5 Proven Lifelines to the Step-Parent Who is "Stranded"
There I was…my head in my hands. I felt lonely, angry and dejected all at the same time.
When Kim and I walked down the aisle, this just wasn't what I pictured. I thought we were going to be inseparable. It was going to be me and her…her and me…constantly connected and tackling life together!
But now it felt like it was her and Annika (my step-daughter) — oh yeah, and that Mike guy too. I was the tag-a-long…the third wheel.
I didn't feel like this all the time. The weeks when Annika was at her Dad's house it was a different story. Kim and I talked, laughed and connected more.
But it felt like all that connection came to a screeching halt when Annika came back home. It suddenly seemed like Kim was choosing Annika over me and I became a stranger in my own home.
I was stranded…stuck outside of this "family" that was supposed to be drawing closer together.
And I started to feel like something was wrong with me. I loved Kim and Annika both very much, so why did I feel so jealous and lonely when we were all together?
The Stranded Stranger Reality
Maybe you've wondered the same thing.
You love your spouse — and their kids — but, you can't help feeling like you're not quite part of the group. You can see how close they all are, but you're stranded just outside their little circle and often feel like a stranger when you're all together.
You and I aren't alone.
Just about every step-parent I've connected with has identified with feeling like a "Stranded Stranger". And research confirms, this is practically universal for step-parents.
Stepfamily expert Patricia Papernow says, "Every time a child enters the room or the conversation…step-parents become stuck outsiders."
You see, it's a common part of the reality for step-parents. We get "stuck outside" or stranded and feeling like a stranger.
5 "Lifelines" for the Stranded Stranger
The good news is that we don't have to stay Stranded! Every Stranded Stranger Step-Parent can reduce those lonely feelings and draw closer to their families…which is what we all really want!
Here's 5 "lifelines" that every step-parent can use:
Lifeline #1 — Clearly Describe Your Emotions
Part of what makes the loneliness of being a Stranded Stranger so intense is ignoring or denying the real emotions around it. Most step-parents feel like they shouldn't feel this way — that it somehow makes them a bad spouse or terrible step-parent.
The truth is, those feelings you're evading are common in stepfamily dynamics. You're not a "bad" anything…you're normal.
So, just be real with yourself and own how you feel. Are you feeling angry, discouraged, lonely, jealous or hopeless? Admit that to yourself and consider even writing your emotions down.
Lifeline #2 — Identify the Triggers
Just as important as the emotions themselves, you need to understand your triggers. The feelings of being a Stranded Stranger are typically a result of a specific situation or shift with the family.
You may be triggered when the kids come back from visitation at their other home. Or maybe your emotions hit when your spouse spends money on the kids that's outside of your agreed upon budget. Or it could be when you're feeling out of sync around parenting and discipline.
A simple way to figure this out is to keep a journal. Each time you feel that unwanted emotion, write down what is happening in that moment. Do this long enough to experience a full cycle of the kids schedule if they're moving between two homes.
Just keeping a journal like this may even help you regulate those emotions in a new way.
Lifeline #3 — Muster the Courage to Tell Your Spouse
This one can be tough. But suffering in silence is a sure way to drive a wedge into your relationship.
Most likely your spouse loves you and wants to help. But they can't help when they aren't aware. If you're keeping your emotions about feeling like a Stranded Stranger to yourself, you're robbing them of the opportunity to support you.
Here's a quick tip for talking with your spouse: keep it about your feelings.
Saying something like, "Hey Honey, I've been struggling a bit lately with some feelings that I don't like and I just need to share them with you."
Once you describe how you feel, use your triggers journal to share when those feeling hit. Stick to the "When this happens [insert trigger] …I feel [insert emotion]" type of script.
And remember to have this discussion when you're both well rested, well fed and in a calm, open mood. Timing is important for this lifeline!
If you're really stuck in your relationship right now, it might be wise to enlist the help of a trusted mentor, counselor or coach to help mediate the conversation.
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Lifeline #4 — Tell Your Spouse How They Can Help
"If they truly loved me, they should just know…"
You've probably heard that phrase before. Excuse my gruffness, but it's a bunch of B.S.
Don't expect your spouse to be a mind-reader. You're asking the impossible and setting yourself up for disappointment. Plus, you may not even know what you need just yet…so you can't expect them to know either.
First, you've got to figure out what might help. For me it's simple: a quick hug, stealing a kiss for no reason, a knowing glance that says "I love you" or even a little note left somewhere for me to find that reassures me of Kim's love.
And here's the BIG thing to notice here — none of these things require Kim to choose me over Annika or make a major shift in her relationship with Annika.
They're the simple little things she can do when she sees that I'm feeling like a Stranded Stranger. I really don't want her to feel trapped between me and Annika, which is what would happen if I demanded that she choose me over her daughter.
Forcing Kim in to that position isn't really helping me…it's hurting her.
So, what are the little things that will help you? How will you feel loved and cared for even in those moments when the real feelings of being a Stranded Stranger sets in? In many cases, all you have to do is tell your spouse — they want to help.
Lifeline #5 — Schedule Your Date Nights
It is widely shared among stepfamily experts that being intentional about one-on-one time is an effective way for families to "blend" over time with less stress. Typically, this is a concept that is viewed through the lens of the children getting one-on-one time with their bio-parent.
But the idea of one-on-one time — or Date Night — will work for you too! And for the Stranded Stranger, this may be the most helpful lifeline of all!
Kim and I hear story after story of how step-couples stop dating each other once the craziness of stepfamily life sets in. They argue, "…we just don't have time for date night."
If that's you, I want to challenge you to think this through. The difficult emotions you face as a Stranded Stranger are ones of loneliness, disconnection and maybe even jealousy.
One of the best remedies for these is undistracted time with your spouse. Time to build your romantic relationship apart from the distraction of kids, chores, cooking meals, shuttling everyone around and helping with homework.
Scheduling regular date nights and being genuinely present with each other could give you just enough connection and reassurance to keep those Stranded Stranger feelings at bay.
Take Care of Your Family by Taking Care of Yourself
One final tip for curbing the Stranded Stranger emotions: Maintain a good self-care routine.
There's going to be times when your step-kids need your spouse's attention and you're not going to like it. That's when it's time to do something that "fills your bucket".
Maybe you'll connect with a good friend, take a bath, read a book or go for a walk. Choose something that will keep you calm and happy. (Don't go for a walk and brood over your negative feelings.)
As I write this, Kim and I have recently celebrated our 18 year anniversary! I've been a Stranded Stranger countless times over the years. And as I've found ways to care for my own needs as well as use these 5 Lifelines I've also found deeper connection and love for both Kim and Annika.
You'll probably feel like a Stranded Stranger many times in the coming years, just like I have. But don't stay stranded…use a lifeline!
QUESTION: What's your biggest Stranded Stranger trigger? Leave a comment below…