This message is for those of you who have had it. You’re exhausted, you’re hurt, you’re angry and you are so close to calling your marriage quits and don’t know where else to turn. The first thing that comes out of your mouth is, “I had no idea it would be like this.” You’ve been working at it for what seems to be a ridiculously long time and you’re over it. Done. Stick me with a fork kind of stuff.
You had good intentions. You gladly accepted the responsibilities that you thought went along with the title stepmother. You and your partner entered into this as a team, hand in hand, vowing that your family would be merging. You thought to yourself that surely any child could use more people in their lives to love them, and you felt ready for the task.
You jumped in head first with resolve and enthusiasm. You were more than capable of doing this. You helped your partner with his children. You drove them to their soccer games, picked them up from school, washed their clothes and made numerous attempts to connect with them so they would know that you cared.
You took the role of stepmother seriously.
And then reality set in. Let’s be honest. Reality can be a bitch.
Weeks, months, even years later, it dawned on you that you could no longer see the forest through the trees. You felt swallowed up by the continual intrusion of the ex, the resentment and disrespect of your partner’s kids and his seemingly permissive and casual nature. You felt unheard and disrespected when the kids were chosen over you, time after time after time. And you began to wonder what the hell you were doing with your life. You lost connection with you.
So, you hit a wall and began to think about leaving. You had made a mistake gargantuan in nature. Yes, you loved each other. That’s what seduced you into the whole crazy system in the first place. You dated, you were lovers, you were connected and he was your soul mate. But then you found yourself having a hard time even looking at him. The thought of knowing his children were on their way over made your heart race and prompted the desire to want to run and escape for parts unknown.
Your friends and relatives who weren’t part of a stepfamily system were of no help. “You knew it was a package deal when you married him,” they would say with such casualness and dismissiveness you had to fight the urge to not reach across the table and strangle them.
And you felt guilty and full of shame: “What kind of horrible person am I? I don’t even like his kids, let alone love them!” And the judgment voices inside your head got louder and louder as they screamed, “What kind of a selfish person are you?”
Sound familiar? Yes, I know, it sounds more than familiar. And let me be the first or the 10th (or the 1000th) person to tell you, no, you are not a horrible person. You are normal.
Acceptance and Guile
Believe it or not, there’s hope. But in order for there to be hope, you will need to think outside the box. So often in second families, we bring the first-family model into the marriage. We act as if we are a first family and therefore if there is enough love—because surely love conquers all, and we are inherently loving people—our love will be big enough to disarm the messy and complicated system into which we so voluntarily entered.
But there are some situations we enter into, such as drug abuse, pregnancy, mental illness or bullying by one stepchild to another, that are most certainly out of our control.
You would be doing a great service to yourself to be kind and accept that you are not Mary Poppins and Mother Teresa rolled into one, despite the strong desire of your husband for you to be so. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I’ve worked with many the couple that came into session at the end of their rope and had sadly come to the conclusion that their only option was divorce.
Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Let me offer a couple of techniques that may save your marriage. Remember that? You and your partner must remember that because it’s the reason you’re together in the first place. And don’t forget that you are modeling marriage to all the children involved and that as a couple you must take responsibility for preserving that marriage if there is a way to do that.
The marriage must come first. Period. Yes, you have primary responsibility for your children, and your partner has responsibility for his. But we needn’t become sacrificial lambs for a system that brings so much dysfunction into it or the dysfunction that may arise during it. And you don’t have to make the home a kid-centric one out of guilt, fear or shame. And you don’t have to cater to the guilt and shame of your husband because he chose to, in his first marriage, marry someone who either turned out to be “crazy,” alcoholic or drug dependent—or whatever long list of reasons the first marriage didn’t work out to begin with.
You are not God and you are not going to be the savior for anyone else’s children. It is your partner’s mess to clean up. The focus must be returned to the reason why you got together in the first place. Remember that? That time when you fell madly in love? When you just knew you couldn’t live without this person in your life?
For any stepcouple, there must be Date Night and there must be a partner who is willing to back you and support you in front of his children. Your partner must learn to, at the minimum, teach his children Basic Etiquette 101 when you are all in the home. You must be acknowledged, thanked for what you do and treated like a decent human being.
You must find a therapist who understands the intricate complications of stepfamily life and, quite frankly, a pitiful few exist. You must gain support from other stepmothers who get it so you understand you are not alone and not the Spawn of Satan as your stepchildren or even your partner might imply.
And for many of you, you must get space from the chaos, the difficulties and the acting out of children toward you when truly their anger would be more appropriately directed at their parents, where it most likely belongs.
This is when it’s time to think outside the box. Allow me to elaborate. A separation for a first family is quite different than creating separate spaces for the couple in a second family. Creating separate spaces for the subsequent marriage, whether it’s the second or the fourth, can literally save the marriage. There are different ways to create this space.
Outside the Box Tips
Here are some different ways to create space in your stepfamily when the pressure, chaos and problems within it are bigger than you—and your marriage is headed down the path to become yet another dismal statistic:
• ESTABLISH BOUNDARIES. Make sure you have appropriate boundaries as it relates to your partner’s children. Make sure you are not trying to clean up a mess that is not yours to clean up. Make sure that when you do volunteer to do something, you do so because you want to, not because you fear your partner will be mad or upset with you.
• TAKE FREQUENT BREAKS AND TIME ALONE. Many stepmothers who find themselves with oppositional stepchildren, through no fault of their own or their spouse’s, choose to plan other activities for themselves when the children are present in the home. This could be as minimal as spending more time in one’s room (although this could quickly feel like a time out, and that’s not going to work) or use the time to pursue careers, activities, time with friends or just plain self-care while allowing your partner to be responsible for the care and needs of his children. He most likely managed it before he met you, and he can certainly manage it once again.
• MAINTAIN A DIFFERENT RESIDENCE. Yes, you heard me. I’ve worked with couples who have realized that, due to the difficulties occurring with the children of one of the partners (drugs, pregnancy, mental disorders, etc.), the only way to save the marriage was to live apart during the times that the parent had their children living with them. For example, I knew of one childfree woman who maintained her apartment when she married her husband. The week he had parenting time with his sons was the week she stayed in her apartment. The week that he didn’t, she joined him in their marital home. I know this sounds drastic, but remember the wisdom of the adage, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Honestly, any marriage—first, second or otherwise—would do well to have more time and space apart. It is not something to fear but to welcome. For many, this last resort has been a marriage saver.
• IGNORE THE CRITICS. Don’t care about what other people think, including the children. You married or chose to be with your partner despite the presence of his children, not because of them. Even the people you are closest to can be judgmental, and it is a fundamental task of our development as human beings to learn to not care about what other people think about the choices we need to make in order to be true and authentic to ourselves.
• DON’T BE A MARTYR. Piggybacking on that, becoming a martyr leads to illness, resentment, anger and, ultimately, divorce. I worked with a couple who operated in different homes for 10 years, as I described above, and guess what? They had a fantastic marriage!
• THINK LONG TERM. Remember that everything is temporary. Yes, it really is. The goal is to get these kids out of the house and into the world and finally be able to enjoy your life and time with your spouse.
Get creative. Get solution-oriented. Know that, during times of intensity, it’s natural to want to run away. But when you and yours are willing to focus on the relationship and the value of it, it’s more than possible to walk through the fire to get to the other side. You just may need to think outside the box to get there.
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*This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of StepMom Magazine.