109 Who Comes First in a Blended Family?
Stepfamilies are fundamentally different than biological families, which can create tension and ambiguity for everyone involved. In this episode, Ron Deal speaks with Dr. Patricia Papernow about key principles for healthy relationship building in blended families which navigating complex dynamics and competing priorities between the marriage and the children.
About the Guest
- Step-Insiders and Step-Outsiders
- Validating Children in Stepfamilies
- Dr. Papernow's website
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Dr. Patricia Papernow is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on “blended families,” entering her fifth decade of providing training and consultation all over the U.S. and the world. Her book, Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t, integrates current research with five decades of clinic...more
Stepfamilies are fundamentally different than biological families which creates tension & ambiguity. Ron Deal speaks with Dr Patricia Papernow about key principles for healthy relationship building while navigating complex dynamics & competing priorities.
109 Who Comes First in a Blended Family?
Ron: Welcome to the FamilyLife Blended podcast. I'm Ron Deal. We help blended families, and those who love them, to pursue the relationships that matter most.
I am so excited. In this episode, I'm going to be talking with a good friend of mine, somebody I admire very, very much, Dr. Patricia Papernow. Her academic work has helped stepfamilies, and helped clinicians, and marriage and family educators around the world. She certainly has been an influence on me. I'm going to tell you a little bit more about her and her work in just a minute. By the way, I will tell you right up front, we've got a couple of links in the show notes to some of her online videos, so be sure and check that out.
But first, let me just remind you that our worldwide livestream Blended and Blessed® is happening this month, Saturday, April 29th, 2023. We're going to be live in Melbourne, Florida, which means anybody within driving distance, please come and be a part of the live audience. But of course, livestream means that it's sent around the world, and it's recorded, so if you're in a time zone—I heard from Perth, Australia this week, and Finland and South Africa—so if you're in a place where you just can't watch it live, that's okay. It's available the next day or the next Saturday, or however you want to make use of it; just sign up and be a part of it.
Of course, you can attend as a couple on your very own, sitting down watching on your smartphone—laptop would be better or smart tv—but you can also join with a group of couples in your home. Or even better, a lot of churches are hosting this event for couples in their community, and you can put as many people in the room as you can possibly get to be a part of the day and enjoy that for just $99. That's the church fee. It's 19 bucks for you to sit at home and watch it by yourself. We would love to have you join us.
We're going to be talking about the word blessed. We do call it Blended and Blessed, but what does that mean to be blessed?—be a blessed blended family? How do you get there? How do you bring blessings, children, stepchildren? How does that work? So that's what we're going to be unpacking; got some great speakers lined up. Again, check the show notes. It'll tell you how you can be a part of it. Hope to see you there.
Well, my guest today on this episode of FamilyLife Blended is Dr. Patricia Papernow. She is widely recognized as one of the world's foremost academic experts on stepfamily. She's been teaching and writing and training therapists for about four decades. That's a long time. She's the director of the Institute for the Stepfamily Education and spends her time working with clients and training other therapists.
She has one biological child and five stepchildren, and I think seven grandchildren. Do I have the current number? Patricia, is that right?
Patricia: Seven is stepgrandchildren, and my daughter has two and a third on the way so we're—how many? That's going to be ten in May.
Ron: It's going to be ten; that's fantastic. Well, thank you so much for joining me today.
I appreciate you coming. You know, I first became familiar with your work in 1992. Now. I hate to say—
Patricia: We were both three.
Ron: That's right. [Laughter] I know. I was about to warn you. I'm going to date you a little bit. You and me both.
Patricia: That's ok. [Laughter]
Ron: 1992, Becoming a Stepfamily—
Patricia: Wow, that's 30 years ago.
Ron: That's right. That was—Becoming a Stepfamily was a required reading book for me in my graduate program, which was awesome. I met you—
Patricia: Oh, that’s cool.
Ron: Yes, isn't that cool? Back in that part/back in that day, it was a required course for me. I first met you in 1999 and I got to just tell you, you have greatly impacted my work and think I've told you that many years, many times over the years, but I just have to say it in this recording. I am really grateful for all the time and energy you have spent investing in stepfamilies: research, understanding, absorbing research and passing it on to others. So let me just start with a thank you.
Patricia: Ah, you're welcome.
Ron: I love it. Here's what I don't know: given all that history, I still don't know what got you started.
Patricia: Oh, I married somebody with two kids.
Ron: Yes, that'll kind of motivate you, won’t it?
Patricia: They were five and nine when I met them.
