Control what you can control; your thoughts, your feelings, your behaviour. What goes into your body and what comes out and where.Click To TweetOne of the most painful and repeated stories I hear in my work with stepparents is that they often feel like they take a back seat to their stepkids. They feel like they are not the priority for their partner and that awareness creates a particularly acute and unique kind of pain. I remember reading that stepparenting is not for the faint of heart. That is very true. Another part to add to that sentiment is falling in love with a parent is not for the faint of heart either. It is incredibly hard to have a successful intimate relationship when you are in a stepfamily.
But, the most amazing thing about stepcouple success is that we are fighters for our relationships and survivors of EVERYTHING that gets thrown our way: high conflict exes who call the shots in our home, children who want nothing to do with you except when you give them something, in-laws who are loyal to the ex, family and friends who do not have the slightest idea what telling you to take the high road actually costs you. So here are 10 steps to get you feeling better about your stepcouple relationship.
#1 You’re Number 2: The reality is that the bioparent and child relationship was firmly established before you showed up. The attachment is there and so is the forgiveness that goes with unconditional love. Every child deserves unconditional love, acceptance and forgiveness. But, just because you showed up a little later in the game, it DOES NOT mean that your position isn’t important. According to the timeline, you showed up second but that doesn’t mean your power position should be less than a child’s position. However, being respectful of that first relationship is important. You can’t insert yourself into an automatic place of authority without developing a relationship with the kids first. But, your partner must pull you up to his or her rank and position as an equal. You are in a partnership after all. Adults are the authority figures. It’s like the captain of a ship and the CEO of the company. Adults take the lead.
#2 Friends First, Parents Second: When you see your partner spending more time on being a friend to his/her children rather than a parent it is painful to watch. This IS a tough and very common issue. We ultimately have no control over how our partner will parent – or not parent – HIS children. You can have discussions and negotiations where instead of insisting on YOUR way vs THEIR way, it becomes a 2.0 version of OUR way. In my stepmom discussions, a very smart stepmom had this to say: “I have to trust that my partner is doing his best to parent his children the best he can. And I also want to add that the consequences of his choices to parent or not are his to deal with. How his parenting style plays out down the road is not a reflection of you.”
#3 Rejection Sucks: So your stepkids give you the cold shoulder? There are reasons why they want you gone. Here’s what you represent: the end of their life as they knew it. Even if that life was full of fighting and hurt, it was what they knew and believed to be normal. And you BEING there means that there is no way that their mom and dad will EVER get back together. From their perspective, you are the intruder. But here’s some perspective: they would feel that way about any other partner their parent takes on. Especially for the stepmom. But the bottom line? The kids must be respectful. Here’s the tricky key though- so must you.
#4 What is Your Investment? And further to that, what is your return on that investment? Remember the point in number two? The long-term outcome doesn’t reflect on you as a person, a partner, or a parent. You can be the supportive, positive influencer. More important is your role is as the bio parent to your own children (if you have them) and as your spouse’s partner. Put in as much energy as you choose to. You are the only one who actually gets to decide what you WANT to put into this. They have parents already, they may not be doing a great job, but those are your standards based on what you see in the situation. They managed before you came along. And remember, you should NEVER work harder than their bio parents.
#5 Fixing the Broken: You cannot and SHOULD NOT fix what is not yours to fix. Hard boundary and full stop. Stepping in where and when you are unwanted and unwelcome only creates resentment for you, your partner, your kids and very likely the ex. Trying to fix something you did not break takes away the opportunity for the players involved to learn their lessons and clean up their own messes. And if they don’t learn from their lessons, that is their lesson too. Take a deep cleansing breath and let go.
#6 The Stepparent Stepback: The best way for you to take a look at what your investment in the outcome is, is to do the stepparent stepback. When you aren’t getting the outcome you hoped you would and it hurts you more than it helps them it’s time to take yourself out of the equation. There is no sin in saving yourself. Sometimes you are the only person who can…and should. Be your own champion.
#7 Selfcare Above Everyone Else: Seriously. That is no joke. I remember the quote- but not where it came from “I want to build a life I don’t have to escape from”. If you are scraping the bottom of the barrel, what are you giving to the people who need you? Self care is not selfish. Everyone around you benefits when you are in a healthy head and heart space. It must be a non- negotiable.
#8 Boundaries: Control what you can control; your thoughts, your feelings, your behaviour. What goes into your body and what comes out and where. That is it. Set some boundaries when the other people are trying to control the stuff out of their control. Make your boundaries clear.
#9 Build on Your Intimate Relationship: Take your focus away from the kids. You didn’t get together because your partner had kids, in fact you probably got together despite them. And once they move out and move on with their own adult lives and have spouses and kids of their own, all you have is each other. So, you need to nurture your foundation.
#10 A Stepfamily IS Successful Stepcoupling: You are the fabric of the family. You can be that strong foundation, showing the kids how successful partnerships look, feel and sound like. So show up as a team, an unbreakable, unstoppable stepcouple team. Nothing is impossible with a solid team with solid communication and intimate connection. Facing the stresses of stepfamily life together and turning it into stepfamily success. You are a power couple. See it. Believe it. Be it.
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.