By Ron L. Deal
But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac. The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son." (Genesis 21:9-11)
God's design for the family begins with marriage laying the foundation for the home. But stepfamilies are at a disadvantage when they begin because the couple isn’t the foundation. Because parent-child relationships predate the new marriage and are bonded by blood, history, and family identity, the marital relationship is often a secondary relationship in the home instead of the foundational one.
Unless your marriage becomes primary, you will continue to experience distress and instability in your home.
"Wait a minute," said Carrie. "You mean I have to put my husband before my children? I understand your point, but they are my flesh and blood. He's just someone I picked up alongside the road somewhere." Her tongue-in-cheek comment reminds me of the stepfather who complained that after two years of marriage he still rides in the back-seat of the car while his wife’s children take turns riding in the front.
The process of establishing the couple as the foundation relationship of the home can feel like a win-lose situation for biological parents and children. It’s not. It’s a matter of significance. Not that a spouse matters more than children, but rather that the marriage matters more to the stability of the home, than do children. In fact, a healthy marriage as the foundational relationship of the home means safety and protection for children.
Children will never suffer neglect because their biological parent makes a strong commitment to their spouse, the stepparent. Couples in biological families where the marriage preceded children naturally sit “in the front seat” with one another yet still make plenty of personal sacrifices on behalf of their children and focus much of their time nurturing and raising their children. Even still the couple maintains their first-love commitment to one another. Again, this provides for children a healthy, loving environment in which to grow.
A similar balance is healthy in stepfamilies. That is, biological parents don’t have to choose between their spouse and children, they choose both their spouse and their children when they give primary significance to the marriage. Placing your spouse in the “front seat of your heart” is good for your children, too.
Barriers to Overcome
Managing this dynamic in a stepfamily is easier said than done. There are a number of barriers to overcome.
Paralyzing Guilt. "I can't do that to my kids. I don't ever want them to think I love him more than I love them." Children suffer significantly when a parent dies or their parents divorce. If the biological parent blames themselves and feels a great deal of sympathy for the child, they may try to protect their children from future stress or feeling unloved. If a parent becomes paralyzed by this guilt, there is a huge temptation to coddle or side with the child against the stepparent. Unfortunately this both discourages the child to move past their sadness (why stop grieving when it rewards you?) and steals the stepparent’s authority with the child. Parents cannot afford to allow their own guilt to keep them paralyzed.
Refusing to Take Risks. Biological parents must take whatever risks necessary in order to move their spouse into a place of priority. Children sometimes threaten to spend more time at the other home, or protest changes in the home with anger, or close themselves off to a relationship with the stepparent as a way of discouraging their parent from investing in the marriage. Even then, biological parents must be willing to take a few risks in order to move the marriage to a place of priority.
A Stepparent’s Misstep
This dynamic coin has another side. Biological parents feel resentful when stepparents push them away from their children. Like Sarah insisting that Abraham disengage from his son Ishmael, stepparents who repeatedly turn everyday circumstances into a “me or them” decision inadvertently push their spouse into a defensive posture in support of their children. This is nothing but trouble. Stepparents cannot afford to put themselves in competition with their stepchildren, but instead should support their spouse’s relationship with their children.
Moving Your Marriage into the Front Seat
How can couples establish their relationship as the foundation of the home when children preceded the marriage? Here are some practical tips:
- Set a regular date night and keep it. Prioritizing time for one anther helps children see the importance you place on your relationship. Children, of course, will get plenty of your time and energy so make sure you find time to nurture your marriage as well.
- Bio parents should strive to trust the heart of their spouse (stepparent). Assume they have good-will toward your child even if they complain about them. Strive to give the stepparent equal say in parenting decisions; be a team.
- Support your spouse in front of your children. Back up their parenting actions and insist that children respect their stepparent.
- Affirm your commitment “out loud”. Verbally expressing love to one another in front of the children, hugging in plain site, and talking about your future together reinforce the permanency of your marriage.
- Stepparents should insist “out loud” that their spouse spend special time with their biological children. This communicates that you are not in competition with them.
- Bio parents: spend one-on-one time with your kids and remain involved in their activities. This reinforces that they haven’t “lost” you and paradoxically makes their acceptance of your marriage easier.
- When children shows signs of stress or anxiety as you “move your spouse into the front seat of your heart”, be sympathetic, but don’t let them guilt you into taking their side. Just because children hand you a ticket for a guilt-trip doesn’t mean you have to go for the ride!
- When children challenge the role of the stepparent, respond firmly and with compassion. “You’re just changing the rule because she wants you to,” is a common complaint. Acknowledge the child’s confusion and move forward. “You’re right. Things are different now that Linda and I parent together. And you know if I were you, I’d be upset about this, too. But this is the new rule and I’m in agreement with it, so please abide by it. Let’s go.”
Ron L. Deal is Founder and President of Smart Stepfamilies and author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family.