Five Ways to Make Your Marriage a Priority

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It’s not just a myth that in a stepfamily the marriage needs to be the number one priority. It’s what has been proven to work hundreds of times over. Otherwise, there ends up being a second divorce, or just two miserable people tolerating each other.

Either way, it sucks for you and it sucks for the kids.

The couple is the pillar of the family unit, holding the family together. But when the children’s wants are made to be more important than the adult’s needs, chaos ensues.

Kids need structure in order to feel safe. As Ben Garber says in his book Keeping Kids Out of the Middle, think of the marriage as their safety net; something they can rely on.

Be prepared. They’re going to test that net to see how far they can stretch it. They need to know it will stretch without breaking. They need to know they can count on it to be there, to catch them when they fall.

Here are 5 practices that will help ensure you’re making your marriage the priority!

1. Explain the new “structure” of the family to the kids.

The kids are often in pain from divorce and the loss of their family, resulting in misplaced anger (usually aimed at the stepmom). It’s up to the biological father to listen to his children, empathize with them about their pain, but remind them that the new structure of the family includes the stepmom.

Let them know they’re loved and find out what needs of theirs are possibly not being met.

Make sure to have some alone time with them at every visit. And talk to them about possible solutions for what’s ailing them.

2. Stepmoms, your spouse must defend you to the kids.

The children will take their cues from dad, so he needs to be your biggest advocate. He needs to let them know that he loves you and that although they don’t have to love you, or even like you, they must behave in a respectful manner to you, as his wife.

Referring to you as his wife, as opposed to their stepmom, may be less threatening and easier for the kids to digest.

3. Be affectionate in front of the kids.

It’s healthy to hold hands, give a peck on the cheek, etc… If the previous marriage was volatile, this might be the first time they’ve ever witnessed love and affection between two healthy adults.

This is your opportunity to model a loving relationship so they have a better chance of experiencing one for themselves in the future.

And give yourselves some alone time! Do your best to create a date night (or at least a date hour). The adults in a marriage need to experience each other without the children around. It’s important to keep up the “R-rated” aspect of your relationship, so you continue to see each other as more than “parents.”

4. The couple should never undermine each other in front of the children.

Stepmoms, if your partner doesn’t agrees with something you’ve done or said to the kids, he needs to support you in front of the kids and then discuss it behind closed doors.

Otherwise, the child may see the stepparent as insignificant, and feel a sense of power over the family. He may believe he’s found a way to drive a wedge between the couple, thinking this might be his opportunity to get his parents back together. And he may think he can dictate how the family runs.

I don’t actually need to describe the hell it would be to have a child running the household, do I??

As Foster Cline recommends from the book Parenting teens with love and logic, “A good relationship between child and stepparent is healthy and worth striving for. But when disputes arise, the birth parent must unequivocally back up the stepparent as an authority in the home.”

And stepmoms, you’re not off the hook here. This rule goes both ways.

5. The child won’t respect the stepparent if the biological parent doesn’t insist on it.

By “respect” I’m referring to listening to the stepparent when she’s directing the child, not insulting or badmouthing the stepparent; showing basic manners.

If this isn’t occurring, the biological parent needs to step in. It can’t come from the stepparent, because the child most likely does not feel any loyalty or responsibility to the stepparent.

The results of a child not respecting a stepparent can be enough to damage the marriage. A stepmom may feel powerless in her own home. She will come to dread the children’s visits.

She will feel she is cooking, cleaning, nurturing this child, only to be completely disrespected. If this goes on for too long, the stepmom ends up feeling used and abused, instead of loved and supported.

She will also be angry with her husband for not protecting her or listening to her needs. She may feel so beaten down that she doesn’t think it’s worth it to stay in the marriage.

After all, the marriage is the reason she’s here!

As you can see, the dad holds a lot of responsibility for keeping the stepfamily intact. That’a pretty big burden and it’s a difficult job. But with his wife’s support he can succeed. And with her husband’s support, the stepmom will know that her marriage is strong. She will know that her efforts are worthwhile and her emotional cup will be filled.

And the whole family will benefit!

© 2012 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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(Photo credit: photostock)

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18 thoughts on “Five Ways to Make Your Marriage a Priority

  1. Amen to this!! My husband has been wonderful in this regard. Knowing that we are in charge of making *our* home a friendly and safe place for *all* of us is very empowering.

  2. I need help understanding adult step children. I have my own and he has his. How do you have peace.? I don’t allow my children to disrespect him. Which they don’t, as they really respect him and seek his advice. Not so true with his.

