Between the joy and hope of the Christmas season, some stepfamilies find themselves in frustrating power plays between homes.
“Because he is on edge and doesn’t want to deal with his ex-wife, he procrastinates in finding out details about the schedule,” Connie complained about her husband. “This causes tension between us when I ask what the plans are. If he has not spoken to her yet, he gets defensive and mad at me. We are always tip-toeing around each other, wondering if the next event will blow up like others have.”
Connie and her husband had fallen prey to the classic unresolved conflict between him and his ex-wife. The more he avoided dealing with his ex, the more the tension escalated between Connie and her husband.
It’s not uncommon for special family gatherings and the holidays to erupt hidden power struggles between ex-spouses. Issues that normally can be avoided in the regular routine of life are often not put aside when extra coordination and cooperation is demanded. Even former spouses that typically get along fairly well may burst into conflict during the season of hope.
Some common emotions and power plays that parents and stepparents may experience include:
- Aggravation when waiting for the other home to decide their holiday schedule.
- Annoyance when someone changes all of the plans at the last minute.
- Frustration over the biological parent who refuses to abide by the visitation schedule that was established in the divorce agreement.
- Stress over grandparents who refuse to cooperate with the boundaries you set.
- Sadness when the ever-present memory of a deceased parent is so highly honored that new traditions, meals, or decorations cannot be incorporated into your family traditions.
- Anger when extended family members voice their disapproval of the stepfamily to the children during family get-togethers.
These dynamics can make anyone feel helpless and weary. Here are a few smart steps to help curb the conflict and tension.
How to cope
First, pay attention to the stress and ask yourself what fears you have that may be fueling your reactions. Then talk with your spouse openly and discuss the situation in a calm manner. For example, after admitting to herself how difficult it is to respect her husband when he avoids his ex-wife, Connie might approach her husband calmly. “Honey, I know that talking to your ex-wife about holiday schedules is very stressful for you. I’m also aware that when I ask you what the plans are, it sounds as if I’m judging you for not talking to her. I certainly don’t mean to judge you or make you feel pressured. How can I best support you?”
Stepparents in this situation are sometimes tempted to take on all the responsibility for bridging the power plays between ex-spouses (“I’ll talk to her for you.”). This is a dangerous position to be in.
Sometimes stepparents can communicate with the other home more easily, but they should not take on too much responsibility. If they do, the tension that exists between exes will likely shift onto the stepparent’s lap. Instead, work a plan out together for how the biological parent will manage themselves as they contact the other home to work through details.
Second, choose “between-home battles” carefully. Whenever possible attempt to live in peace with the other home. This will require making sacrifices so the children don’t have to deal with warring parents. This may seem unfair if your family is making all of the concessions, but this is one reality of a stepfamily.
On occasion, however, there are battles which need to be engaged. The difficulty is learning when to deal with the issue and when to let it go. For example, if the other home normally is flexible about the holiday schedule, but for some reason this year is unwilling to bend, then let it go. But if he or she has a pattern of repeatedly ignoring the divorce arrangement, refusing to allow visitation, or if they control the children’s time, that’s probably a boundary worth battling. That parent is being unreasonable and hurting the kids.
Accommodating to their antics gives them more power and increases resentment within your home.
Staying on the same side
When holiday power plays begin, strive to stay on the same side with your spouse. The natural flow of stress, even if it is initially related to those living in the other home, is to ripple into your marriage. Couples must be diligent to guard and protect their relationships from this dynamic. Talking calmly with one another, not out of fear but confidence, lays the groundwork for moving through such stressful situations.
Managing holiday stressors
1. Ask grandparents to be equitable in gift giving to both grandchildren and stepgrandchildren, but remember that “blood should deal with blood,” i.e., husbands and wives should set this boundary with their own parents (not expect their spouse to do it for them).
2. When necessary, deal with power battles head on, but expect repercussions. For example, calmly notify a biological parent that he/she is repeatedly ignoring the legal visitation agreement and if he/she continues that you will take legal action against them. Understand that the process may become difficult, and the kids may be angry. However, it is necessary to bring accountability to the situation and break the cycle of behavior.
3. Avoid comparisons. “My kids only get to decorate one Christmas tree, his get two. Why should mine have to wait for his to come back from their mom’s before they can decorate the tree?” Decide these dilemmas based on what’s best for your home, not based on how it compares to the other home.
4. Manage money wisely. Because stepfamilies tend to be large, buying gifts for special occasions and Christmas can overload the stepfamily budget. Creative solutions include not insisting that children buy a gift for everyone, setting an overall family spending limit, drawing names for gifts, and focusing on fairness in purchases.
For those ministering to stepfamilies:
Check in with the stepfamilies in your care during the holidays. The added stress of the season tends to bring issues to the surface, so ask them what matters they are dealing with. As they wrestle with sometimes unreasonable people in their expanded family, encourage them. Also remember that being Jesus to someone doesn’t mean remaining a passive victim. Sometimes the righteous thing to do is to stand up to a power-play bully.