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A Matter of Perspective

 

Ron L. Deal

As a writer and family educator I’ve gotten used to people reacting differently to my material. Most, I’m grateful to say, really value and appreciate what I have to say—and report later that it dramatically helped their life. Others reject it outright. I used to wonder how Biblically-based, research informed material (what I endeavor to offer people) could illicit such differing reactions. And then, I realized at least one factor: it depends on their perspective.

For years dating couples with children from previous relationships and married couples in blended families have had a polar opposite reaction to my books. Dating couples moan, “Gee Ron, are you trying to scare us out of getting married?” and married stepfamily couples would celebrate and marvel, “You are describing our life exactly! Have you been peeking in our windows?” The dating couple feels like I’m being negative; the married couple relieved someone finally told them they are normal. And when I would track with one couple from dating to marriage their response would transform from, “We just thought you were being a pessimist,” to “We wish we would have listened to you better.” (By the way, this is exactly why after writing four books on remarriage and stepfamily living I backed up and wrote a prequel called Dating and the Single Parent!)

How could their perspective make such a huge difference? Premarital couples have high hopes, are consumed by the fog of love, and expect positive things to happen; it’s the nature of being in love. Married couples are living the realities of being a stepfamily and, therefore, cannot gloss over the challenges. It’s the difference between expectation and reality. Incidentally, research would later help explain and validate this perspective shift. David Olson and I found that couple satisfaction during dating is highly correlated with the couple’s relationship, but that marital satisfaction (i.e., once the couple is living in a stepfamily) is increasingly correlated with stepfamily and stepparenting dynamics that surround the couple’s relationship . As the context of their relationship changes, so does their satisfaction—and their perspective.

From Where I Stand
There are plenty of other perspective differences in blended families. Children and adults often find themselves disagreeing based on where they stand, that is, how they see it. For example, adults sometimes objective to labels like “stepfamily” or “stepparent” because it makes them feel second class or evil while kids use these exact terms quite freely to describe what seems obvious to them. “This is a stepfamily and he is my stepparent,” one twelve-year old said to me. That’s not hard to figure out.”

In addition, biological parents have an insider’s perspective on the home while stepparent’s feel like outsiders. As one stepmom put it, “My husband is connected to his children and to me—he loves all of us and feels like he’s a part of us. But I am only connected to him, not his kids. It’s almost as if I live in stepfamily, but he doesn’t.” I couldn’t have said it better.

And what about holiday step-stress? For many adult stepchildren going to your parent’s house with their remarried partner and their children, grandchildren, and extended family just doesn’t feel like going home for the holidays. It feels like going someplace strange. Or maybe it’s just you—after all, everyone else seems to be okay with it.

The point is this:  stepfamilies are made up of people with different family histories, varying life narratives, and therefore, different perspectives about what is happening in their shared home. It can be quite frustrating. And it keeps people who are trying to deepen their bonds disconnected.

Build a Bridge and Get Over It
So what can you do? You must actively build bridges of understanding in your home and cross them in order to connect to the other person’s heart. All too often, however, what people end up doing is criticizing the other perspective, judging it, or deciding not to trust it—all of which keeps people alienated from each other.

Listen. One key to building bridges is listening. No, I don’t just mean hearing, I mean listening. Go beneath their words to understanding the meaning of their perspective and what it is telling you about their point of view. And then accept that since they have a different past than you, they can have a completely different opinion that doesn’t make sense to you. Resist the urge to talk them out of their opinion—listen and absorb.

Empathize. Listening lets you take in the other person, empathy adds compassion and appreciation for what it’s like to be them. And more to the point, empathy communicates a deep acceptance and concern for the other person which facilitates bonding and trust. And that’s when a tiny miracle happens: two hearts, with two different perspectives, and two varying realities, connect.

Most stepfamilies could use a lot more of that.

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Tip: Walk a Mile in Their Shoes
 I frequently encourage parents and stepparents to actively imagine what it is like to be their children and stepchildren. As parents we tend to get locked into our view of family relationships. This week imagine what it must be like for your kids to:
• Go between two homes with different rules, expectations, and parenting styles
• Grieve a missing parent and ponder why God let them go and how life would be different if they were present
• Receive criticism from a stepparent
• Feel guilty for liking a stepparent
• Wrestle with hurts from the past
• Have family longings that cannot be fulfilled


Ron L. Deal is President of Smart Stepfamilies and Director of Blended Family Ministries for FamilyLife, an expert in marriage and stepfamily relationships, and author/coauthor of a series of DVD’s and books for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepmom and The Smart Stepdad.

