The Plight of the Step-Parent: How To Make Your Marriage Work In A Blended Family

Managing blended family dynamics is a major concern for a lot of married and cohabiting couples. Not all couples share the experience of marrying and living their lives with the one they had children with; being together into the children’s adulthood; staying together as their children have children and so on. While that might have been the plan, things don’t always work out that way. Sometimes, people marry and children are already present. While the children may not be biological to both parents, they came with at least one, so the responsibility of parenting another person’s child becomes inevitable.

A blended family is described as a couple that marries or cohabitates yet have children from a previous relationship. There are no rules that suggest that the newly married couple must have children of their own to be blended. They can simply be like me and my husband and decide that their biological children from their previous marriages are enough. Either way, the family is still considered blended and the parenting roles when taking care of the children are the same, or at least they should be…

I hear step-parents say more often than not that they love their step-children as their own. As a clinician, a biological mother and a step-mother, I challenge this statement for many reasons. First, I do believe that there is a vast difference in the care of a biological child and one that belongs to someone else. This concept has nothing to do with love and everything to do with RIGHTS. I don’t know about the rest of you but I can’t fully love a child who I don’t have the proper connection and RIGHTS to. By love, I mean, willing to sacrifice my livelihood and safety for, and forgive under any circumstances. I’m not that mature. I can TREAT a child like I treat my own, but love is a little different.

Second, being in this field, I’ve witnessed the influence the presence a biological parent has over their child or children, and there is NO competing with that. I’ve seen foster children unintentionally walk away from the best caregivers in the world, to be with parents who are neglectful, hurtful, abusive and sometimes absent and they spend the rest of their lives, chasing.

The misconception in the role of a step-parent can be the #1 factor contributing to the discord of a blended family. It is my opinion, that when people go into situations believing they have full rights to something just because of a position they take on or a title, they are setting themselves up for disappointment.

Here are 5 Ways to Make Your Marriage Work in A Blended Family…

1. Stay in Your Lane

Ideally, people like to think that being a spouse gives them perks and privileges to children they didn’t have. Unfortunately (for some, fortunately), that’s not the truth. I see step-parents, (especially step-mothers) stress themselves out all of the time trying to give children who aren’t theirs a life that they would give their own. This is a great gesture, and in some circumstances, such as death or absence of a biological parent, it is a neccessary and appropriate one.

However, when said biological parent is present, willing and able, going “overboard” may not be the best idea. Some people may see the extra help or support as a threat or an effort to “take” over, especially if they aren’t secure in their role as the biological parent. Step-parents who have a difficult time “staying in their lane” are parents who do one or more of the following: Show up to events when the children are not in their care; buy items that aren’t needed to win the child or children’s acceptance; get upset over things the child’s biological parents don’t seem to be bothered with such as bad grades or poor manners; offer unsolicited opinions or suggestions and/or being concerned about what the children do when they are not in their care or custody.

I know it sounds harsh to suggests that step-parents shouldn’t over extend themselves but trust me, preserving their energy for the things they can change will provide emotional peace for themselves and promote solace within their households.

“Staying in your lane” also avoids a spouse feeling “pushed” or coerced when having to make changes or decisions they aren’t ready to make when it comes to their children. Similarly, it makes you as the step-parent, less of a scapegoat should anything goes wrong with the change.

If you’re a step-parent, to avoid drama in this area, it’s always best to ask if your support is needed. Avoid purchasing certain items without the blessing of your spouse; be apprehensive about showing up to events if your spouse isn’t there, regardless of invitations from the children. In the event that your spouse and his ex, practice parenting skills that you don’t agree with such as being nonchalant about bad grades or poor manners, find peace with it and make sure that you put the energy in the things you can control such as demonstrating positive role modeling and teaching the children differently when they’re with you, or making sure your biological children (if you have them) are excelling academically. Remember, a step-parent is support to the biological parent and nothing more. So, if your spouse isn’t taking the lead on raising his or her biological children, it is best that you mind your business and sip your tea until they do.

