Feeling Like an Outsider in Your Stepfamily? You should read this...
There I was. Sitting on the Oregon beach next to the coolest, rusted ship wreckage on a beautiful day. The little ones were playing (Kim and I have two mutual kids). The sun was out. We were on vacation…and I was getting madder by the minute!!
Kim was sitting up on a little sand dune with Annika, her teenage daughter. Annika had been smugly sitting up on her hill, next to her mom for what seemed like hours submerged in whatever teens do on their cell phones for that long! I couldn't believe it! I "knew" in that moment that I had no say in decisions about my step-daughter and worse than that, Kim's commitments to me when it came to parenting really didn't matter to her at all!
You see, before we left on our trip we agreed to boundaries around Annika's cell phone use while we were on vacation. (You can read more in Kim's Stuck Insider blog to get the other side of the story). Now there they were, up on the hill totally disregarding our agreement and hanging out in their little "camp"…their little biological "click" and the rest of us weren't welcome.
The stuck insider/outsider roles is a dynamic that can set in early in stepfamily life and stick around even into the later years. Kim and I still get stuck in it on occasion…the difference is that now we're better equipped to get unstuck and move forward.
In these dynamics, the parent and step-parent get "stuck". The parent is stuck in a tug-of-war between the conflicting needs of their child and their partner. The step-parent is "stuck" on the outside of the biological connection, feeling like a third wheel…just along for the ride.
In my side of the story, I was the stuck outsider. I was watching Kim and Annika from a distance. What I chose to focus on was the broken commitment and lack of boundaries with Annika. I was feeding the story in my head, and it was the wrong story.
Getting to the Right Story
At this point, you might think my anger was justified. That means you probably haven't read Kim's blog yet.
You see, Kim and Annika were both sick. Not just feeling a little under the weather, but aches and pains, sneezes, coughs…they were sick. Looking back, they probably shouldn't have even been out on that beach. Now the story sounds a little different, doesn't it?
As a parent, Kim had every right to assess the situation and make a different decision in the moment for Annika. She knew I was mad, but she saw that Annika was sick and allowed some slack. In that moment, I could have recognized that Kim's perspective had changed and asked her to share that perspective with me. I would have found out that she really did have our commitment in mind, but she was simply "stuck" unsure how to move forward. We likely would have re-evaluated the plan and come to a better agreement based on the new circumstances.
Instead, I fixated on my feelings of being disregarded and allowed my anger to fester. It's common for step-parents who feel "stuck" on the outside to experience disproportionate emotions when they are feeling like an outsider in their own family. These are strong and often unexplainable emotions.
In the end, I got so angry that I packed up the whole camp 3 days early and we had the most uncomfortable 6 hour car ride home! The focus on my anger had ruined what could have been a great vacation for all 5 of us!
Refocus Your Energy
It's common for step-parents who are feeling "stuck" on the outside to focus on the feeling of being "wronged". They feel hurt by their partner and their step-kid(s) and stay centered on that hurt.
To get unstuck, try changing your focus.
First, focus on the facts. The lines between facts and assumptions can be blurred when emotions are high. Work through those emotions and move toward actual facts. In my case, separating the reality that the girls were sick and our circumstances had changed from the assumptions I was making about Kim's motives would have helped me move forward.
Then, focus on connection. Now that you're focused on facts (not assumptions) talk to your partner. Share the facts you are observing, then explain the assumptions you are making because of those facts. Make your observations short and respectful, then end with a question. I could have said to Kim:
"Honey, we agreed that Annika was going to have boundaries around her cell phone usage and now I can see that's not happening. That's causing me to think you don't care about our agreements, can you tell me what's really happening?"
Finally…listen, listen, listen. Try to gain understanding of your partner who might be "stuck" too. Getting to a place of mutual understanding and having empathy for each other in your "stuck" roles will help you find your way forward!
QUESTION: When have you felt like a "stuck outsider" in your stepfamily journey? Leave a comment below….