepfamily life.
What does that look like?
Well, self-care is a good place to start. If you are happier and healthier, then the work of the couple is less. It’s also important to ensure relationship care or couple care. I recommend reading the book “The 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman as a simple starting point. In his book, Chapman categorizes the 5 ways that couples (or parents and children) express their love and receive love.
Each person has a love language or a way that they like to receive and give love, be recognized and feel valued and honoured.
Chapman says we must learn the primary love language of our spouse in order to show them we love them. The five love languages include: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time and Physical Touch.
For example, when you compliment or appreciate your spouse for their efforts and their contributions, you are building them up through words of affirmation. How about love notes texted to him during his afternoon safety meeting? Simple words of affection can go a long way; it can be very sustaining for a relationship.
Acts of service are doing things like run of the mill daily tasks. Of course, you look after your spouse by doing their laundry, cooking their meals, changing the oil on their minivan or mowing the lawn, but that’s the language of love for some people. Doing the stuff that has to be done. It’s pitching in to make the household run smoothly. My husband is BIG on this love language.
Receiving gifts are pretty straightforward but don’t just assume it’s “flowers and chocolate” easy. Find out what your spouse’s currency is. If it’s time – flowers die but a Roomba robot vacuum may do the trick. Or maybe a surprise of packing favourite snacks in his briefcase. If it’s a day at the spa please don’t try a pedicure yourself at home to save a few bucks! Reconsidering yourself being cheap as a badge of honour is a good idea for this love language.
Quality time means looking at each other face-to-face and talking. It’s more than just hanging out in front of the TV or sitting beside each other while you are on the phone and he is on his tablet. It is focused attention where you are spending genuine time with each other; listening and responding. Discover new places and share adventures!
Physical touch seems simple and straightforward because it’s a common language in marriage. But it’s more than mere lovemaking. It’s the light feathery kisses first thing in the morning or putting your arm around his waist while you walk down the mall. Knowing that he likes the feel of flannel means you could buy him that flannel shirt, even if you don’t really like the look of it.
Keep in mind that whatever love language appeals to you, might not be the love language of your spouse.
So, with all of the stuff that causes stress, what are you doing to take care of your spouse’s love needs; to ensure you connect with them in small ways every day?
When we continue to put the kids ahead of us, the person at the bottom of the ladder eventually starts to feel forgotten, unappreciated and de-valued. Then all of those stressors are harder to manage and compartmentalize. That makes room for resentment, and it can start building strength and hiding in places you never thought of looking. The negatives start outweighing the positives; you start blaming each other, fighting becomes a daily occurrence and the slope starts getting more slippery. If you slide too far then you might reach the tipping point.
So, do some prevention or even early intervention. Do the little things as much and as often as you can. And if you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel then make sure you create your own light. You can’t read his mind and he can’t read yours, so take the quiz in the book.
The best way to meet the needs of your children is to have happy mommies and daddies whose emotional tanks are full to overflowing!
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.