How to Stop Having to Choose Between Your Kids and Your Partner
"I don't think Ben really gets it", Marilyn shared. "When he chooses his daughter, Carrie over me and my kids it's hard for us…we need him too. He favors Carrie and it feels like the rest of us are playing second fiddle — like we aren't even a priority. It doesn't seem right…I feel like I'm competing with my step-daughter for my husband's attention".
As Marilyn expressed her frustrations, I noticed a painful expression on Ben's face. Through tearful eyes, he explained how concerned he is about Carrie — how she's been 'daddy's little girl' all these years and since the remarriage, he fears that Carrie thinks she doesn't matter now - that she's been replace by Marilyn and her kids. He also described how Carrie's been acting out and that lately she's been really needy.
Ben has tried to meet Marilyn's needs and be there for her kids, but this is really challenging when Carrie is around. He feels that he should give her special attention — that she really needs him. But this seems to cause problems with Marilyn. "If I take care of my daughter, it seems like I'm letting everyone else down. I feel like I have to choose between them and I just don't know how I can do that".
A Common Dilemma
Ben and Marilyn's struggle isn't unusual. Couples living in stepfamily dynamics often feel torn between the people they love. And speaking as someone whose been there myself, I can say that having to "choose" is painful and confusing. And just as Ben and Marilyn experienced conflict between them, this struggle often lead to conflict in our relationship too.
Eventually, Mike and I discovered how to navigate through this complex issue, and thankfully I was no longer put in a position of having to make those painful choices. We learned how to become a united team!
Here are three things step-couples need to consider when they run into this common dilemma:
1. Clearly Communicate
Ben and Marilyn are on the right track. They're talking about their difficult emotions and seeking help to work through the issue. We call this process 'learning to live well in the tension'!
This is important because there will almost always be uneasy tensions and delicate situations that come along with stepfamily life. You can choose to ignore them or you can clearly communicate about what's happening and get everything out on the table.
Step-couples that avoid the issues will end up on opposite sides of the table — working against each other as they each strive to get their own way. This will lead to disconnection and excessive conflict. Instead consider the value of communication.
Couples that choose to communicate are able to share what's going on for them emotionally. This gets them moving toward each other — onto the same side of the table. They're open to listening and really hearing each other and they're willing to make sacrifices and compromises. They're committed to their relationship and they're learning how to make united decisions that support the whole family.
This stuff isn't easy and getting there is a process. It's messy and uncomfortable, but the results are amazing! Living well in the tension is an excellent goal for every blended family, but you'll only get there if you can communicate clearly and effectively.
2. Cultivate Compassion
Honest communication is the first step in becoming a united team. The next step is looking at the situation through eyes of compassion by putting yourself in the shoes of others — your partner and the kids. It's also very helpful if you can decide to give each other the benefit of the doubt and not take things personally.
Usually everyone (the adults and kids) are just trying to get their needs met in very complex and confusing dynamics. It simply isn't productive to make unfair assumptions, judge motives or place blame.
When Mike and I were struggling, I asked him to consider my feelings and my fears. He started to understand my perspectives and in doing so, he was able to develop compassion for me and for my daughter. But for us to move forward, I had to do the same. I needed to really understand his needs and frustrations and cultivate compassion for his position as well.
Having genuine empathy and compassion for each other will help couples to feel more connected and safe…and this is a great place to be when working though difficult issues.
3. Check the Crockpot
We all need to understand that when a parent starts dating or remarries, children often experience fear and insecurity. It's normal for kids to become needy or even act out. They may appear to be competitive or manipulative, but they're really just seeking security in a situation that has created unexpected changes and uncertainty for them.
There is no way around it — healthy integration takes time and patience. We like to say: "Low and Slow" - just like crockpot cooking! Consider how long you've been in the "crockpot" and where you're at in the process of functioning effectively as a family (the average is 7 years). This is important when making decisions around priorities.
Early in the stepfamily's development, step-couples should purposefully choose to accommodate the children and meet their needs as much as possible. This is a united decision you'll make as a couple. But as time goes by and you've spent some significant time in the crockpot, parents will need to gradually shift and focus on meeting the needs of BOTH their kids AND their partner.
From 'Either/Or' to 'Both/And'
It's common for couples like Ben and Marilyn to get stuck in what they believe is an 'either/or' position — choose the kids OR their new partner. But it doesn't have to be this way. If the couple can get on the same side of the table — openly communicate and extend compassion, this will help in making united decisions that turn 'either/or' into 'both/and'.
Since Ben and Marilyn hadn't been in the crockpot very long, they made a unified decision based on what was best for their integrating family. They decided that Ben would spend one-on-one time with Carrie and focus on her at the beginning of each visitation. They also agreed that while Carrie was at her other home, Ben and Marilyn would create some special time for them to connect and plan a fun activity with Marilyn's kids as well.
Their strategy would give Carrie the reassurance she needed to feel secure in her relationship with dad and gently ease her into the new family dynamic. Marilyn was willing to make some short-term sacrifices, knowing that her needs would also be made a priority. Because this was a unified decision, Marilyn was able to easily manage her emotions and avoid resentment and competitive feelings toward Carrie. And Ben could relax as he emotionally supported and cared for his daughter.
Slow & Steady Leads to Big Wins!
Ben and Marilyn discovered a healthy rhythm that meets everyone's needs. They know it's going to take time, patience and consistent effort to integrate their family, but they're excited about moving forward as a team in making their relationship the foundation of their home.
Every step-parent wants to be valued without feeling they have to compete. Every bio-parent wants to care for their children without feeling torn. Both of you may have started off with high expectations about how blended family life would be and you've probably experienced some disappointment. We've been there too.
Don't get stuck in conflict and confusion. Work as a united team to strategize healthy ways to manage your unique dynamics so that everyone in your step-family learns to live well in the tension!
QUESTION: How can you live in more of a 'both/and' approach in your blended family? Leave a comment below…