The ABC's of Loyalty Binds
Claire took the afternoon off from work to lovingly prepare her stepdaughter's favorite cake for her birthday...from scratch. After the family enjoyed the girl's birthday dinner, Claire unveiled her work of art expecting her stepdaughter to be thrilled. Instead, the girl barely acknowledged her stepmom's efforts, picked at her cake, said she was sick and left the table. Understandably, Claire was left feeling hurt and disappointed. Several years later Claire and her stepdaughter reflected back on that night. The stepdaughter was able to verbalize her experience: "I felt so bad about not eating your cake…but I just felt funny. I don't even know why. It just felt wrong. It's weird. Like if I ate that cake, I was being mean to my mom."
This illustration from Patricia Papernow's book Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships reflects the stress and confusion that many kids experience when a Loyalty Bind is present. Papernow shares that Loyalty Binds in stepfamilies are normal.
A loyalty bind is a perceived tension of the child's loyalty between mom and step-mom OR dad and step-dad. Kids that struggle with a loyalty bind feel that when they're having fun or even feeling love for their step-mom, they are somehow betraying their mom.
Being rejected, even for the most understandable reasons is hard for stepparents. Then they might try redoubling their efforts to connect, only to be pushed away more firmly by their stepchild. Don't lose hope and don't give up! Research confirms that the early years for stepfamilies are the hardest for both kids and adults. Over time, many of the negative outcomes found for children in early stepfamily life not only soften, but actually disappear.
Adults in stepfamilies can unintentionally feed into loyalty binds. The urge to complain about an offending ex-spouse or a stepparent in your child's other home can be powerful. Airing your opinions in front of the kids can increase their tendency to "side with" or "stick up for" the other parent (and turn away from you).
If your child is experiencing loyalty bind tension between you and their stepparent in the other home, you will add to their confusion and stress when bad mouthing their stepparent. Even moderate tension between adults in your child's two homes feeds this difficult dynamic. You don't have control over how the adults in the other household choose to behave, but you can keep your side of the street clean and avoid reinforcing loyalty binds.
Parents often don't know how to respond when their kids blatantly disregard their spouse (as in our example above). Parents, your compassion is often the most powerful tool for calming an upset step parent. For Claire, an extra hug from her husband accompanied by a dose of compassion would have helped ("Ouch! You worked hard on that cake. I'm really sorry") . Defending your child or acting like "It's no big deal" isn't comforting or helpful. Parents are sometimes oblivious or defensive, not because they don't care, but because they have a fundamentally different experience of their kids.
We cannot ask step kids and step parents to love each other, or even to like each other. However, we can and should expect all stepfamily members to be civil and decent with each other. Require civility, not love.
Confront the Reality
So, what can we do to confront loyalty binds and help kids process their emotions?
Papernow states that a "Loyalty Bind Talk" can help loosen the bind for kids. Parents, stepparents and anyone who has a relationship with the child can engage in conversations like this:
"Listen honey, I know that having a stepparent can be kind of confusing. I want you to know that your mom will always have a special and permanent place in your heart and in your life. I hope you do come to care about your stepmom. And if you do, her place in your heart will be a totally different place from your mom's place".
Rather than trying to fix or change the child's perspective, put your empathy skills to work. Allow her to express any negative feelings she may have toward a stepparent ("I hate Claire"), and then respond empathetically ("It does change things when Claire is here, doesn't it…it used to be just us and I know this is hard for you sometimes"). Stepfamily structure puts parents and kids on different wave lengths. Try not to get defensive or react to your own disappointment and difficult emotions.
Kid's need to be given a clear message from the parent that it's okay for them to care for a stepparent in the other household and you won't be hurt by that relationship. If your child is excited about spending time with their stepparent and wants to tell you about enjoyable experiences in the other home, engage with her and be happy for her - this is a really good thing! This will go a long way to loosen loyalty binds and free kids from unnecessary stress and confusion.
Don't get discouraged
Relational bonds in stepfamilies take time. Trust, respect and love cannot be forced or rushed - they must develop slowly. Step couples need to keep their expectations in line and remember that a "crock pot" mentality is the best way to "cook" a stepfamily…time and low heat are essential for the journey (visit previous post for more on the crockpot).
Yes, loyalty binds are normal and kids will have a different perspective than us. But, the ABC's can help your family move forward in a positive direction. Remain Aware of the tension many kids experience with loyalty binds. Choose your Behavior carefully and require civility, not love. Do your best to Confront the reality of loyalty binds and help your kids process their feelings. And don't forget to hold onto hope!
QUESTION: What might be feeding into your child's Loyalty Binds? Leave a comment below: