For years, dating couples with children from previous relationships and married couples in blended families have had polar opposite reactions to my books. Why? Because they have different perspectives.
Dating couples moan, “Gee, Ron, are you trying to scare us out of getting married?” while married stepfamily couples marvel, “You are describing our life exactly! Have you been peeking in our windows?”
The dating couple feels like I’m being negative; the married couple is relieved that someone finally told them they are normal. And when I have tracked a couple from dating to marriage, their response transformed to, “We just thought you were being a pessimist,” or “We wish we would have listened to you better.”
How could perspective make such a huge difference? Well, premarital couples have high hopes, are consumed by the fog of love, and expect positive things to happen; it’s the nature of being in love. Married couples, on the other hand, are living in an actual stepfamily. They cannot gloss over the challenges. It’s the difference between expectation and reality.
The research that David Olson and I did for The Remarriage Checkup explained and validated the perspective shift. We discovered that couple satisfaction during dating is highly correlated with the couple’s relationship. However, marital satisfaction (i.e., once the couple is living in a stepfamily) is increasingly correlated with stepfamily and stepparenting dynamics that surround the couple’s relationship. As the context of their relationship changes, so does their satisfaction—and their perspective.
Children and adults often find themselves disagreeing because of contrasting viewpoints. For example, adults sometimes object to labels like “stepfamily” or “stepparent” because they make them feel second class or evil. However, kids use these exact terms quite freely to describe what seems obvious to them. “This is a stepfamily and he is my stepparent,” one 23-year-old said to me. “That’s not hard to figure out.”
In addition, biological parents have an insider’s perspective on the home while stepparents may feel like outsiders. One stepmom put it this way: “My husband is connected to his children and to me—he loves all of us and feels like he’s a part of us. But I am only connected to him, not his kids. It’s almost as if I live in stepfamily, but he doesn’t.”
I couldn’t have said it better.
And what about holiday step-stress? For many adult stepchildren, it doesn’t feel like being home for the holidays when they visit a parent with a remarried partner who has children, grandchildren, and extended family. Instead, it feels like going someplace strange. Sometimes these adult stepchildren wonder, Is it just me? After all, everyone else seems to be okay with it.
The point is this: Stepfamilies are made up of people with different family histories and varying life narratives that result in different perspectives about what is happening in their shared home. This can be quite frustrating, and it disconnects people who are trying to deepen their bonds.
All too often one spouse ends up criticizing or judging the other’s perspective—or deciding not to trust it. The outcome is alienation.
Build a bridge and get over it
So what can you do? Actively build the following bridges of understanding in your home; cross them to connect with the other person’s heart.
Listening. One key to building bridges is listening. And I don’t just mean hearing; I mean listening. Go beneath words to understanding the meaning of another’s perspective and what that is telling you about their point of view. And then accept that viewpoint. Realize that because others have a different past than you, they can have completely different opinions, even if those opinions don’t make sense to you. Resist the urge to talk them out of their opinions—listen and absorb.
Empathizing. Listening lets you take in the other person, and empathy adds compassion and appreciation for what it’s like to be them. Empathy communicates a deep acceptance and concern for the other person which facilitates bonding and trust. And that’s when a tiny miracle happens: Two hearts, with two different perspectives and two varying realities, connect.