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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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