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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

It’s unhealthy for a parent and child to align against a stepparent.
By Ron L. Deal

Healthy leadership coalitions bolster the influence of the leaders in businesses and in families. When parents align to support each other, they lead from a position of unity. In blended families, sometimes unhealthy coalitions form when a parent and child align against the stepparent.

This often occurs when the stepparent becomes jealous of the close relationship a child has with the biological parent, and blames the child for infiltrating the marriage. This causes tension between the stepparent and stepchild, which unintentionally bolsters the alliance that child has with his natural parent. Then the twosome begin to justify their actions against the “common enemy” stepparent who is fighting to be part of the parenting coalition.

It actually isn’t a parent’s closeness to the child that makes this dynamic dangerous. Parents are meant to have strong, supportive relationships with their children. But when this relationship excludes the stepparent from authority and leadership within the home, things begin to fall apart.

For example, Carter felt that his wife’s relationship with her son left no room for him. “Please tell parents to put their spouse first in parenting,” he said. “It’s too late for us, but others need to know how destructive it is to side with their child all the time.”

Carter constantly felt undercut by his wife’s relationship with her son. After years of hoping it would change, he found himself looking for a way out of the marriage. An unhealthy coalition had won to the detriment of the marriage and family.

Between a rock and a hard place

But what are parents to do? On the surface it sounds as if they are supposed to just “side with the stepparent” in all circumstances. But what if they have a legitimate concern for their child that keeps pushing them to defend the child? What if they agree with the stepparent, but see defeat in the eyes of their child in the process?

Essentially the biological parent’s options are to:

  • Stay out of the conflict completely.
  • Take protective or supportive action in regard to the child.
  • Support their spouse in all situations.
  • Mediate the relationship between the other two, hoping to find the magic bullet solution that will make everyone happy. (This rarely works and usually leaves a parent emotionally exhausted and feeling like a failure.)

The best answer is “all the above.”

Biological parents who find themselves caught between their spouse and their child should step out of the conflict as often as possible. Getting triangled in someone else’s conflict usually keeps the two other parties at war, rather than finding peace. Although there will be times to step in, generally trust the warring parties to resolve their conflict themselves. 


  • Stay out of the conflict unless you have to step in. Extreme behaviors (e.g., intimidation or violence) or prolonged hostility call for you to step in. Short of that, don’t play therapist.
  • If you feel the need to support your child to the stepparent (your spouse), talk to your spouse in private. Correcting your spouse in front of your child only bolsters his/her disrespect and the stepparent’s sense of betrayal.
  • If you want to side with your spouse, stand beside her when talking to your child. At the same time you are aligning yourself physically with your spouse, communicate your love to your child and your compassion for his frustration. Your child may be offended that you aren’t defending him, but that doesn’t mean you are doing the wrong thing.
  • Don’t keep secrets from your spouse. Secrets form covert coalitions that undermine the marriage.
  • In all things, communicate frequently and often with your spouse. Strive for unity of spirit as you deal with stressful circumstances.

Copyright © 2012 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved. 

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Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit and 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g.,,, in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.



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