Patricia: It came time to do a dissertation. I was in a graduate program. I was allowed to do what's called a qualitative dissertation. I really stink at numbers so a qualitative dissertation you interview people and find the themes. I was allowed to do a qualitative dissertation, and I did mine on stages of development in becoming a stepparent. I got hooked. I got interested in that subject because my stepdaughters were five and nine when I met them. By the time I went to write my dissertation, we'd been at it like three or four years and things had changed. Some of it was that the kids got older, but some of it was that our family/something shifted in our family and that's what I was curious about.
Ron: Well, that’s actually a perfect lead in to my first question because I quote you all the time when I talk about blended families don't happen quick; that the journey to familyness, as we like to say around here, takes longer than most people anticipate when they go into the wedding. That comes straight out of your work. It takes years not months; certainly not weeks; certainly not days for most people.
I would love to just hear you talk around that. Let's pretend for a second that, that this listing audience right now has never heard that ever before. What would you want somebody to know about the process of becoming—
Patricia: —of becoming a stepfamily? The first thing is that that language blended just captures the wish.
Patricia: I mean, you know we want to make a new family that's like the first family I didn't have, often, and so the wish makes total sense except that stepfamilies are fundamentally different—we'll talk about that in a moment—from first time families.
It takes time, and it takes time for the stepparent and stepkid to build a relationship. It takes time for the family to—you've got at least two sets of values and culture, and how you do birthdays, and do you put color lights or white lights on the Christmas tree? I'm Jewish, do you have a Christmas tree?
The other thing that we're learning—and this is the research of Dawn Braithwaite and her colleagues—is that there are many turning points. There are I call—I've always said that fast families start to have some sense of solidity at maybe two or three years and things start to go smoothly/more smoothly at around four years; and families that struggle but get some help, it's more like six or seven.
Then I have what I call repair and return families. I have couples who come back at 15 years and say, “We're having communication difficulties,” and it turns out that tons of stepfamily issues have gotten pushed under the rug. Well, it turns out that it's not linear but there are lots and lots of turning points, lots of turning points through the years.
Ron: Let's keep talking about that. I love the idea of turning points: things that move the family in a positive direction that often they don't even notice when that little turning point happened. Like it might have been so subtle that they didn't quite catch that something important just happened but over time—I know Dr. Braithwaite's material says that over time they can look back at it and go, “Yes, I think that's sort of when things began to get better.” Explain that concept a little bit and what are some turning points that people can practically move toward.
Patricia: —expect. Well, I think we probably have to back up and say why stepfamilies are fundamentally different from first time families. In a first-time family both parents hold the new baby and go gaga.
I'm watching my daughter and her husband hold this—now they're up to their second and going on their third—you know they both light up. That child comes into the room, and you know at least 80 percent of the time, both parents light up and the child feels that connection to both parents and both parents feel that connection to the child. And over time those—we call it attachment but connection—sense the “I know you. I know you'll light up when I walk in the room,” that grows over time.
The second child comes into that already established set of relationships and little by little the family develops ways we do things. You know, “How we do the lights on the Christmas tree?” “When we do the lights on the Christmas tree?” “Do we do them on Christmas morning?” “Do we do them three weeks before we do them?” You know, “How do we read the paper?” Big fight in a couple I saw a couple months ago; he/they both want to read the sports section first. Well, in her first marriage, it was absolutely clear she'd read the sports section first. He wasn't interested. [Laughter] Second marriage turns out they both want to read the sports section and they have to work it out.
In a first-time family that all, if things are going well, develops slowly over time. When there's a split, then the child is a member of usually in two single parent families. When a new person comes in, here we have this lovely idea of a blended family, except the primary, original standing attachment is between the parent and his or her child or children and the stepparent is an outsider to that relationship and the child often is not too interested in having a stepparent. In fact, if the ex is upset or the divorce was hard, or the kid is a 12-year-old girl, those kids are often really uninterested in having a stepparent, which means they're not too welcoming. They all light up.
Ron: That's right; that's right. So, when the child walks in, they may light up toward their biological parent—
Patricia: —their parent.
Ron: —and that parent may light up towards them.
Patricia: If they're a good parent, they'll light up towards their kid, and what happens to the stepparent?
Ron: And even if the stepparent, even if they're lighting up towards the child, they have goodwill, and a good heart, doesn't mean the child necessarily returns it.
Patricia: There may be no light coming back and your partner—I mean, the story I always tell is, here I am. You're my partner. We're talking. You finally got some connection with me. My kid is on the bus, and she just made the soccer team, or she didn't make the soccer team. She gets off the bus; she bursts through the door. Who does she want to tell? Me—"Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” So, I'm talking to you; my kid comes in the door. I'm a good parent. What do I do? I turn toward my kid and where do I leave you?—standing on the outside.