 

 
Comments ( 1 )
 
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#1: by Gloria Lintermans on 12.13.2012 @ 04:45pm CST

As a step and biological Mom, and the author of a book on stepfamilies which included not only my own experience but research with stepfamily authorities and other stepfamilies, I am aware, all to often, of the high rate of divorce among these families.

One reason is that there are no understood guidelines for these families. Society tends to apply the rules of first marriages, while ignoring the complexities of stepfamilies.

A little clarification: In a stepfamily the child(ren) is of one co-parent; in a blended family, there are children from both co-parents; and, virtually all family members have recently experienced a primary relationship loss.

The Landmines

Three potential problem areas are: Financial burdens, Role ambiguity, and the Children’s Negative Feelings when they don’t want the new family to “work.”

Husbands sometimes feel caught between the often impossible demands of their former family and their present one. Some second wives also feel resentful about the amount of income that goes to the husband’s first wife and family.

Legally, the stepparent has no prescribed rights or duties, which may result in tension, compromise, and role ambiguity.

Another complication of role ambiguity is that society seems to expect acquired parents and children to instantly love each other. In reality, this is often just not the case.

The third reason for a difficult stepparent-child relationship might be that a child does not want this marriage to work, and so, acts out with hostility, since children commonly harbor fantasies that their biological parents will reunite. Stepchildren can prove hostile adversaries, and this is especially true for adolescents.

Stepmother Anxiety

Clinicians say that the role of stepmother is more difficult than that of stepfather, because stepmother families may more often be born of difficult custody battles and/or particularly troubled family relations. Society is also contradictory in expecting loving relationships between stepmothers and children while, at the same time, portraying stepmothers as cruel and even abusive (Snow White, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel are just a few bedtimestories we are all familiar with).

Stepfather Anxiety

Men who marry women with children come to their new responsibilities with a mixed bag of emotions, far different from those that make a man assume responsibility for his biological children. A new husband might react to an “instant” family with feelings which range from admiration to fright to contempt.

The hidden agenda is one of the first difficulties a stepfather runs into: The mother or her children, or both, may have expectations about what he will do, but may not give him a clear picture of what those expectations are. The husband may also have a hidden agenda.

A part of the stepchildren’s hidden agenda is the extent to which they will let the husband play father.

The key is for everyone to work together.

The husband, wife, their stepchildren, and their non-custodial biological parent can all negotiate new ways of doing things by taking to heart and incorporating the information you are about to learn—the most positive alternative for everyone.

One Day at a Time

Now you have a pretty good feel for what everyone is going through. How do you start to make it better -- a process that can take years? First you must be very clear about what you want and expect from this marriage and the individuals involved, including yourself. What are you willing to do? In a loving and positive way, now is the time to articulate, negotiate, and come to an agreement on your expectations and about how you and your partner will behave.

The best marriages are flexible marriages, but how can you be flexible if you do not know what everyone needs right now. And, this may change over time, so there must be room for that to happen as well.

In flexible marriages partners are freer to reveal the parts of their changing selves that no longer fit into their old established patterns. You couldn’t possibly have known at the beginning of your new family what you know now and will learn later.

Spouses may feel the “conflict taboo” even more than in a first marriage. It is understandable that you want to make this marriage work. You might feel too “battle-scarred” to open “a can of worms.” And so, you gloss over differences that need airing and resolution—differences over which you may not have hesitated to wage war in your first marriage. Avoiding airing your differences is a serious mistake. It is important for you to understand your own and your partner’s needs because society hasn’t a clue how stepfamilies should work. Unless you talk about your expectations, they are likely to be unrealistic.

Living Well

Since roughly one third of stepfamilies do survive—even thrive—we know that stepfamilies can grow the safety, support, and comfort that only healthy families provide. Consider the following for living your step/blended family life well:

You must assess, as a couple, how well you accept and resolve conflicts with each other and key others. Learn and steadily work to develop verbal skills: listen with empathy, effectively show your needs, and problem-solve together. The emotional highs of new love can disguise deep disagreement on parenting, money, family priorities, and home management, i.e., values that will surface after the wedding.

Together, accept your prospective identity as a normal, unique, multi-home stepfamily. You need to admit and resolve strong disagreements, well enough for positive results.

You must balance and co-manage all of these tasks well enough on a daily basis to: build a solid, high-priority marriage; enjoy your kids; and, to keep growing emotionally and spiritually as individual people.

Know and take comfort in the fact that confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security—and often (not always) the love—that adults and kids long for.

Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect.

[Smart Stepfamilies appreciates Gloria's insights. The above was posted by Ms. Lintermans and does not represent an endorsement of her book by Smart Stepfamilies.]

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