    • Hi Holly, you and your husband should have a discussion about what “respect” looks like for you – and then a discussion about him not tolerating disrespect from his adult children. Sure, they’re adults and don’t have to listen to him, but he can let them know that until they can treat you with basic respect, he won’t be around them.

  3. This has been extremely helpful…and just in time, I might add. I can relate to this very easily. I adore my step children, but I fear the feelings are not mutual. My fiance is very understanding and I know he struggles to keep everyone happy as well. Although we get along very well with the kids, there is no support from the mother. I have struggled for over a year now since I moved here to fit in and do the right things, only to be told that we’re no good for her children. She makes it understood that they’re only with us out of obligation, which really makes me angry that we do so much for them only to be disrespected this way. I’ve tried to step out of it, but it only lets the children control the house, and you can imagine how that makes me feel! I don’t like that the kids get to decide things that adults should be in charge of….I really think this is what has made this experience so awful for me. And now I find myself just going through the motions until everyone is grown up. I have a child of my own and hold him to higher standards, but the examples mean nothing to my step children. They’re used to be spoiled, and I come from a very different place where there was more respect.

    • Hi Jessica, humor me for a moment and take mom out of the equation. What happens in your home should be determined by you and your husband. And when it comes to his kids, your husband has the final say, and if the kids are being disrespectful it’s your husband who is falling short, not his ex. It’s up to him to make sure they treat you basic respect and have responsibilities in the household so they feel like part of the family and get the high that comes with contributing in a meaningful way. I hope he can get on board with that. 🙂

