God’s design for the family begins with marriage laying the foundation for the home. But stepfamilies are at a disadvantage.

Why? Because at the inception of a stepfamily, married couples find it difficult to establish their relationship as the foundation.

After all, parent-child relationships predate the new marriage and are bonded by blood, history, and family identity. When a husband and wife bring children into their new marriage, they often find their marriage is the secondary relationship. And unless they find a way to make the marriage primary, they will experience distress and instability in the home.

“Wait a minute,” you may say. “You mean I have to put my spouse before my children? I understand your point, but they are my flesh and blood.” Comments like these remind me of the stepfather who complained that after two years of marriage he still rides in the back-seat of the car while his wife’s children take turns riding in the front.

The process of establishing the couple as the foundational relationship of the home can feel like a win-lose situation for biological parents and children—the marriage wins, the children lose. But this is not the case. It’s a matter of significance. It’s not that a spouse matters more than children, but rather that a strong marriage relationship contributes more significantly to the stability of the home than any other factor—including the children.

Your children will never suffer neglect because you make a strong commitment to your new spouse. You don’t have to choose between your spouse and your children; when you make your marriage your primary priority, you are actually choosing both. Placing your spouse in the “front seat” of your heart is good for your children, too. In fact, a healthy marriage means safety and protection for children.

Barriers to overcome

Managing this dynamic in a stepfamily is easier said than done. One common barrier is paralyzing guilt: ”I can’t do that to my kids. I don’t ever want them to think I love my spouse more than I love them.”

Children suffer significantly when a parent dies or their parents divorce; when you feel guilty about what happened, it’s easy to feel a great deal of sympathy for your children. You may try to protect them from stress or from feeling unloved. If a parent becomes paralyzed by this guilt, there is a huge temptation to coddle or side with the child against your spouse.

Unfortunately this both discourages the child to move past his sadness (why would he stop grieving when it rewards him?) and steals your spouse’s authority with the child. Parents cannot afford to allow their own guilt to keep them paralyzed.

A second common barrier is refusing to take risks. When a husband and wife do what is necessary to move their marriage into a place of priority, they need to be willing to withstand the reactions of their children. Children sometimes threaten to spend more time at the other home, or protest changes in the home with anger, or close themselves off to a relationship with the stepparent as a way of discouraging their parent from investing in the marriage.

Another barrier to establishing a solid remarriage is competition for attention and affection. You may feel resentful if your spouse seems to push you away from your children, and vice versa. Stepparents who repeatedly turn everyday circumstances into a “me or them” decision inadvertently push their spouse into a defensive posture in support of their children. This is nothing but trouble.

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How can couples establish their relationship as the foundation of the home when children preceded the marriage? Here are some practical tips:

1. Set a regular date night and keep it. Prioritizing time for one another helps your children see the importance you place on your relationship.

2. Strive to trust the heart of your spouse. Assume your spouse has goodwill toward your children even if they complain. Strive to give your spouse equal say in parenting decisions; be a team.

3. Support your spouse in front of your children. Back up your spouse’s decisions and insist that all the children in the household respect those decisions.

4. Affirm your commitment “out loud.” Verbally expressing love to one another in front of the children, hugging in plain sight, and talking about your future together reinforce the permanency of your marriage.

5. Spend one-on-one time with your biological children and remain involved in their activities. This reinforces that they haven’t “lost” you and paradoxically makes their acceptance of your marriage easier.

6. Insist “out loud” that your spouse spend special time with his or her biological children. This communicates that you are not in competition with them.

7. Don’t let your children manipulate you through guilt. It’s natural for children to show signs of stress or anxiety as you “move your spouse into the front seat of your heart.” Be sympathetic but don’t let them manipulate you into taking their side. Just because children hand you a ticket for a guilt-trip doesn’t mean you have to go for the ride!

8. When children challenge the role of the stepparent, respond firmly and with compassion. “You’re just changing the rule because she wants you to,” is a common complaint. Acknowledge the child’s confusion and move forward. “You’re right. Things are different now that Linda and I parent together. And you know if I were you, I’d be upset about this, too. But this is the new rule and I’m in agreement with it, so please abide by it. Let’s go.”

©2012 by Smart Stepfamilies. Used by permission.