Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Ron L. Deal
Partnerships or coalitions in business often help both companies accomplish their goals. Each brings something to the table that then strengthens their ability to bring a product to market. Coalitions in war strengthen the position of the aligned countries against a common enemy. Healthy leadership coalitions bolster the influence of the leaders. This is equally true in families when parents align—a healthy coalition—to support each other and lead from a position of unity.
One dangerous, but common, coalition in blended families is when a parent and child align against the stepparent. This nearly always results in tension between the stepparent and stepchild when the stepparent both blames the child for infiltrating the marriage and is jealous of their closeness with the biological parent. This anger and conflict inadvertently bolsters the parent-child alliance as they justify their actions against the “common enemy” stepparent who is fighting to be part of the parenting coalition.
But it isn’t a parent’s closeness to their child per se that makes this dynamic dangerous. Parents are meant to have a strong, supportive relationship with their children. It’s when this relationship excludes the stepparent from authority and leadership within the home that things begin to fall apart.
“Please tell parents to put their spouse first in parenting,” Carter shared with me. “It’s too late for us, but others need to know how destructive it is to side with their child all the time.” Carter had been explaining that his wife’s relationship with her son left no room for him. He constantly felt undercut by it and after years of hoping it would change found himself looking for a way out of the marriage. The coalition had won to the detriment of the marriage and family.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
But what is a parent to do? On the surface it sounds as if they are supposed to just “side with the stepparent” in all circumstances. But what if they have a legitimate concern for their child that keeps pushing them to defend the child? What if they agree with the stepparent, but see defeat in the eyes of their child in the process?
Essentially the biological parent’s options are to:
- Stay out of the conflict completely.
- Take protective or supportive action in regard to the child.
- Support their spouse in all situations.
- Mediate the relationship between the other two, hoping to find the magic bullet solution that will make everyone happy.
This last option rarely works and usually leaves the parent emotionally exhausted and feeling like a failure. I recommend that parents attempt that sparingly, but when balanced by other actions over time, has its place. Actually, the best answer is “all the above”. Biological parents who find themselves caught between their spouse and their child should step out of the conflict as often as possible. Unfortunately, getting triangled in someone else’s conflict usually keeps the two other parties at war, rather than finding peace. You need to trust them to figure it out themselves. Even then, though, there will be times to step in. Here are some guidelines to follow.
- Stay out unless you have to step in. Extreme behaviors (e.g., intimidation or violence) or prolonged hostility call for you to step in. Short of that, don’t play therapist.
- If you feel the need to support your child to the stepparent (your spouse), talk to them in private. Correctly them in front of your child only bolsters your child’s disrespect and the stepparent’s sense of betrayal.
- If you want to side with your spouse, stand beside them when talking to your child. At the same time you are aligning yourself with your spouse, communicate your love to your child and compassion for their frustration. Your child may be offended you aren’t defending them, but that doesn’t mean you are doing the wrong thing.
- Don’t keep secrets from your spouse. Secrets form covert coalitions that undermine the marriage.
- In all things, communicate frequently and often with your spouse. Strive for unity of spirit as you deal with stressful circumstances.
Tip: Stay Connected
One of the hardest, but most important, things for biological parents to do when their spouse and child are in conflict is to stay independently connected to them both. Just because they are in a state of prolonged tension doesn’t mean you can’t keep alive your investment of time and bondedness with each. The trick here is not trying to force them together. If your teenager, for example, doesn’t want or need a closer relationship with their stepparent, maintain your relationship with them independent of their feelings toward your spouse. Likewise, listening to and affirming the frustrations of your spouse about your child doesn’t mean you have to become the advocate of their agenda. Further, if either tries to make you feel guilty for not standing in full agreement about the other, choose instead to validate their frustration without guilt. It’s a tough separation to manage, but it gently encourages your spouse and child to figure out their relationship without you.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.