Feeling 'Stuck' Between Your Kids and Your Spouse? You need to read this...
Our Worst Vacation Ever
Here's the scenario: As we were planning our summer vacation (a camping trip on the Oregon coast), Mike and I strategized about what boundaries needed to be put in place around the cell phone usage of our teenager (my bio-daughter).
Annika was often glued to her phone, and we really wanted her to engage and be present on our trip. We agreed she'd have only limited phone time in the mornings and evenings. Then I laid down the law with her - since I'm the bio-parent - and made sure she understood the limits around using her phone while on our trip.
As we set out for our big adventure, I realized I was getting sick. And Annika didn't seem to be feeling very well either. The next day it was clear - we were both miserable with numerous aches and pains. It was hard to muster up the energy to engage with the rest of the family or do much of anything. The picture above is the actual site of a dismal afternoon spent huddled on a sand dune…the two of us commiserating in our suffering while Mike played in the waves with our mutual kids.
As it goes with miserable teenagers, Annika quickly got bored which led to the crossing of her cell phone boundaries. Now remember that I was not at the top of my game, so unfortunately I didn't have the energy or motivation to enforce the limits we'd put in place (which was my job as the bio-parent).
I also failed to talk to Mike about why I wasn't holding the line with Annika…in fact, I avoided that conversation altogether. From my position, I'd made the decision to give her some flexibility. After all, if spending time on her cell phone was going to keep her content while feeling sick and miserable, I was okay with that. Not a big deal, right! At the time I didn't know it, but I was experiencing being a "Stuck Insider".
What is the Stuck Insider / Stuck Outsider Dynamic?
Patricia Papernow states, "Stepfamily structure puts parents and step-parents on opposite sides of an experiential divide. Every time a child enters the room or a conversation, parents become stuck insiders and stepparents become stuck outsiders." Often stepfamilies will naturally divide along biological lines creating two different "camps". The main reason this occurs is because in stepfamily life, our relationships have been re-ordered. This in turn feeds our stuck insider/outsider roles.
Step-parents can feel like a third wheel. They realize how close their spouse is to their kids and often feel like an outsider looking in. They might experience frustration as they aren't quite able to connect with their step-kids or their partner in the way they seem to connect with each other. This is being a stuck outsider.
And bio-parents find themselves in the stuck insider position - they just want everyone to be happy and get along. They often feel like they're in the middle of a tug-of-war between their kids and they partner. This was how I felt on our disastrous vacation. Communication between Mike and I had shut down and we found ourselves unintentionally stuck in opposing "camps".
I knew I was disregarding the agreement we'd made, by allowing Annika to ignore her phone limits. I could see that Mike was getting angrier by the minute because of my lack of follow through. But as a parent, I wanted my daughter to feel understood and cared for. I really thought that under the circumstances, I needed to bend the rules in order to support her. I was feeling emotionally stressed and I really didn't want to be in any "camp"! I just wanted everyone to be okay! I felt torn, frustrated and misunderstood.
What Can We Do?
When step-couples find themselves in stuck insider/outsider roles, they usually experience disappointment and frustration (we sure did). We all have certain expectations of what our marriage and family life is going to look like, and this is not what we pictured! The reality is that almost every stepfamily will experience this dynamic to a certain degree. However, we can develop empathy for each other and create an environment that helps minimize stress and frustration.
When Mike and I first learned about these "stuck" roles and the dynamics they create, we looked at each other and said "WOW"! It was empowering to have language to wrap around the frustrations we'd been struggling with for years.
Since then we've learned how to acknowledge and communicate with each other when one of us is feeling stuck. This awareness does two things: First, it deescalates the tension right away…we can call it what it is and avoid getting sidetracked. Second, it brings fresh understanding. When we see that our partner is "stuck", this understanding can change our response to the situation. Remember that step-couples often have differing perspectives, and that's okay.
Mike and I were in two very different places emotionally when we got "stuck" on our trip. We each could have responded differently than we did. As the bio-parent, I could have initiated a conversation early on…before our emotions took over. We may have avoided much of the conflict, had I shared my thoughts and feelings and opened up an opportunity to reevaluate our agreement then work toward a solution.
I wish I knew then what I know now - that it's natural for step-couples to gravitate to different "camps" and sometimes get stuck in these complex dynamics. But we don't have to stay stuck!
More to Come…
Next week Mike will give his perspective from the "Outsider Camp". And he'll share the rest of our 'worst vacation ever' story. You don't want to miss it - especially if you've ever felt like and outsider in your own home.
QUESTION: What "stuck insider" challenges have you faced on your stepfamily journey? Leave a comment below...