Stepfamilies naturally foster a lot of frustration. Each family comes with its own expectations and traditions, and it’s not easy when those seemingly harmless actions require change or cause too much division. Sometimes just simple events of everyday life can create hurt feelings and anger that send families down the road to isolation. Each spouse sides with his or her own biological children, and then the family plummets into a kind of civil war.
But there is an exit off the road of isolation that leads to what I like to call Harmony Street! There are mile markers along your journey that can help you identify problem areas, and I have some ways you can bring peace even through touchy, awkward situations.
Here’s a glance at one stepfamily home and some of the mile markers that you may find if your relationship is headed down the same path.
Mile Marker 1: The One-Sided Tradition
Fourteen-year-old Kari was in the kitchen making cupcakes for her younger brother’s birthday. It was a valued ritual she started when he was very young. Big sister would make the cupcakes, and the two of them would eat them warm out of the oven … while leaving the kitchen a mess.
Mile Marker 2: The Rub
Kari’s stepmother of two years, Sara, walked into the kitchen after returning home from an errand. She happened to enter the kitchen just as her husband came in at the same time.
Upon discovering the mess, Sara gave her husband, Randy, “the look.” Randy knew exactly what she was saying and feeling. Annoyed that the kitchen was not cleaned up right away, Sara was nonverbally asking Randy—again—to get his daughter to clean up after herself.
Randy was aware that Sara basically views Kari as irresponsible. Sara had confronted Kari about this in the past.
But Randy views Kari as fun-loving, a good big sister, and in need of encouragement. Besides, he thought, what’s the big deal with the kitchen anyway?
Randy views Sara as negative and too controlling of his kids.
Sara views Randy as too permissive.
Mile Marker 3: Choosing Sides
In response to “the look” Randy spoke not to Kari, but to his wife, Sara. He fears that if Sara aggressively confronts his daughter, she will inadvertently shoot herself in the foot, making acceptance by Kari all the more difficult. So he tried to detour Sara’s complaint. “Oh come on–it’s not a big deal. Besides, I’m sure you want one of those cupcakes, right?”
Sara instantly feels unheard, minimized, and unimportant. Her concerns that Kari will not learn responsibility have been ignored, which is frustrating. And Randy doesn’t realize that Sara is fearful that Kari’s feelings matter more to Randy than she does.
This touches a deep bruise on Sara’s heart: being unimportant to the man she loves. She felt this growing up from her father and her first husband who left her. In her fear and frustration she reacts with anger and accusation. “You are afraid of punishing or expecting anything from her—and what I want has no value to you at all.”
Mile Marker 4: Identifying Your Spouse as the Enemy
Randy feels frustrated that Sara can’t let the dirty kitchen go, and his belief that Sara is a rigid, authoritarian parent is solidified. But even more, he feels controlled. “Sara is resorting to the same type of guilt manipulation my parents give each other,” he shared with a friend. “She uses guilt as leverage and I really think it’s unfair.”
Determined not to make his kids go through what he endured from his parents as a child, Randy defends Kari and argues with Sara, pointing out how wonderful it is that a big sister would do this for her brother. Over time, Randy and Sara argue repeatedly over parenting situations like this. In no time, not only are they polarized as parents, but they find themselves many miles down the highway of isolation and fear.
Harmony Street exit
It’s at this point where many couples give up, but all is not lost. There are many things that must change in order for Randy and Sara to save their marriage, but with some work, they can have a great marriage and raise the likelihood that their home achieves family harmony. Here are some key aspects to exiting Isolation Highway.
First, both spouses must be willing to empathically listen to the other. This could create a huge shift in the emotional direction of their home. Stepmom Sara may realize that her need for instant cleanliness is actually getting in the way of Kari's desire to be accepted by her—something Sara also wants. Randy may discover that Sara has good will toward Kari, not hostile intent, and is really trying to equip her for life. Empathy for the goals and needs of the other may soften their hearts toward one another.
Second, both spouses must turn down the intensity of the pain from their past or they will continue to be highly reactive with one another. This is where prayer and forgiveness come into the picture. There's no way to avoid baggage from the past in a stepfamily, but as Christians, you can learn to forgive your previous offenders and work on trusting your new spouse and their family.
Third, couples must realize their tendency in parenting and work to avoid extremes. Stepparents often move toward hard and strict parenting, and biological parents tend to move toward permissive parenting. Neither is helpful. And ironically, neither is actually the natural parenting style of the adults. If they slowed down, were less defensive, and less argumentative with each other, they would realize their parenting philosophies are actually more alike than different. Husband and wife have to get on the same page.
Merging two cultures
Harmony Street is really just a place of common ground. Integrating a stepfamily is about merging two cultures—each with their own set of traditions and boundaries. For Randy and his kids, leaving the kitchen dirty while enjoying warm cupcakes is permissible; for Sara it is not. So Randy and Sara must come together without the kids and decide how they can meet in the middle.
When adults talk about these expectations, they agree to a set of rules that’s best for everyone in the family. This usually means stepparents must loosen up, and biological parents must tighten down. Sara must consider what’s more important—a clean kitchen or a closer relationship with Kari. And Randy must consider what he can do to help his daughter learn to be more responsible, despite what has always been the norm in their home.
The exit to Harmony Street isn’t easy to find. Sometimes you might get off at the wrong exit and have to find your way back. But don’t get discouraged and give up! With the help of the Holy Spirit, you will have the strength to make it.
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