  4. My husband and I were married in August. This was a 2nd marriage for me after being married over 20 years to my first husband. This was his 3rd marriage and many women (Dating) for him. He was looking for a connection via online dating, I was not looking nor had I dated. He is a very loving, caring, giving man and I trust him very much. We bought a home together but made the decision that I would move my children (2 girls) to his community, to me this was a huge decision based on ultimately what was best for his kids and even though I told my girls it was for the better of all of us, they felt that it was not fair. NOTHING changed for his children other than adding the 3 of us to their life and beautiful new home. They had the same schools, same Nanny (who I am not comfortable with), same friends, same sports team and their Mom less than a mile away from us. I didn’t have to do it but I made the decision to do so and I felt in the long run the sacrifice would be worth it for all of us and I still believe so. We bought a home just 2 blocks from where he and his wife had a home together with the kids. They had married when she was pregnant with their first child, apparently intentional as her clock was ticking, she was 40 years old when she had her first child, they were married for only 7 years. Separated for 4 and he did not divorce her until I had pushed for it which I never wanted to be put in that position but I did. I believe she had found her good jewish husband/father and they had 2 children together. She then decided to leave him, it was not what he wanted. He was very close to her family and both her sister and Mother were not happy that she had left him. There is still a very close tie to her family and I think the fact that they were not happy with the breakup and adore him only encourages him to stay close to them, I can’t fault him as it is the Aunt and Grandma of his children, I just don’t feel he has much left to forge other relationships for us as a new couple and family. I totally understand and respect this and I have tried my best to be understanding and supportive of this. We live walking distance from his sister in law so we are in the same community. At his daughters bat mitvah he was running errands for them – picking up their Dads dry cleaning and driving them places, myself included. Basically rolling out the red carpet for them, as when my Mother came for our wedding, he got upset with me for going to dinner with her a picking up the tab. That gives you a general idea of what I have moved myself and my girls in to. We moved in to “their” World. As a result, I feel it has been very difficult for us to forge ourselves as a married couple and a family. Although it has been only 8 months, I am feeling lonely, an outsider and 2nd to his children and their life, even though he shows and tells me how much he loves me. I love him very much and in a world of just he and I there would be no issue. His ex wife is very controlling (surprise) and quite honestly I have sided with her on many occasions, we are actually on good terms. BUT, she still will call him on occasion and ream him out when he has the kids for not feeding them appropriately or not being there for them. I feel she lost that right when she left him and when the kids are with us we are to make the decisions for them, they are safe and taken care of when they are with us. She often contests him in front of his daughter who is very loyal to her Mom and who he has struggled to make happy and comfortable with all the changes, so by hearing these conversations/bashings it influences his daughter. My thought often is, IF she only knew how great she has it. They have shared custody, he is an amazing caring father who goes out of his way for his kids and mine! Our children have all adapted very well and get along better then I could ever have hoped for. But because we are in “their” world, many of the friends he has, are friends with his ex, so that has made it awkward for me, even though I have tried my best to just be myself it has worn me down, especially with the ones that are Jewish, my not being Jewish sets me and my girls as outsiders, their passive aggressiveness is not seen by him. Although the foundation of what I thought our relationship to be – COMMUNICATION. I have honestly spoken of my concerns, hurts and difficulties with him numerous times, thinking that by sharing my raw thoughts and feelings it will help him to see my perspective and position in his world, but I feel I am turning in to the “bad” guy and I am becoming more of a problem then a joy for him. I feel I have been extremely supportive, patient and understanding through his daughters Bat Mitvah, his 50th birthday (When he got upset when I invited his ex sister-inlaw but not his ex wife – he was concerned about what his kids would think.) and most recently his fathers passing away (I held shivah for 3 days in our home with hundreds of family and friends, including his ex-wife). I don’t want a medal or a Thank You for this I just feel that my usual norm, of accommodating and caring for everyone else I often push my feelings down and then explode. Through all these events there has been definite overlap of lives with his ex wife and family and I have been more then gracious (I offered and did drive his ex-wife to his fathers funeral service – the whole time listening to her tell me about what her son will and wont eat etc. She is obsessed with food to the point I am afraid her daughter is going to end up with an eating disorder) What I believe had put me over the edge is at the funeral service, I was trying my best to be a good wife and support him but I also had my girls with me who knew hardly anyone, who also were very emotional as they knew his father very well, I was keeping them close to me. At one point everyone was seated except immediate family was meeting in the family room. My girls were still with me. My brother in law proceeded to tell me that no grandchildren were in there, in other words, they should leave. I didn’t feel comfortable sending them off in to the room full of seated people so I was leaving with them, as was leaving, my husband called me back to stay, I really was so torn at that moment and I regret how I handled it. I went back with him and sent my daughters off to be seated. We said a prayer in the family room and then began assembling to where the service was. I was frantically looking for my girls, and as we were about to be seated my husbands daughter ran up and hugged him and wanted to sit by him. there was not enough room for me so I was going to sit behind them, which I did. I was looking for my girls to try and get them to come sit with me but I could not find them. I was also very sad with the loss of his father, but my mother instinct had me worried about my girls. As we were leaving the service I saw my two girls in the very last row, both in tears, it broke my heart to see them like that and not there for them. At that moment I felt I had let them down. It was the epitome of what I feel is our life, his children are very well taken care of 2 loving and actively involved parents, a nanny, extended family and friends that look out for them. and there were my 2 daughter by themselves. So I feel guilt, and lots of it both ways. Not always putting my girls first when I should, and he and his wife always do with his kids and for not being totally there for my husband when he needed me. So ALL that said, my concern is that we are becoming totally separated in caring for our own kids (although he is very supportive and active with my children) but NOT putting our marriage first. He is busy looking up plans for this summer to take his son to a basketball tournament but we have never had a weekend alone or honeymoon. Just sort of lost and helpless right now. I have contacted a former counselor of mine looking for someone who specializes in merged families in our area. I feel we really need some outside help. There are really no issues with our children or he and I, the issue to me is our environment and the dynamics. Our intentions are all loving and good, I just feel our loyalties are not where they should be.

  5. I love the part about showing affection in front of the kids for them to see a healthy, loving relationship. My husband grew up in a large, loving family, but he never saw much physical affection between his parents. In his first marriage, they were unhappy for so long, there wasn’t much affection. I, on the other hand, come from a family that was open with showing affection and I know how important it is for kids to see this. So, once I convinced my husband that it was not only okay to hold hands and kiss ( just pecks, of course…) in front of his kids, but actually good for them to see this, he was on board. I will never forget his 10 year old son chanting to us after seeing us kiss, “Kiss, kiss, kiss!” Then, when we kissed, saying, “Eww! Gross!”, followed up by another round of chants, “Kiss, kiss, kiss!” It was so funny and adorable. I hope that seeing love, happiness, and laughter will help my step kids choose the same in their relationships one day.

  6. Unfortunately this article is almost too late for me. In our second marriage my wife has two adult children. Because I have commented to her in private about not approving her children’s lifestyles, she has told this to her children thus putting a wedge between us. She has demanded that I make an apology to both of them for my disparaging comments. I refuse as these discussions were held between us and not with them.

    • Hi Keith, I’m sorry to hear this. Does your wife think it was appropriate to share that with them or does she regret it? If she regrets it and can agree to keep things private between you and her, you might think about apologizing, only if it will mend things for you. If she’s really saying that she will never keep things from her kids, things that are supposed to be sacred and kept in the marriage, I can see how it would be hard for you to feel safe in the marriage. I imagine you feel betrayed. Without trust, there’s nothing.

      • Jenna,

        I believe, which doesn’t mean it is correct, she felt she needed to be the mediator. I do not believe she feels any regret for sharing this information with her children. Moreover, I think she felt it necessary to provide them with the information so that they knew ahead of time how I felt about them. Any time things were upsetting she would instantly tell her daughter, thus making things worse. It has progressed to where she has moved out into her own place, but insists we work on our issues in two separate households and play along as everything is still the same (in one household). I can’t do that.

  7. I wish my husband would see and do something about this, but, alas, he won’t. I’ve sent this article to him twice. Nothing gets through. There is always an excuse as to why he does/says what he does…. Talk about being a second class citizen. What do you say when your husband tells you, “I don’t want to rock the boat or hurt anyone’s feelings.”? Ok, I’ll just stand over here and pretend like being thrown under the bus is normal. Go ahead, put it in reverse as well. Don’t worry, though, my feelings aren’t hurt.

    We started counseling today….hope it helps…

  8. I have been married to my husband for 3 years, together for 4 years. His daughter (14) who does not live with us has never accepted me. She has been rude to me, disrespectful to me and very hurtful. She is careful and makes sure that no one is around when she exhibits this behavior. In turn, I have said some things that I certainly regret over last few years. Now, we are at the point that when she visits, we do not even speak to each other. If I do speak to her, she takes it the wrong way and rushes home. So we do not speak. It is a huge strain on me. My husband just tries to remain neutral for fear of losing his daughter. She doesn’t visit very often and basically blames me for her lack of visits. When she does come, she stays clear of me. We can not have family vacations/gatherings without stress and hurt. So we don’t. I feel like I am keeping my husband from having a relationship with his daughter because I know that if I was not around, she would visit more. My husbands mother has often made comments that I am the reason his daughter stays away. It has gotten to the point that I actually have anxiety issues when I know she is coming for a weekend. I always try to give them space and encourage my husband to take out places without me, but I think he feels it will hurt our marriage. Sadly, it probably will make me feel more like an outsider if I am always left out. I don’t really know what to do anymore. I have kids too that are grown and they are very respectful to him. My husband says we just need to stay focused on us, our own marriage and she will eventually be okay. But I am worried. I know it hurts my husband when she doesn’t visit. And I feel to blame for all of that hurt. My question is: Can a marriage survive with this type of family situation?

    • Hi Allison, yes, it can survive. I think it’s important to recognize what’s our responsibility and what’s not. Our behavior is our responsibility. Being accountable for our behavior is our responsibility. The choices someone else makes in response to our behaviors is NOT our responsibility. Her not visiting is NOT your responsibility. It’s her choice. Your responsibility is to clean up your side of the street, meaning if you did something hurtful, apologize. Make it right in the ways you can and then hand responsibility of her behavior and choices back to her. It’s also your husband’s choice if he chooses to stay neutral or not spend more time with his daughter. In fact, his entire relationship with his daughter is HIS responsibility, not yours. Let yourself off the hook for some of this… if you keep taking responsibility for others actions you’ll feel forever stressed, because they are not in your control. You can’t be responsible for something that’s not in your control. 🙂 Hope that helps!

  9. Jenna ,
    My daughter has been married for 3 years. she has two step children that live with her and her husband. The youngest a girl was 5 when she 5. and then two years later her step son came to live with them. My son in law thinks his daughter is the princess of the house. My daughter his wife does everything in the house . His children do nothing. if my daughter raises her voice to those kids in frustration he has a fit and takes up for the kids . My daugther started out with routines for the children but he has taken that away . The kids go to bed when they want and she isn’t to say a word. She has tried everything to help the situation. She feels like quitting and did leave for a couple of weeks. Her husband called and he promised to help her , that lasted a week. I feel their realtionship is none. he sleeps in the other room . The daughter sometimes sleeps with him. its not getting any better it is getting worst , no support for stepmom . Its all about the kids and she has been told that . Any advise on how to handle this would help .

    • I would definitely recommend some couple’s coaching or counseling for them. Dad NEEDS to learn how to support your daughter if he wants his marriage to succeed or at least be happy and fulfilling. Many dads have trouble with this transition, they don’t know how to elevate their partner without feeling like they’re somehow betraying their child or being a bad dad. They don’t see that the best thing they can do for their kids is show them what a respectful, happy marriage looks like. But a neutral third party can help with that. Since your daughter already left once and he promised things would change, I would have her address with him – the fact that he’s gone back on his word and find out what it would take for him to step up and make the changes.

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