2. Do what your body and spirit allows

When a person gets married to another person with children, it is said around the globe, “The kids and the spouse are a package deal,” and this is true…to some extent. While this may be a very unpopular perspective, reality is, children will grow up and create their own families, therefore it is imperative for couples to understand that the commitment of marriage is between TWO people and children are an extension. The role of a spouse when it comes to support simply suggests, “I will be respectful and considerate of all things that accompanies the person to whom I am sharing vows with.” This simply means that when their children, their pets, their family, their baseball card collection, their favorite shoes, etc. are with you, or in your presence, you are to make sure it or they are safe, fed, and/or taken care of because of the love and the commitment you have with your spouse. Hear me when I say this, “the rest is optional.”

Respect and love are very different things. People breed resentment into their marriages when they force themselves to “love” relationships that haven’t developed yet. Love takes time and it comes from having constant interactions that are effortless, unbothered and free from abuse and/or negative energy, this includes step-parenting. Doing what your body and spirit allows looks like, not agreeing to care for children alone if you are unable to, or spending money on children who don’t respect you. Sometimes biological parents will get their children during visitation and leave them with the step-parent and expect the process of care to be the same. If your spirit is not able to care for more than one child while your spouse is out of the house, don’t agree to it. If you haven’t received proper treatment, yet are expected to pay for a trip to “Fun World,” don’t agree to it; If you are exhausted from work and picking up and dropping off is not on your to-do list, don’t agree to it. Protecting one’s energy as a step-parent is crucial when maintaining a marriage. Step-parents don’t always receive the “thank yous” or the unlimited chances to mess up that biologicals get. Protect yourself and set your boundaries. If parenting biological children can sometimes be harsh on a marriage, how do you think, co-parenting step-children can be?

3. Do your part

More often than necessary, outsiders get so “bent out of shape” about what’s going on in the household of blended families. This can be a big distraction to the marriage because extended family members or family members of the ex, always seems to have an opinion. “You’re not the mother! You’re not their father! Why did you give them whole wheat instead of white bread? Why did you give them 2% milk and not whole milk?” As a step-parent, it is not your job to care about any of that, or let others affect what happens in YOUR home. Marriage gave you ONE right as a step-parent, and it was to care for the child while he or she is in your care. This looks like, you and your spouse creating your own rules and expectations for your household, such as bed times, curfews, grooming and hygiene, etc. And make the rules clear by creating a chart and posting it in the home. Don’t be afraid to set consequences in case a child wants to challenge you. Be consistent and fair and don’t be apprehensive about rewards when exceptional behavior is demonstrated. Effective parenting is about a balance of nurture and discipline.

Just as it is a school’s responsibility to keep our children safe once we put them on the school bus, it is a step-parent’s job to keep any child safe who enters their home. If the child is in your care, as a step-parent you have every right to feed, clothe, discipline (non-physical), communciate, groom, chaperone, etc. and don’t let anyone else tell you differently.

To avoid drama in this area, only have discussions with your spouse about child-rearing. Since the two of you set the rules, only the two of you should be able to alter them. If you have a relationship with the ex-spouse, (which makes things much easier) the three of you can collaborate on what methods work best (in the case of special needs, mental illness, etc.) and it should always be about what’s in the best interest of the child, NOT THE ADULT. Sometimes, opinions can be bias because of jealousy or unresolved issues with the previous relationship. While personal issues should have no bearing on taking care of children, they often do. Therefore be mindful to avoid making decisions based on personal issues as it can harm the care of the children and ultimately affect the marriage.

4. Know your home team

Sometimes, ex-spouses believe that because they have children with someone, they will forever have to answer to that person or always deserve an explanation. This is the biggest myth ever. If you are a parent who’s co-parenting with an ex, your team efforts should always be with your current household, not the previous one. That ship has sailed. Ex-spouses should NOT have a say in what goes on in your new household and you should NOT have a say in what goes on in theirs. This looks like, exes calling to discuss rules or expectations established in your home with your new spouse or them telling you what your new spouse can and can’t do. Unfortunately, this type of influence left when the relationship dissolved.

