Parents…ever feel like you're stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war? I have many times!
I've sometimes felt like I had to choose between what my daughter wanted (going out for ice cream…our usual routine) or what my husband wanted (going out for pie…something new). We just want everyone to be happy, right? We want our kids to feel affirmed and to know how important they are to us. We want our spouse to feel valued and accepted.
But, parents in stepfamilies will often feel conflicted. They are wedged between their spouse and their children. Both are competing for time, attention and alignment to their preferences. I've experienced frustration in these situations. No matter what I choose to do, someone is going to be unhappy.
Common stepfamily structure can sometimes cause an unhealthy parent-child allegiance to form. This is due to the what Ron Deal* calls Reordered Relationships.
In first families, the couple relationship comes BEFORE the parental relationship and tends to be a stronger bond. However, in stepfamilies our relationships have been reordered. The couple relationship comes AFTER the pre-established parental relationship.
Because parent-child relationships are bonded by blood & have more history, the marital relationship is often the weakest bond in the stepfamily. The reordered dynamic can create 'Parent-Child Allegiances', leaving the step-parent feeling insignificant and ignored. This often leads to frustration, disappointment and stress within the marriage.
The process of negotiating the marital partnership within the presence of the stronger, child-parent bond is complicated. Frequently, the couple's romantic relationship gets lost in these challenging dynamics and painful emotions erupt.
The United Position of Leadership
The key to overcoming Parent-Child Allegiances is unity. Stress in a stepfamily generally divides people along biological lines. So when push comes to shove, the allegiance between parent and child often wins out over the marriage partnership…unless the couple can form a united position of leadership.
This means that the couple must work together, behind closed doors, to define and agree on their priorities. If the couple is unable to form a united position of leadership, the children will most likely receive an unhealthy amount of power in the home. They may attempt to manipulate and influence the parent's decision making process, leaving the step-parent feeling devalued.
Step-couples need to make their relationship a top priority and work towards positioning it as the foundation of the home if they want to build a healthy family structure that meets the needs of everyone in the family.
How to Prioritize
When conflicting pleas and disagreements arise, frustrated parents caught in the middle often wonder what they should do…put their kids first or choose their spouse? Building a strategy is crucial:
- Early on in the stepfamily's development, couples should purposefully choose to accommodate the children ("Sure, we can go for ice cream"). This is a unified decision that allows the children to gently ease into the new stepfamily structure over time. Children often struggle with fear and insecurity when a parent remarries. Veering from established routines and pushing change too soon can have a negative impact on the families integration process.
- As time goes by, there needs to be an intentional shift towards a healthy rhythm that meets the needs of the kids AND the marriage ("Kids, I know this is new for you, but tonight we're going to consider someone else in the family and go out for pie"). Parents will need to make choices that gradually elevate the status of the stepparent, and more importantly, the marriage as a unit.
Whether it's those small choices, like where to go for a treat or bigger decisions, this process can be difficult for step-couples to navigate. But, if you're able to work as a team to prioritize and make united decisions, you can progressively move your relationship to where it needs to be - in a united position of leadership.
Move slowly and be determined…break free from unhealthy Parent-Child Allegiances. Instead, find a healthy rhythm that meets everyone's needs. This will greatly benefit your family in the long run!
*Thanks to Ron Deal for the Reordered Relationships and the ice cream and pie example. For more on these dynamics read Ron's book, The Smart Stepfamily.
QUESTION: What can you do to open up communication and work together on prioritizing? Leave a comment below: