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When a Stepparent Feels Like an Outsider

You can still have unity in your marriage, even when you feel isolated from the children.
By Ron L. Deal

Did you ever play the game Lock Out on your school playground? The game begins when kids form a circle by interlocking arms. Then one person on the outside attempts to infiltrate the circle anyway he can. But the more the outsider attempts to push, poke, or pry his way in, the more the circle bands together to keep him out.

This is how stepparents sometimes feel when they enter a new family. The biological family has already formed interlocking blood bonds. So the stepparent works hard to step into the circle, attempting to push, poke, and pry his way into the good graces of the children. He may even be aided by the biological parent, who also wants the children and stepparent to get along. But despite the couple's efforts to influence the children to comply, the stepparent can still feel pushed out.

The biological parents reading this may be a little confused right now. Maybe you're thinking, What do you mean my spouse is an outsider? He's not an outsider in my book. Biological parents may find it hard to understand the stepparent's perspective of being an outsider, simply because a natural parent is always an included part of the family.

I'll never forgot a stepmom with three stepdaughters and no children of her own sharing with me her realization that, as she put it, "I live in a stepfamily, but my husband doesn't." She insightfully figured out that her husband never felt left out or like a third wheel even though she did quite frequently. They had very different experiences in the same family.

There's nothing wrong with a couple trying to help the stepparent become an insider. The two obviously want the family to combine. That was the whole point of getting married in the first place. But knowing how to go about it and what to expect from the family is very important.

Keys to unity

When one of the two partners feels like an outsider, it doesn't just affect the family dynamics. It also creates a feeling of isolation in the marriage. You certainly can't be joined in unity when you are isolated. So how can you and your spouse feel connected and celebrate your marriage when one of you is still "locked out"? I have a couple of suggestions that will help.

The first key is to celebrate your marriage even if you can't celebrate everything about your family. Stepparents must learn to compartmentalize the marital relationship as distinct from the stepparenting relationships. Consider them as separate entities so the failings of one don't bleed over into the other.

I do realize that trying to distinguish the two types of relationships is a bit arbitrary; all of the relationships in your home impact the others, so acting as if they're separated takes intentional effort. However, the capacity to allow yourself to feel good about one relationship—in this case your marriage—even when you don't feel great about others is helpful.

Consider the alternative. If you only rejoice when everything in the family puzzle is fitting well, you won't have much to celebrate. That just brings angst and anxiety to everyone in the home. So do your best to make the marriage strong and connected, even when the children make that difficult.

Biological parents, realize that you are an insider with your spouse (marriage) and an insider with your kids (family), so you may not feel the tension that your spouse feels. In order to bridge this gap, you must listen and consider the view point of your spouse or you'll continually fight isolation in the marriage. Compassion is a strong connector, and the more you listen and affirm your spouse's feelings, the closer you will become to each other, despite what is happening in the rest of the family.

The second key is to be patient, not forceful in relationships. Forming relationships takes time. That's the reality. And it may be years before you all really feel like family. You must realize that in some cases the more the stepparent and parent work to orchestrate the acceptance of the stepparent, the more resistant the children become. Just as in the game Lock Out, pressure from the outside sometimes makes insiders—the biological children—pull closer together and refuse entry of the outsider, the stepparent.

Being strategic about how a stepparent joins the family is critical to being accepted. Let the children set the pace. Reach out in love, but never overreach. (That boundary is different for every child.) That means you must be sensitive to the needs and the responses of each of your stepchildren, and that's a difficult task for anyone. But with the grace of God, prayer, and patience, you can have a healthy relationship with your stepchildren in the long run.

Something to rejoice about

This week, be intentional to celebrate your marriage. Find something in your relationship to rejoice about. Even if your family isn't as smooth as you wish, you can celebrate what God is doing within your marriage. There is always something good to be thankful for: knowing looks, fun new memories, pleasant surprises … anything that you treasure with your spouse.

In addition to finding the good, reassure your spouse of your lasting commitment and remind yourself of the promises you made. And then pray for the strength to keep them. All the work that you're putting into your marriage and family won't be wasted. Remember, it may take some time to get there, but with God's grace, your family will be better for it in the end. The best is yet to come.

Copyright © 2017 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

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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