Ron: Yes, and literally you turn your attention and your body posture, it may shift.
Patricia: That's right.
Ron: Your head may turn in the direction of that child. By the way, in a first-time family, when a child enters and has news and they run in and it's—and they may say, “Mommy, Mommy” not knowing Daddy's there as well, but immediately both parents are brought into the celebration—
Patricia: That's right.
Ron: —or the sadness, whatever the case may be.
Patricia: That's right; that's right.
Ron: It's clearly different in the stepfamily.
Patricia: —in a stepfamily. Younger kids are a little easier, eight and under, and boys are often easier than girls.
Here's the start. It means stepparents and stepkids have to start from scratch. And some of the turning points that Dawn Braithwaite and her colleagues have found interviewing kids and also interviewing stepparents, like what helps a stepparent bond with a stepkid? We can tell you the research is, the first thing is the stepparents are pulled into discipline for a whole lot of reasons. One is the kid does something that's a little irritating. The parent has all that positive feeling in their hearts and their minds and their bodies, so the behavior is not as irritating. The stepparent doesn't have all that.
Patricia: And besides, you know, in my husband's family, you do not stand in front of the refrigerator and eat. In my family, as a single parent, that was fine with me. [Laughter] Glad she's serving herself.
Ron: Right; right.
Patricia: So, the combination of that; the kids' behavior is often more irritating to stepparents than it is to parents. Stepparents often want to step into discipline. Parents sometimes want them to. But we have such clear, such clear research that until children feel they have a caring, trusting relationship, parents need to lead in the limit setting. Stepparents have input. Stepparents and parents need to talk a lot. Often, stepparents can help parents firm up, and parents can help stepparents understand and soften up. But it's the parent who needs to say, “Either you get your homework done or else.”
Ron: So really that stepping into discipline too quickly thing for a stepparent could be a turning point—
Patricia: That's a negative turning point.
Ron: —in a negative direction. Exactly.
Patricia: That's correct.
Ron: If they feel empowered to say, “You know what? I think you and I should go ask your mommy or daddy about that.”
Ron: And then it can become a positive thing because they're moving the child back towards the parent who has that emotional relational equity with the child to be able to follow through on a no or a disciplinary act of some sort, and it's preserving the stepparent then for more positive experiences with the child.
Patricia: Right. The way I put it is stepparents have to focus on connection, not correction.
Ron: Yes, that's right.
Patricia: —with a kid who may or may not be up for connection.
Ron: Right. Their level investment varies.
Patricia: It varies hugely. What are some of the ways, the turning/positive turning points for stepparents around connection? One is just being interested in the kid; get to know this kid.
Patricia: Now oftentimes kids in the younger generation are much more into technology and social media than we are. I'm a little older than you so I'm even further removed, but this generation of young kids is so much more, and so there's my stepgrandson who's living with us playing video games. Now—
Ron: Step into that world.
Patricia: Can you step into that world even if you don't like it, even if you don't approve of it? Be interested: “Show me about this. How does it work?”
Ron: Yes, take interest in who they are and what they like and try to join them in that space. I mean, that's just a, a simple little first step, but you know the heart of that. What I like about that, Patricia, is the heart of it is “I want to get to know this child. I want this child to feel that I am pursuing their heart.”
Patricia: “I’m interested in them.”
Ron: And so even after those initial connections are made where you've discovered they like video games, over time it's just continuing to sort of pursue their heart in whatever ways they will allow you to pursue.
Patricia: Right, and it's hard when they don't allow you.
Patricia: And when they don't allow you, you're going to need to go get a hug.
Patricia: And by the way, you're going to need to get that hug from your partner—
Ron: That's right.
Patricia: —out of your stepkids eyesight.
Ron: I want to come back to that in just a minute.
Patricia: We'll come back to that.
Ron: Because I know people listening are going, “Yeah, okay, that's us. What do we do about that?”
Patricia: We'll come back.
Ron: A couple more turning points. I just love her research, just the simple acts of kindness and pursuing a child and just—you know it makes so much sense when you think about it. You can make a friend out of anybody as long as you're kind to them. I mean, most people—
Patricia: Kindness helps a lot. And it's not easy to be kind to a child who's not thrilled that you're there. But to keep pulling on your kindness and when you don't have it, take yourself for a walk. Don't take it out on the kid. Kids also talk about a moment when I was vulnerable and my stepparent looked at me and said, “Boy, you're kind of sad, huh?” Or “Gee, that didn't go well.” Stepparents really sort of empathizing.
Another one really important in the research is stepparents handling conflict well. Now, all of us can learn something about how we handle conflict because if you're upset, it's really easy to not be kind. It’s easy for stepparents to say, “You will not do this.
You may not be rude.” That's discipline. When you're upset—we call it an “I” message—can you use an “I” message? “I would love it if…” is a great sentence stem. “I would love it if you'd say hello to me. You know we didn't choose each other. You didn't choose me, but you know, we're in the same house. I'd love it if you'd say hello.” Or even, “You know I'd love it if you did knock those dishes off, honey. That would make a big difference to me.” Not “You will wash the dishes or else.”
Ron: “And you'll be happy about it.”
Patricia: “And you’ll be happy about it,” right. [Laughter]
Ron: Yes, that's really stretching it, isn't it? Yes.
Patricia: Those kinds of moves make connections.
Ron: Yes, and again, I can see how difficult that would be for somebody who has, you know, taken a beating, so to speak. Over and over and over again you've extended yourself. You're doing those acts of kindness and you're just getting nothing in return.
Patricia: And it’s hard.
Patricia: Yes, and sometimes kids come around.
Another thing that helps is one to one time without the parent present: doing something shoulder to shoulder. They actually bring gangs together this way. They give them something to do together and that makes a bond. So, you know this kid likes to cook, and you help this kid make a birthday cake for his dad.
Ron: Let's press into that a little bit because I really want our listeners to catch what you said, “shoulder to shoulder.” I think for some people what they want is eye to eye. You know, they want intimacy. They want closeness.
Patricia: That's what I want. [Laughter]
Ron: And of course, that's ultimately what you want, and you're working towards that, and maybe someday you can get there, but it starts side by side doing a task together that's meaningful to the child is what I hear you saying. That then warms their heart towards you; makes you seem honorable, respectful; somebody—you know, you're caring about what they care about so that makes it a little easier for them to care about you. But it has to start impersonal almost.
Patricia: Right. It also starts to build some cartilage, starts to build some experience of connection when you didn't have any.
Ron: One of the other things I know in the turning points research is spending what we might call quality time together, but she made a note in that and that was that often comes later, not sooner. And that too is one of those being patient and waiting for the time or the opportunity to really have some good quality time together. If you try to orchestrate it too much too soon, it can work against you; but if you be patient with that to where it feels like maybe the child is ready and then, you know, test the water, try it and see; that that eventually can really be a positive turning point for people.
Patricia: Absolutely. I love what you said about taking your time.
Another one she talks about is siding. Meaning, dad said a kid wants to/kid doesn't want to go to college—this is actually happening in my family—kid doesn't want to go to college. Mom really wants him to go to college, but stepdad really gets it. This kid, college isn't the thing for him.
Patricia: Stepdad helps the kid, helps mom understand that college isn't the thing for this kid and that there are really lots and lots and lots of really good earning jobs.
Aviation mechanic turns out to be one of them I just learned. There are lots of really good earning jobs for our kids and—you know, 14 months to become an aviation mechanic as opposed to four years of college where this kid is going to flunk out—stepdad gets it, and stepdad helps mom understand. Those are really positive turning points for kids. Parents don't always like it. [Laughter]
Patricia: “You didn't back me up.” [Laughter]
Ron: Right; exactly.
Patricia: For parents to know that when your allies with your kid, if you can just really calm yourself down and have somebody inside celebrate.
Ron: Here's the takeaway folks for this, for these turning points. The simple little things that move your relationship in a positive direction over time can have pretty significant results. Again, take to heart that it doesn't necessarily happen immediately or right away. What's cool about this research that we're referencing is that it's adult stepchildren that they interviewed, and you've had some time now to grow up, have a little maturity, maturity to you, and you're looking back now of this relationship that developed with your stepparent over time and what were the things that were significant and helpful to you?
So, it's time and perspective that turns these things—
Patricia: --make a big difference.
Ron: Exactly. Exactly. So even if you feel like, “Man, I'm doing the kindness thing, but getting nowhere.” well, maybe you are getting somewhere, you just don't feel it yet.
Patricia: You're not getting the feedback, which is tough, but you're putting money in the bank.
Ron: Okay, so let's wrap back around to that little thing you mentioned. Let's talk to a stepparent for a minute who's doing everything right and they're just still feeling like they can't get anywhere. How would you encourage them?
Patricia: Well, the first thing is, it's hard. We are—there's a guy named Stephen Porges and you talk about neurobiology, which means how we're wired. What he basically says is we are wired to expect that the people close to us will turn towards us, and when they turn away, it's very dysregulating. One of the things that's really important to know is that outsider position is hard. It's hard for humans to be left out over and over.
Patricia: And to be sweet to yourself about it, to read enough or learn enough to know that it's the structure, not you, and it's still upsetting. What do you do with your upset? Well, best if you can get some comfort from your partner.
Two things about that. One is how you approach your partner is going to have something to do with whether they can respond. Because you're the left-out outsider. Your partner is what we call a stuck insider. I turn to my kid and my sweetie is upset. I turn to my sweetie and my kid's upset. That's a terrible position to be in. That was my position in my first marriage. My second marriage, it was very hard. My first marriage, I was the outsider, but in the second marriage I was—you know my kid needed me terribly. When I turned to her, my/I had to leave my husband out. I turned to my husband, had to leave her out.
To know that your partner may be leaving you out is not doing it to be mean, is not doing it because they're stupid, is not doing it because they don't love you. They're doing it because they're a parent. And so, can you reach instead of criticize? Criticize comes easy. “I can't believe you abandoned me this morning when we were talking.
Your kid came in the door, and you turned your back on me again.” is really different from “Honey. I'd really love a hug.”
Ron: It's very different.
Patricia: That’s a request and it's easier to respond to.
Ron: In order to get to that request, you do have to hold your anger, don't you? You have to say—
Patricia: Well, you have to—yes.
Ron: —”What am I after here?”
Patricia: “What do I need?” You may need to go for a walk. You may need—because if you approach in anger, good chance you're going to make a mess of it.
There's a guy named John Gottman who does a lot of research couples. What he says is some great percentage. He's—who is a former mathematician, so like 89 percent of conversations—it's not 90 or 70—89 percent of conversations end the way they begin. If you start by criticizing, you're sort of setting the stage for a mess. But you're absolutely right, and it may take a while to get to, “I need a hug.”
Ron: Yes. And there's a discipline in that moment that I think is really significant and very hard for all of us, for all of us and it's---but there's a reward if you can move toward what Patricia is saying.
Ron: Take that deep breath, take that walk, calm that little angry part of you, and come back with the part of you that really is longing and try to let the longing speak rather than the hurt.
Patricia: I’d love a hug, right?
Patricia: Now, here's the thing about hugs in stepfamilies. Oftentimes adult/parents will say, “Oh, I want to show my kids a loving relationship. The deal is though kids don't want to watch their parents be physical with somebody who's not their parent. Hmm. It actually, we haven't talked about kids yet, but it intensifies their feeling of it's too much change. It's often really upsetting for kids.
Ron: Is this a timing thing? Like in the beginning go easy on physical affection?
Patricia: No, it depends on the kid. Three years in, I'm with my husband. We used to drive model A cars. We're in the front seat. My stepdaughter's in the back. We're three years in. I'm holding my husband's hand. I look up in the rear-view mirror and my stepdaughter, who was about 20 at the time or 18, was scrunched. I took my hand away and she sat up. She was of course in the backseat left out, but she now didn’t want to watch her father hold my hand. Three years, you know, err in the direction.
Ron: Yes, err in the direction of—
Patricia: Be careful.
Ron: —taking it easy. Yes, be careful.
Patricia: Do touch each other. Do hold each other but do it in private.
Ron: Okay. What if you, you want to move toward that place where you want to express that in front of the children, what/do you have any principles that would help people decide when that's okay to do?
Patricia: I don't have anything clear except watch the kids go and you're going to have to watch for subtle. The kids get a little tight—you know, “Do they look warm?” Keep it cool to start with.
I mean, one of the things I describe is if you ever had a friend and you were both single together for a long time and that friend got a boyfriend or girlfriend and you're at lunch with them and they're looking at each other, you know—
Ron: You’re the third wheel. [Laughter]
Patricia: —like you're—how do you feel and do you really want to watch them kiss? You're a grownup. Do you really want to—I don't think you do because you feel left out and you're a grownup. A kid needs that parent and doesn't have the other parent to turn to because that other parent is in a different household or may have died so they're in the direction of cool. Be kind to each other; that's important. But go slow with the physical stuff.
Ron: Okay, this is really good. I just want to kind of sum it up so we can press in a little bit more because I want to talk about how stepfamily couples can really guard their relationship in the midst of all of these things that are pulling them in different directions.
We started getting into this because we were talking about that stepparent who's feeling on the outside and not able to break in with the child, and they need a hug from their partner, their spouse, to say, “Hey, I see you.” I often tell biological parents “Your spouse every once in a while, needs a great big hug from you and a thank you for getting the short end of the stick again. “I just want you to know I see that. I see the sacrifices,”—
Patricia: Oh, is that great advice.
Ron: —“all the things you're doing for my son or daughter, and I just want you to know I see it and I'm sorry. I know this is hard, but I love you and thank you.”
Patricia: That is a good investment.
Ron: That is a huge investment. And that is a move toward guarding your marriage in the midst of the stuff that pulls you apart. What else? Because that is where the rubber meets the road for a lot of couples; that the parenting stuff intersects with the marital stuff and both of them take a hit. So how do you, what would you suggest to couples to help guard that relationship?
Patricia: Well, one thing I often suggest is one-to-one time throughout the family. I mean, you do need to do things as a family that are fun, that make a new we. Every relationship—in a first-time family, like we said earlier, a kid comes in the door, both parents are engaged and both parents feel connected, and the kid feels connected to both parents. The parents turn to each other, and the kid feels taken care of.
In a stepfamily, as we said earlier, if I turn to my kid, I turn away from you; and if I turn to you, I turn away from my kid. One of the things that helps that is a lot of one-to-one time where the couple has time alone without kids, where the stepparent isn't left out and the parent isn't torn. The stepparent and stepchild we talked about a little earlier; have some shoulder-to-shoulder time. Let's add one more thing: parents and children need some one-to-one time. We can maybe come back to that because kids lose their parents when parents recouple. Parents don't intend that.
So one-to-one time throughout the family. In terms of preserving and nurturing the couple, make sure even if they are short, 30 second times. You know, texting each other, before you get up in the morning giving each other a kiss.
My husband and I have very different—I'm a night owl and he's like five AM in the morning, goes to sleep at seven/9:24 at the end of the A block of the of the program we watch together. [Laughter] At nine o'clock, he's gone. Now I'm up to 11 or 12 at night but I kissed him when I come to bed and when he gets up at five or six in the morning, he always kisses me good morning. Always, and if one of us doesn't do that, there is heck to pay.
So that's what, 20 seconds? It's not very long. A 20 second hug out of kid's eyesight, a 6 second kiss out of sight/kid's eyesight, those kinds of connections. It doesn't have to be really long, but it needs to be regular—sometime in the day when you're turned towards each other.
Ron: It's compartmentalization as you like to talk about.
Ron: And it's really helpful because—and I really want our audience to hear this—because it takes away when it's compartmentalized husband and wife together, or biological parent and child together, it removes that added third party who feels left out.
Patricia: It removes the competition.
Ron: Well said; I love that. Yes, it removes the competition, makes it cleaner and allows both people to be fully engaged in that moment for themselves.
Patricia: Yes; exactly.
Ron: So even if they're micro moments when—it doesn't have to be a date with a babysitter.
Patricia: It doesn't have to be like you go out and spend $155 for a really, really expensive meal, you know. That regular 20 second connection that my husband and I—and he's not a big talker. He’s a civil engineer. He's not a psychologist like me, but that means the world to me—those little moments.
Ron: Yes, okay, so let me be devil's advocate because I can hear somebody pushing back going, “Oh, but Dr. Papernow, we're trying to create that new we, that new familyness thing, and so we've got to have everybody together in the happy moment all the time, or we're just going to stay”—
Patricia: Or “We're failing.”
Ron: “We're failing; we're not going to blend at all at that point.” How would you respond?
Patricia: I would say I understand the wish, and I understand the idea—you know that language of blending would make you imagine that you get closer by spending a lot, a lot of time together. And stepfamilies do need to do some fun things together. And every time the whole family is together—we mentioned that word competition a little while ago—there is competition. If we meet the needs of the couple, the kid's left out. If we meet the need of the kid to bond with their parent, the stepparent is left out. And anytime the stepparent is in the presence of the parent-child relationship, that relationship is stronger, and the stepparent is left out.
So yes, I understand the idea, and I understand the wish, and it makes logical sense, but it doesn't work. [Laughter]
Ron: Yes, and you can't force the blend, right. It is something that will develop.
Patricia: Isn’t that a bummer? [Laughter]
Ron: Yes. You know, wish with time, I guess would be the thing I would say is, continue to be patient with the process and the familyness comes later, not at the beginning.
Patricia: It does.
Ron: And so, it's about forcing it. That's what undoes the possibility of you getting to that wish for that to become a reality. Patience is a huge virtue.
I can hear another question because we get this all the time. People say, “Well, so which is it? Is it my spouse or my kids? Who's the priority? And I always go—
Patricia: Don't you wish you could—it's not either or.
Ron: It's not either or.
