How to Understand the Struggles of Forming a Step Family
It's hard enough to have two parents, let alone two or three more who aren't even your real parents. Children or teens with step-parents usually think the ideal step-mother or -father is invisible and nonexistent. Since that is unrealistic, except for reproductive couples who are truly happily married (5%) or unhappily married but oppose divorce no matter what (45%), here are some thoughts on the best realistic way to be a step-parent.
Remember, these suggestions are the ideal. In reality it is virtually impossible to adhere to all of the time. It is a constant struggle to watch your new husband or wife raise their children in a different way than you raised yours, or are raising yours, or how you would if you had children.
The Double Bind
As the step-parent in this situation, you need to step back and not interfere with your spouse's style of parenting. However, when you step back in order to avoid interfering, you are then seen as being uninterested in your partner's child. You can't win in this double bind.
- Think of the couple, yourself and your new partner, and your children, as two separate relationships, not as one new happy family. That may be your wish, but most of the time your children won't feel the same way. Children almost always wish that their own parents stayed in love.
- It is useful to remember that children have a lot of wishes that parents won't always be able to gratify. Sympathize with your children without sacrificing your own life because of their wishes.
- It's most important not to expect that your love for your new spouse will be shared by your children.
- Separate your new relationship from your parenting. Don't expect that because you've found a more suitable partner for yourself that your children will join you in your feelings. They usually won't.
- Ask yourself, "Is it more important to have a harmonious marriage, or to trash talk your spouse's children to her, or tell your sweetie that s/he is doing something wrong as a parent, even when he asks for your opinion?"
- Decide if you want to love or to educate. They aren't the same thing.
- Remember that it's none of your business how your partner raises his or her children. The majority of people have ideas about raising kids that are awful or don't exist at all--most people are clueless about talking, emotions, behavior and children, but half of these people imagine that they're experts. They usually fall into two groups: they either read about child development in some textbook and actually think this translates to the real family, or they were raised badly and think that everyone else's kids should be, too.
- Know that some people actually do have a few constructive ideas for helping children grow up healthy and normal.
- People still think that divorce is more traumatizing to children than a bad "nuclear intact family," but the stories we hear and that you have lived, for example, of absent fathers and cold mothers staying together and exposing their children to their hateful interactions, rather than going separate ways romantically but staying devoted to their children, make it difficult to stand up and cheer for the couples who stay together no matter what they are exposing their children to.
- People who get divorced but still secretly believe that staying in a bad marriage is better for children than divorcing (which is what they did but won't enjoy having done, because they feel guilty), and getting into a good marriage pass this belief on to their children, who manipulate it for all it's worth.
- The parents who feel guilty about divorce, but don't know how to apologize and help the child grow up and move on, end up getting sucked into what is often referred to in divorce literature as the "Disneyworld Dad Syndrome": the guilty parent who over-indulges his/her kids in an attempt to assuage his or her guilt, with disregard for the child's needs for honesty and structure.
- Decide if you want to love or to educate. They aren't the same thing.
- It's none of your business how your partner raises his or her children. The majority of people have ideas about raising kids that are awful or don't exist at all--most people are clueless about talking, emotions, behavior and children. Half of these people imagine that they're experts. They usually fall into two groups. They either read about child development in some textbook and actually think this translates to the real family, or they were raised badly and think that everyone else's kids should be, too.
- Some people actually do have a few constructive ideas for helping children grow up not terribly messed up. But it doesn't matter to her step-children that he raised her own children well.
- With exceptions, kids hate their successful step-siblings even more, and so does your new husband or wife.
- Many people go into post-reproductive marriages as a step-parent trying to impose their child-raising beliefs on their new partner, but NO ONE ASKED YOU FOR HELP.
- There are some people who can go halfway. They can quietly observe how badly their stepchildren are being raised without educating their wife or husband on how he or she should be doing it. They can step way back, in other words, and keep their opinions to themselves, but most second marriages get in trouble when the kid(s)' flagrant irresponsibility and narcissism becomes too big even for the most avoidant birth parent to ignore. This recognition (of their child's narcissism) in the birth parent usually happens, as has been stated, about three times a year max. The rest of the year the parents of your step-children ignore, avoid and look the other way at what is so clear to you, the step-parent, then when it becomes impossible for him or her to ignore (e.g., failing report cards, eating disorders, increasing substance abuse that someone besides your partner starts to see, etc.), your partner turns to you because s/he can't hide to him/herself what's going on with his/her kids. S/he asks for your opinion. That's when you have to go all the way, not halfway.
- Keep your ideas on child-raising to yourself, unless you are asked for it. At this point, even the most well-intentioned second husband or wife caves and steps out of the neutrality recommended at all times. Even when you are asked for advice, don't give it. It almost always backfires. For example, your husband or wife is having problems with your step-child. He or she comes to you for help--but if they were going to use your help, they would have done it themselves already. They would be going to a therapist on a regular basis to become more effective parents. But most don't.
- People are bad parents because they want to be. It doesn't matter what they SAY they want. You could call it an unconscious compulsion to repeat the apathy, the emotional cluelessness, the desire to take the easy way out, and the fakeness of their own parents, so when they get desperate (usually they don't get desperate more than three times a year; otherwise their kids would be doing fine), they set a trap for you. "What do you think I should do?", they'll ask you. Don't answer. They won't listen to you any more than their badly-raised child listens to them. They will not be able to implement what you advise unless they're committed to family therapy, not just crisis intervention.
- If your spouse is in therapy, then feel free to advise, but only when invited.
- What usually happens when you're asked for your advice is first, your partner will think you are smart. They say they'll do it or say it, but they won't. They won't be able or willing to follow your advice (because they aren't committed to therapy to address the issue), then they feel ashamed that they weren't able to follow your advice, and hate you for giving them smart advice they weren't going to follow anyway.
- Don't become a child yourself when your step-child is acting childishly--you're the adult who is supposed to understand that kids aren't born civilized, and they don't become civilized by being attacked by a narcissistic, injured adult.
- Even with the most tactful and kind step-parent, the child will feel disloyal to his other parent if you say something useful or nice to him. Instead of connected to you because you're kind, or cool, he'll feel he's betraying his other parent (the one you're not married to) by feeling close to you. Most of the time they go behind your back, out of guilt, and tell the other parent what you, the evil step-parent, said. This is also a lose-lose situation for an unconscious child: no matter what you say, the other parent will criticize it and the child is put into the position of joining the attack. So the step-parent can't be good or bad--the parent you aren't married to will feel betrayed and involve her child in attacking even a good step-parent. If you have a conscious step-child, he won't tell his mother everything you say (when your motive is loving). He would talk directly to you instead, and you would respond, and the two of you would be able to build a relationship.
- The only time in which a step-parent is welcomed and eventually loved by the step-children is when their parent (your new spouse) stops unconsciously identifying with his or her children's feelings, stops adopting his children's attitude and stops behaving like his children towards his new spouse. In other words, the "couple" becomes more important to your spouse than it was before, and then his/her children will understand their place in the parent's world: children, not the rulers of the household, or the mood states of the home.
- If being nice to your partner's children is impossible, you should still try to, especially when the children are allowed, by your partner, to be disrespectful and distorted in the guise of "honesty", behind your back. (More below on the impossibility of expecting that if you're nice to your step-child, she will let you be nice.)