To the Parent Who's Always Feeling "Trapped" in the Middle
In a game of tug-of-war, the teams on both ends of the rope are passionately fighting to win. They're pulling with all their might, in opposite directions and have no intention of ending up in the mud pit.
I personally don't enjoy playing Tug-of-War (except with our dog) — but I can relate to the struggle of the tug-of-war battle. Why…
Because I've been the rope!
Here's what I mean…there have been countless times over our 18 years of stepfamily life when my husband and my daughter were in opposition. Each holding firming onto their position and competing for my allegiance — pulling on me in opposite directions until I snapped!
And I did snap.
With the pressures mounting and expectations high, I was the one stuck in the middle. I was the one who always seemed to end up disappointing someone…the one who could never make everyone happy…the one struggling to do the right thing, but lacking the right answers.
I was the one who ended up wallowing in the mud pit more times than I care to remember!
Happily Never After
I went into stepfamily life believing that I could make everyone happy. I already knew how to make my daughter happy and I knew what made Mike happy too.
But I had no idea how difficult it would be to keep them both happy all the time.
Parents in first families experience this as well. Like when each of their kids want different things and parents must decide together what direction to take. From simple things like what you'll eat for dinner and who gets to hold the remote — to bigger issues like which behaviors are unacceptable and who is responsible for what.
But in a stepfamily, the dynamics shift and an unexpected layer of complexity emerges. It's no longer the kids verses each other, now it's the kids verses the stepparent.
And the biological parent is trapped between them desperately trying to figure out how to appease everyone. And if you're living in a complex stepfamily — where both of you have bio-kids — then it gets even more challenging.
And here's what most of us simply don't understand up front: In a stepfamily, relationship order has been reversed — things are very different than first family dynamics and here's why…
In first families, the couple relationship comes BEFORE the parental relationship and tends to be a stronger bond.
However, in stepfamilies our relationships have been reordered. The couple relationship comes AFTER the pre-established parental relationship.
Because parent-child relationships are bonded by blood, have more history and deep emotional attachment, the marital relationship is weaker and often feels secondary.
This dynamic puts the biological parent in a very difficult position — where it seems their dream of 'Happily Ever After' has become a nightmare, feeling trapped, exhausted and defeated as the perpetual 'bad guy'.
But you don't have to stay trapped!
From Trapped Teammate to United Allies!
You might be relieved to know that every bio-parent experiences this dynamic to some extent.
And if you don't want to stay trapped, there are some steps you can take to minimize the challenges and difficult emotions that come along with being a "Trapped Teammate". And they'll get you and your spouse on the SAME team!
The first step is to honesty communicate with your spouse. This will come with some challenges and it might lead to conflict, but clear and open communication is critical in this dynamic. Remember to stay focused on your own emotions and stay away from placing blame onto your partner.
The reality is, it's the difficult dynamics that cause these painful emotions — NOT necessarily the people in your stepfamily. You should expect that differing opinions and tensions will be part of your stepfamily journey. Unity is critical if you want to face the challenges together.
Genuinely listen to understand your partner's perspectives too. They might be stuck in another common position as a Stranded Stranger, feeling like an outsider in your home.
Over the years, Mike and I have learned how to acknowledge and communicate with each other when one of us is feeling stuck as a Trapped Teammate (me) or a Stranded Stranger (Mike). This awareness does two things for us:
First, it deescalates the tension right away. By simply calling it out for what it is, we can avoid getting confused and stuck in conflict.
Second, it brings fresh understanding. When we realize our partner is feeling "stuck", we tend to have more self-control in the moment and we're able respond better — without agitation and impatience. We're then able to reassure and validate each other even while we're still feeling stuck.
Stepfamily expert Patricia Papernow coined the terms Stuck Insider and Stuck Outsider. She suggests that, "…empathy, not agreement, bridges the gap. For step-couples, the pathway to intimacy and connection cannot come through seeing things the same way. It has to come from "feeling into" each other's experience and from creating small moments of caring in the midst of the challenge."
How to Solve Your Biggest Stepfamily Challenges
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Steer Clear of Parent-Child Allegiances
When disagreements occur in a stepfamily, it's common for people to divide along biological lines. So when push comes to shove, the allegiance between the bio-parent and their kids often wins out over the marriage partnership.
But how does this impact the stepfamily's development?
Over time, decisions made by the parent will become statements of loyalty and priority to everyone in the family. When parents become unduly influenced by their kids and choose them the majority of the time, this can create Parent-Child Allegiances.
Parent-Child Allegiances are unhealthy for everyone in your stepfamily. Your kids will certainly be happy if you always choose them over your spouse, but it opens the door for kids to manipulate and claim too much power.
And in the long run, this isn't good for kids. They can become self-focused, entitled and miserable to be around if they always expect things to go their way.
These unhealthy allegiances will take a detrimental toll on your marriage — leaving your spouse on the outside, feeling devalued and excluded. This will inevitably lead to frustration and conflict in your relationship.
The key to steering clear of Parent-Child Allegiances is unity. You must work together to gradually elevate your marriage into a united position of leadership.
This takes time and intentional effort, but the results are well worth it. Your marriage will be the foundation of the home! And this is right where it needs to be, plus your kids will gain a healthy understanding of marital dynamics.
Prioritize with Purpose
Rather than falling victim to the tug-of-war, choose to purposely prioritize your decisions. If it's early in your stepfamily's journey, it's important to lean toward what the kids are used to — especially around the small things.
This creates security for the kids and helps them ease into the new stepfamily structure. However, it's crucial that you and your spouse are united in these decisions (behind closed doors), and have mutual understand around a reasonable time frame.
As time goes by, parents need to lean toward their spouse's preferences more and more. Start to make your spouse a priority and empathize with your kids when they express disappointment about not getting their way (it's okay, they'll still love you).
Parents need to learn how to meet the needs of both their kids and their spouse - and this is no easy job! Find a healthy balance that works for your situation…this doesn't mean that everyone will be happy all the time, but it will help you to get out of the tug-of-war struggle.
Break Free from Being the Trapped Teammate
Don't stay stuck!
Release yourself from feeling guilty, inadequate or anxious about who to choose and how to make everyone happy all the time. The bottom line is, it simply can't be done!
You can choose to focus on creating healthy dynamics in your stepfamily and break free from the Trapped Teammate position.
Keep communication with your spouse clear and honest, choose to be a united team and work toward making your marriage the foundation of your home.
Don't allow unhealthy parent-child allegiances to dictate your decisions and damage your marriage. And, learn how to meet everyone's needs by prioritizing with purpose. It certainly won't be easy (it wasn't for me), but nothing truly worthwhile is ever easy…go for it!
QUESTION: What's your biggest concern about "Prioritizing with Purpose"? Leave a comment below…