Patricia: It's both and.
Ron: It's both and. Thank you.
Patricia: It's both and.
Ron: But that does mean you might have to go about doing both and at separate times as we've been talking about. You may have to be very strategic about how you invest in each of those relationships. But to just assume that all three parties can be in the room together and everybody feel equally included, that is something you can't force to happen.
Patricia: Yes, that's correct.
Ron: Parenting. How does a couple keep their marital us in the midst of making parenting decisions when they're on different sides? Like you were saying earlier, when their biological parents is deeply invested in that relationship with their child and the stepparent is also invested, but in a different way. The emotional attachment, it's very different.
Patricia: And so how do you talk about a difference is part of it. How do you talk about a difference? Because we have the idea that we're a good couple if we agree about everything and gosh knows if we agree it's easier.
Ron: Hmm, sure. [Laughter]
Patricia: If we both feel the same way, if we're both looking at this baby that we're both in love with, it's lovely. But if we're arguing over who's going to get up in the night, that's not so lovely. [Laughter] So the differences are hard, and even in first time couples—John Gottman, that wonderful, researcher says, 69 percent—again, there he is with his numbers—69 percent of marital differences never go away.
Ron: —perpetual problems.
Patricia: And what makes a difference between what he calls masters couples and disaster couples, is how they talk about it. So how do we talk about the fact that my husband is much, much more of a boundary setter and a limit setter and I'm much, much more, you know, you got to start with warmth. If you start with control, it's going to be a mess. And we could fight about that and gosh knows we have, you know?
My stepgrandson is living with us and we've had bad fights about it, and we are a great team. So how do we talk and stay calm and kind and collaborative? How do I be interested in what he has to say about, “I think we need some limits here” and how does he be interested in what I have to say? Which is, “I think this kid really needs warmth. We’ve got to lead with warmth.”
Now, this happens to be a reverse position that the stepperson is more into warmth than the parent. Grandparent is more into limits. But how do you talk in a way that's collaborative and caring and kind and very likely in a stepcouple, parents going to be more into “I want you to understand my kid,” and stepparents going to be more into “I can't believe you let them get away with that.”
Ron: Why is it that somebody might—let's just go with that for a second—so the stepparent is saying, “Man, I can't believe you're letting him get away with that. We’ve got to tighten up”—more boundaries, more consequences, whatever it might be.
How can a biological parent in that situation calm their heart and not be so quick to determine, “Oh, you're saying this because you don't like my kid”? Is that a pattern you see: sometimes biological parents jump to that conclusion?
Patricia: It's easy to jump to a conclusion when you don't like what the other guy's doing.
Patricia: Or saying. “She's saying that because she's a wimp.” That's what stepparents often say. [Laughter] “He wraps her/himself around her finger.” I think the first thing is, can you calm yourself enough to find what you do understand? I call it joining. It's not agreeing. It's calming yourself enough to find what you do understand rather than starting by arguing.
Now that is a—talk about discipline. That was a good word you used earlier. That is a discipline. Can I begin by saying, “Well, I really get that you really would like me to set more limits and it's really bothering you. Do you want to tell me any more about that? And now would you be willing to hear where I'm coming from? And can you return the favor and just let me know what you do get?” If we do that, we're probably going to be a good team.
Ron: Because you're taking turns listening and hearing and trying to come together and that—I want to remind our listener, we got into this conversation around guarding and protecting your marriage. If you're going to end up on polar opposite sides of a parenting issue and be stuck in that polar opposite, it also creates a polar opposite marital position. It's hard to be lovers when you really can't be parents together. This is not just about the kid in the parenting moment. It is also—
Patricia: It’s definitely about the couple. And you can have a difference and be connected. Here's the other thing. If I begin by letting you know I get where you're coming from, that's calming. Part of what we're trying to find is, how can we talk about this and both of us stay calm, in our wise mind, calm, caring, kind, collaborative when I really want to kill you for what you just said? [Laughter]
Ron: Yes, that's right. When the amygdala hijack happens and your brain—
Ron: —goes into, you know, fight, flight, or freeze reactivity, rule number one for all of us—this is me included. My wife and I just did a seminar last week for a couple hundred couples and we talked a lot about how difficult it is to put on the/put on self-control in those moments and to say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. I am reacting out of pain now and I can't do that or all I'm going to do is bring even more negativity to the equation.” So how do I discipline myself? Self-control, slow down—
Patricia: How do I calm down?
Ron: —calm down. Yes, and then begin to look for the joining, as you said, the opportunity, and listen.
