Is Unconditional Love a Reality for Stepfamilies?
Kim and I were recently having a discussion about unconditional love in a group of fellow step-couples. I asked Kim, "Back when we first got together…did you expect me to quickly have unconditional love for Annika?" (her bio-daughter)
She thought about my question for a minute…"Yes, I did", was her reply.
I followed up with another question, "…did you expect Annika to have unconditional love for me?"
Without hesitation she replied, "No…of course not."
Wow! Talk about a double standard. But here's the thing, when couples get really honest with us — we find they've struggled with the same kind of confusing expectations.
Is it really about expectations?
Every step-couple wrestles with expectations around love. Some are spoken and some are unspoken. Some of our expectations are about each other and others are about the kids.
It's not just about the expectations we have about other members of our family, but what about the ones we have for ourselves?
As a step-dad, I wanted to "get it right". When things weren't going well, I was often frustrated with myself…feeling like I was getting it all wrong.
And the problem is, too many of our expectations are unrealistic…and that sets us up for disappointment.
That all leads me to wonder what kind of expectations we should have about love in stepfamilies. Or, if we should have any expectations at all!
Maybe unconditional love isn't about expecting a specific result…maybe it's more about the process along the way.
Focus on the Process — Not the Result
If you're like most people, you're focused on results.
You want your kids to connect with your new spouse…that's a result. You want your new spouse to love spending time with your kids…that's a result. You want your teenage step-child to be respectful all the time…that's a result. You want everyone to love each other unconditionally…that's a big result.
And if you're honest with yourself, what you really want is all of these results — TODAY.
The problem is that respect, connection and unconditional love are all things that take time. And every day that goes by where you don't feel you're getting results — when you don't feel respected, connected or loved — you might begin to feel resentful.
I've been there.
When I felt rejected by my step-daughter (and sometimes by Kim), I found myself stuck wanting connection…but not wanting to actually connect. I was hurt and angry and the last thing I wanted to do was try to connect with either of them. The hope of unconditional love was lost in that moment.
Over the years, I've realized that the more I focused on the results I wasn't getting — the less energy I put into getting those same results that I really wanted. (Read that sentence again…you may need to think about that for a minute)
Finally, a trusted coach in my life spoke some truth to me. He called me out — told me to get my head out of my you-know-what and start putting the work into getting what I really wanted.
Here's what I learned…
3 Steps to Focusing on the Process
So, could unconditional love be a reality for your stepfamily? Here's three steps you can take that may move you a little closer to experiencing it…
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Picture the Future
The goals — the wants — you have are good. Experiencing respect, connection and love in your stepfamily should be priorities.
If you're not experiencing them yet, then decide how you're going to accept that reality. For some that's a simple mindset shift. Others may need to process with a trusted friend, coach or counselor.
And you're not just accepting your reality so you can stay stuck. You're actually releasing those resentments and freeing yourself up to picture your future.
Imagine what it will be like to enjoy time with your step-child. Imagine how you'll feel when you realize your spouse has made you a priority. Imagine how great it will be when you see your kids and your spouse having fun together.
Here's the most important part of this step: you're crystal clear that this is the goal for tomorrow, not an expectation for today.
Now it's time for you to take action. It's that old saying "Be the Change You Want to See".
If connection is what you're after, then it's time to find new ways to connect with your spouse. If respect is a big problem, then it's time to be absolutely sure you're speaking respectfully to your step-son.
If it's unconditional love you want to experience, then it's time to learn how you'll be loving even when your step-daughter feels unlovable. (again…I've been there)
Purposefully acting in these ways is hard. It takes forethought and a ton of self-control.
Yet, it's the key to keeping yourself focused on the process of reaching that future you picture rather than staying stuck focused on the results you're NOT getting…yet.
This one speaks for itself. It's all about keeping your expectations around the timeline realistic. You're probably not going to get the respect, connection and unconditional love you're after right this moment.
However, when you persevere with a clear picture of your future and purposefully act every day you'll eventually get there.
We've mentioned lots of times the research that shows it takes an average of 7 years for a stepfamily to fully integrate. That means persevering isn't about the next few weeks…it's likely about the next several years.
It's Worth the Effort
We're 18 years into marriage and for us, that 7 year mark was not a point of integration…we were closer to destruction.
I used to think unconditional love just couldn't exist in our stepfamily. That's when my trusted coach got through to me.
I started the hard work of letting go of my unrealistic expectations and started focusing on the process of getting our family where we really needed to be.
I still felt hurt, angry and rejected at times along the way. But today I am free to let my guard down and still feel loved. And I'm getting better at allowing Kim and the kids let their guard down too — without passing judgement on them.
I'd say that's the essence of unconditional love.
It's taken a lot of effort get here…and it's definitely been worth it!
QUESTION: What's one purposeful action you can take today to move closer to the future you really want? Leave a comment below…