Stepfamily success relies on the strength of the step-couple. According to Susan Wisdom, who wrote “Stepcoupling: Creating and Sustaining a Strong Marriage in Today’s Blended Family”, the success of the stepcouple relies on how well the couple connects, communicates, co-parents in their own home. How well the couple clarifies how old patterns impact their current relationship is also important. It takes intentional effort on a daily basis.
John Gottman, a world-renowned researcher on predicting, suggests that it is the day to day efforts and the small things often are the engine for deep and enduring intimacy. With all the busyness and distraction in our lives from social media at the tips of our fingers or wrists, we need to pay special attention. The extra layers of complication and stressors of stepfamily life make that intentional effort vital.
Patricia Papernow wrote that the first 7- 10 years of stepfamily life are the hardest. I truly believe that if a couple can make it through those first tumultuous years, then we are the most enduring and most resilient couples out there. Personally, I have been with my hubby for almost 16 years and I feel like I can legitimately say “you can’t throw anything at me that WE cannot handle”
Simple steps to build up your stepcouple strength:
Date Your Mate: This is the fun part! Make an appointment for a weekly date; weekly is ideal. We don’t always get ideal but aim minimum of 2 times per month. Date nights out can be expensive if you have to get a babysitter to have a night out, but date nights at home once the kids are asleep are totally do-able. John and Julie Gottman recently wrote 8 Dates. The book provides some tips on how to prepare for the 8 essential topics for relationship success. It takes some pre-planning and creativity.
Make sure both of you are doing the planning so it doesn’t fall on one pair of shoulders. If you have older kiddos, enlist them to babysit the littles. Or book your baby sitter for the next three or four dates while you have him/her in front of you. Make sure one out of every three or four dates you take the opportunity to talk family business (ie upcoming holiday plans, who is chauffeuring the kids to their football practices next month, researching the dental plans for the upcoming orthodontic work, squeezing in medical appointments for ageing parents) and get ahead of the stress. Once that is accomplished plan dates that have two main goals: fun and laughter. You may even want to add a side dish of adventure in there. Laughter can lower stress and bolster immune systems while exercising core muscles – what a perfect package! Dating your partner is the perfect backdrop for communication.
Talking Their Ear Off: Do you remember that at the beginning of your relationship how much you would talk? And remember how often you did that while looking into your partner’s eyes? Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff. It is very important to communicate in any relationship, but with your partner it is critical. Add a few degrees of importance if you are in a stepcouple relationship! Dating regularly will make sure the opportunities are there. Dating is not a total fix if your communication is lacking. Communication works best when we are honest, open, positive, supportive, and healthy. Some key components of healthy communication are to be respectful, take turns talking and listening, listen with your heart and not your head so you HEAR what your partner says. In other words, listen to hear, not to respond.
Getting on the Same Page: Kids need to be emotionally and physically nurtured. They also need structure, safety and security to succeed. Parenting styles can be vastly different when two people come together to raise kids. But parenting kids not born to you presents some very unique and difficult challenges. Bonding with them takes time. More time than it takes for biological parents and kids. It’s important to build a relationship with your stepkids before you leap into enforcing the rules. I bring back the have fun and laugh tip from above.
Truly, fun and laughter are some of the easiest and fastest ways to build a relationship with your stepkids. It’s totally non-threatening. And let down your guard a little. Vulnerability can go a long way. Let their mom or dad do the ‘dirty work” at the beginning. The wisest advice I ever heard from one stepmom to another in my support group was: let him parent as good or as bad as he will. Have your boundaries, i.e. if need be lock your bedroom door for privacy and protection of your sacred space. Use your communication skills to talk about how you will adapt the parenting structure to include both you and your partner in raising the kids. The more you can be on the same page over the long run the better it will be for everyone.
Cleaning out the Closet: We have some work to do when it comes to cleaning our closet out of the stuff that no longer fits. Patterns we pick up from our family, from other people, and other relationships can set the stage for how we communicate with and relate to our partners. We also have parenting experiences growing up that set our filter and our lens for how we view our kids and stepkids behaviour, and how we respond to it. We don’t live in a vacuum. All of our past experiences have made us who we are; for better or for worse. We need to be aware of how our past experiences impact who and how we are in our stepfamily relationships. Unpacking this requires some introspection on our part and honest communication with our partners about how we can be better partners and parents.
Partners being open to the same level of commitment to connection, communication, and having a team approach to co-parenting is a great start to stepfamily success. Making a promise to give that to each other, with a solid plan of execution for the year, are steps necessary for success.
Ali has a BA in Psychology and an MSc in Human Ecology specializing in Family Studies. She is a certified stepfamily coach and the owner and founder of Step by Step Mom- Stepfamily Coaching, a stepfamily and stepmom coaching business. She’s worked with Children’s Services in Edmonton, Alberta since 1998. 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.