Couples in blended families have to attend the many unique stepfamily dynamics that surround them (what I like to call “familyness factors”). They also have to attend to the dynamics between them (“coupleness factors”) and that process is extremely dependent upon how well they communicate. The following is a story I shared in The Remarriage Checkup coauthored with Dr. David Olson.
Anita and Michael had been married about two years when her frustration over her role as a stepparent came to a head. Michael brought two preteen children into the marriage, and Anita had one child in kindergarten. Given that her ex-husband was distant and uninvolved, Anita’s role with her daughter as primary disciplinarian and nurturer had always been clear. She relished the role, and her assertive, decisive personality made it easy to be in charge. When she married Michael, who admitted that he was “sometimes soft” on his kids, Anita assumed the role of authority with his children too. Michael and Anita attended one of our seminars for stepfamilies and learned a lot about the stepparent’s role in their family. They quickly recognized that much of the conflict they had as a couple and between Anita and Michael’s oldest son was related to her premature assertiveness as a parent figure. They mutually agreed that at this point in their family’s development, she needed to back off from setting and following through with punishment and allow Michael to be the primary parent in his children’s lives. This would become the first step toward healing her relationship with her stepson and earning his trust, which would then allow her to move back into a leadership role. But taking on this new role was difficult for Anita because it went against her personality and forced her to accept the child behavioral standards held by her husband.
“You just don’t take enough initiative with your kids,” she said. “You’ve always been too weak with them and they run all over you.” Michael countered in defense, “No I’m not. You’re just too strict and want to control everything.” The criticism and negative assumptions about each other’s motives continued to escalate.
Anita raised her voice, hoping to be heard. “I’m not trying to control everything. I just think we should be more structured. And I know why you’re not. Your ex-wife threatened to take you back to court years ago and you’re still afraid she will. If you make the kids mad, they’ll run to her and you’ll lose them. But in the meantime, our life is chaos.”
“This is not about me,” Michael asserted. “This is about you. Ever since we decided to change our parenting you’ve been depressed and moody. You just can’t handle not being in control!”
Is this couple communicating effectively? Absolutely. It’s effective all right, but it’s not healthy. In fact, it’s destructive, and if something doesn’t change, this couple is headed for disaster.
Making assumptions about your spouse’s thoughts, feelings, and motives is a risky endeavor. It can cause you to take the other for granted and jump to conclusions. Anita assumed that the reason Michael didn’t take more initiative with his children was fear that his ex-wife would take custody. This may or may not be part of his concerns, but she didn’t slow down to listen to his perspective; she just assumed she knew. In addition, she wasn’t considerate of his feelings; she used them as ammunition against him to plead her case. That attitude didn’t invite him to share his struggles with her but to defend himself against her. The more he defended himself, the more she dug in her heels, trying to convince him that she was right. He responded with accusations of his own.
Michael accused Anita of wanting control of the home. She may, indeed, struggle with the desire to manage the people in her life in order to bring security to her world, but his assumption and accusation pushed her to defend her actions, not reach out for support from him. When put together, these assumptions activated a downward, negative cycle of arguing and defensiveness. What is needed is a heart change and a communication change.
Open Your Heart, Open Your Ears
James encourages people to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19 NIV). If there was one communication skill that could be considered paramount for developing and maintaining intimacy, it would be listening. This requires patience as well as the ability to withhold judgment and spend concentrated energy trying to understand. But it also demands a heart change.
To open your ears effectively you must first open your heart—to humility. A humble spirit is open to the other’s influence and the possibility that there’s something to learn from the other; it might even have to take responsibility for something said or done. A prideful heart, on the other hand, is usually defensive and too busy working on its own agenda to really listen to the other’s point of view. It cannot be “quick to listen” because it is trying to be heard—more to the point, to win.
Seek to learn good communication skills throughout your marriage. But make sure you first attend to the attitude of your heart.
More Tips for Healthy Communication
- Identify Emotion. Vitalized couples are four and a half times more likely than unhappy couples to feel that their partner understands their feelings. When your spouse is speaking about something important, try to identify the core emotion they are experiencing and reflect it back to them so they know you care enough to join them in what matters.
- Instead of Criticism, Make a Request. Most people complain when they really are asking for something. Tell them what you want not just what you don’t want. “I would appreciate you calling when you can’t be home on time,” instead of, “You’re such an insensitive jerk!”
- Show Respect. Both men and women want to feel respected when communication, especially when making themselves vulnerable. Manage your non-verbal expressions, tone of voice, and volume so together they create an environment of safety and respect for your spouse.
Adapted from The Remarriage Checkup. Used with permission.
Ron L. Deal is president of Smart Stepfamilies™, director of blended family ministries for FamilyLife®, a popular conference speaker on marriage and family matters, and author/coauthor of a series of DVD’s and books for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily, The Smart Stepmom, The Smart Stepdad, The Remarriage Checkup, and Dating and the Single Parent.