For example, when my ex-husband and I divorced, it took me a long time to realize that I couldn’t address him about any rule he chose to put in place regarding our son during his visitation. If I wanted that right, I should’ve stayed married to him. At my home, our son’s bed time is 9pm. When he’s with his dad, his bedtime is 11pm or whenever he gets tired. As much as that fueled me, there was nothing I could do about it. It wasn’t my house and my son wasn’t in my care. I had to bargain with my anxiety and need to control and say to myself, “Ok Nya, your son is not unsafe, this bed time isn’t affecting him medically, and he isn’t being abused. It is ok.”

I had to learn to use my free time for me and be less worried about what was happening with my son and his dad, when I wasn’t around. Similarly, if my son came home upset about a rule or consequence his dad implemented, I had to support it by telling my son, “Well, that’s his house. You have to respect him.” Of course the mom in me wanted to call and shout, “DON’T TAKE AWAY MY BABY’S GAME. HOW DARE YOU?” But what good would that do? It would only cause a divide and teach my child that he doesn’t have to listen to his father. When the truth is, unless my ex-husband or designee is telling him to do something unsafe (which I know he wouldn’t), my son will always have to listen to his father and whoever his father assigns to his care while they are together. “Letting go” avoided arguments in my current marriage as well. I never wanted my husband to question where I wanted to be or whether I was still concerned with the past.

5. When in doubt, choose your spouse

The greatest debate ever to be had when it comes to raising children, especially in blended families is, “Who comes first?” Well, let me answer this one for you…THE SPOUSE! The logic is simple and it has absolutely nothing to do with who is loved more or who is cared for more or who got there first. The simple logic is “your spouse is you.” When you are married, there is no way, you can successfully run a household if you and your “better-half” aren’t strong enough. Of course there are single parents who do it everyday and I applaud them. However, they have to do it alone because they are single. Marriage does not, and should not work that way.

Children have a way of triangulating and manipulating to get their needs met and if they have a parent (say a bitter ex) who’s encouraging such behaviors, said marriage will needs its armour. The greatest protection for a marriage is “living in the order.” This means, always refer to the WORD when things don’t make sense or the atmosphere is unsettling. The order says, “Jehovah>Husband>Wife> Children>all others.”

Children are meant to be raised so they too can be fruitful and contribute to the land, not to be coddled and stay at home with their parents. Sure, they are dependents, but that is temporary. How will they learn to be independent if they aren’t taught to handle words or phrases like, “No, Not Now, In a Minute, Let Me Teach You How To Do it Yourself ?” How will they grasp the concept of independence if they develop a sense of entitlement because they are placed before those who make a way for them?

I think some people confuse, not putting children first with neglect. It’s not the same. Putting the child first in a marriage looks like, refusing to implement immediate discipline for disrespecting the step-parent, overriding the step-parent’s authority after an instruction was given, getting food for the children but nothing for your spouse, or cancelling date night because the children are uncomfortable with seeing their parent with someone new. When children are placed first, it creates disorder and sets the tone for disrespect and narcissism. Making them wait, doesn’t mean they aren’t cared for. They are cared for and some are cared for exceptionally well. It means that they are not the head of the house, nothing more.

To avoid the drama in your marriage in this area, demonstrate for the children from the first day, that there is an order. Allow them to witness the catering to your spouse, whether it’s making their plate first, opening their door first, or pulling out their chair first. Do not tolerate disrespect and be prepared to implement swift consequences. Demonstrate solidarity with your words by saying, “put down my husband’s tie” or “watch your tone when speaking to my wife…” Consistency in our actions will send a message faster than any amount of words will. Do not let children or the opinions of others ruin your marriage.

This post was written to help resolve minor issues in blended families. While there is an exception to every rule, these tips can be used in almost all blended and traditional family households.

Nya B is an author, mental health clinician, speaker and adjunct professor in Behavioral Sciences. To learn more, follow her on IG and twitter @author_nya_b and check out her website at http://www.nya-b.com

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