Stepcoupling: Creating and Sustaining a Strong Marriage in Today's Blended Family
By Susan Wisdom, LPC, Jennifer Green
Did you ever expect to form a stepfamily? If you're like most people, in your youth you imagined an enduring first union. If you've never married, you probably imagine a typical first marriage, with only each other to care for. This is the picture our society paints and perpetuates.
When you do stepcouple, then, how do you know what to expect? Your perspective about stepfamilies also conies from popular culture, your history, and your imagination. Unfortunately, TV shows like "The Brady Bunch" misinform the public. No Brady stepchild ever said, "You're not my mother. You can't tell me what to do." No Brady stepparent ever felt like an outsider, and no conflict lasted longer than twenty minutes.
Your background-your previous marriage, if you've had one, and your childhood experiences-influence your expectations about stepfamily life. You naturally plug the past into your map of the future, without realizing you're doing it.
Our culture, too, embodies strong values about families-namely that happiness comes from a nuclear family. When Mom, Dad, and a small flock of loving, obedient children reside in a household, cheer finds a permanent home. If you fail to recognize this as a table, you may believe that everyone who fits this mold has achieved domestic bliss. This paradigm, so ingrained in our culture as to be invisible, forms part of the standard against which you judge your new family. Evaluating a stepfamily by the standards you'd apply to a nuclear one is like grading an algebra exam with the key to a geometry final.
As a result-and whether you're aware of it or not-some of your initial expectations about yourself, your partner, your relationship, and your stepfamily are unrealistic. On the surface, your assumptions may sound reasonable. You're a mature, loving adult. You graduated from the school of hard knocks when you went through a divorce; if anyone's motivated to create a happy family, it's you.
You understand and love your children, so why shouldn't you understand and love your partner's children? Your spouse is bound to love and understand your darlings, too. By the way, you know what to expect from your children, and you expect his kids to behave the same way. It seems so logical.
Inevitably you'll notice a gap between your expectations and your experience. This gap is a source of the three Ds: disappointment, discord, and disillusionment.
Please note the distinction between unrealistic expectations and those that are appropriate in any relationship. You can expect that you and your children will be safe and that you'll be treated with respect in your relationship. If these basic expectations aren't met, you may have made a mistake in your choice of partner. However, you can't expect that your mate will anticipate and fulfill your every need, for instance, or cater to all of your children's caprices.
When you feel disappointed, you'll be tempted to point a finger at your partner or his or her children for letting you down. However, you need to learn to pause before placing blame.
For example, imagine it's the first holiday season that you're all together under one roof. Your previous holiday memories
are warm and fuzzy. Now you have a new life with someone you love deeply. The two of you shopped carefully and planned surprises, and the gift-wrapped coziness you long for seems just around the corner.
Then you find your spouse in tears, grieving the absence of holiday rituals her first family shared. Your children fight during a holiday dinner. Your youngest stepchild cries himself to sleep three nights in a row.
Are you disappointed? You bet. Afraid that every year will bring the same emotional upheaval? Most likely. Angry and/or hurt? Definitely.
Stop and remember that disappointment, discord, and disillusionment signal the need for healthy adjustment in your stepcouple and stepfamily. Be patient with yourself and your family. Over time, as a healthy stepfamily matures, the gap between expectations and experience narrows. Everyone becomes more free to enjoy the unique experiences that stepfamily life offers.
I'm afraid that I've made a terrible mistake. I feel guilty that I don't love my stepchildren. I tell them I do, but I don't. What's wrong with me?
One of the best ways to set yourself up for failure in a stepfamily is by expecting too much from yourself. A pitfall of stepcoupling is to assume that love for your stepchildren follows-or should follow-love for your mate as naturally as summer follows spring. Ideally, over time, you develop a positive, healthy relationship with your stepchildren, but it may not include feelings of love.
You feel obligated to love your stepchildren for a number of reasons. All stepparents are initially uncertain about how they'll fit into their new children's lives. As a result, you may act like a television version of a stepparent: loving, kind, and patient in the extreme.
Some stepcouples, particularly those in which a biological parent has died or become inaccessible, yield to the temptation to leapfrog the stepparent into the role of loving parent. In still other stepcouples, loving each others children is an implied condition of their relationship.
More generally, women feel pressure to conform to cultural expectations of being a good mother. Some women choose mothering as a proving ground in a new marriage. Both men and women may feel they have to perform for their spouses in the role of SSP-super stepparent.
You may also assume that your relationship with your stepchildren should be as close and loving as the one you have with your own children. While you may feel close to your stepchildren many years down the road, you'll always lack the biological parent-child bond that cannot be replicated. You won't share family history or the emotional and physical legacies that flow along bloodlines.
In reality, your relationship with your stepchildren grows over time, and no one can predict at the outset if it will eventually include feelings of love. Treat your stepparenting self more kindly by focusing on getting to know your new children as individuals, not worrying that you ought to feel differently about them. Instead of throwing a blanket of obligatory love over them, learn to understand them as people and appreciate their talents and other positive qualities.