Patricia: What do you understand? Not what you agree with, but can you let your partner know what you do understand about where they're coming from? That it really bothers you that the kids' dishes are in the sink. Doesn't bother me; I've let them put their dishes in the sink for the 10 years I was a single parent, or the year or the two years I was—but dishes really bother you and you really would like them to clean them up. I get that. That must be really upsetting. That's calming which—that, and you really can only have good connection. You can't have good connection if you're both losing it or one of you is freezing. It's just not possible.
Ron: Let me ask you a different question. What are some common dilemmas that you see couples getting into about parenting or co-parenting?
Patricia: Co-parenting, you mean with the ex-spouse?
Ron: Yes. Co-parenting with the other household, yes.
Patricia: This is one of the toughest things about being a stepfamily, and that is that your family does not stop at the door.
Patricia: You know, there are lots of cultures. African American stepfamilies tend to do—both adolescents are doing better than their white Anglo counterparts. We think it's partly because the African American tradition of/is much more parenting across households, and it's partly perhaps an African communal, but also a resilient response to slavery when families are torn apart, so there's a lot of parenting across households.
But the Anglo idea is you have one mom, one dad, and that's it, and kids. And so, when you have another parent, it's easy then to treat that parent as, you know, you wish that you'd get rid of them or and they're part of your family.
Ron: Yes. If they're an enemy, if you view them as an enemy, then you're not going to be collaborative at all, and you lose the ability to then work together on behalf of the child.
Patricia: Not only are you not going to be collaborative, but we have tons of research. I am updating my book and the research on conflict/adult conflict and its impact on kids—there's so much of it. I'm completely overwhelmed. I have pages. What we know is that the most robust predictor of poor wellbeing in children is adult tension, and not just outright nasty conflict. Moderate tension in first time married, not divorced families impacts kids academic functioning. It impacts their attention, and it impacts their immune systems. It's bad for kids.
If you are making an enemy of your partner's ex or your ex, you're putting poison in your kid, and would you really ever want to do that?
Patricia: You really wouldn't want to do that. And talk about discipline, how do you manage that in a way that protects your kids?
Ron: I think what I just heard you say is, above all, try to be collaborative with the other household and don't add to the hostility of the environment between you.
Patricia: And if you can't be collaborative, two things. One is that/what we call parallel households. You have your rules, I have mine, and they're separate and different. That's a little hard for kids, but you know especially kids over eight or nine, often have Mrs. Jones, who won't let you get up and sharpen your pencil—not that kids sharpen their pencils anymore. [Laughter]—and Mr. Smith who let you get up anytime. Kids can manage a difference as long as Mr. Jones and Mrs. Smith are not picking on each other or saying bad things about each other.
Households may be different as long as the adults are respectful, and if you disagree, don't do it in kids' earshot.
Ron: Yes, wow. Keep that level of tension reduced as much as you possibly can.
Patricia: Protect your kids. If you cannot have an exchange without a crackle, then arrange—you know, one parent drops the kid at school and the other picks them up after school. Protect your kid.
Ron: Let's loop back to where we started and close our conversation by just sort of looking at, you said at one point that the process of becoming a family, so to speak—deepening relationships, forming attachments between stepparent, stepchild and stepsiblings is not linear. It's cyclical or it grows. Two steps forward, one step back, maybe is another way of saying it. There are sometimes where families kind of feel like, “Wow, we've gone backwards a little bit.” Could you just talk a little around that?
Patricia: Yes. Sometimes it's not a little bit. There can be—you know, my daughter chose not to be vaccinated and all her stepssibs did, and this is 26 years in. That isn't repaired yet. And now that—we're not the only family where that's happened. It's disappointing and it's sad. My daughter's husband says, “You're the expert on stepfamilies.” [Laughter] I say, “Yes, I'm the expert on stepfamilies and I know exactly where the crack was.” That's where the crack happened. It happened between my daughter and her stepsibs.
So yes, we have negative turning points, as we go along. Let's not forget, one thing we haven't talked about is the challenges for kids.
Patricia: My kid is/was the youngest and her three step siblings are older. There are three Goldbergs—my husband's last name is Goldberg—and only one Papernow to start with. She was the outsider of the family to start with. She was quite a lot younger than they were, and they all got married and they all had kids way before she did. She's just starting her family. My stepgrandkids are aged 19 down to 10 and she's got a 3-year-old and 1½ -year old and a new baby on the way. Totally different life stage—she's always been the outsider.
When families come together, kids' positions change. She was the only child and now she's the outsider. My husband's daughter—he has two sons and a daughter—she was the finally the favorite girl. Finally, a girl and now she has to share with a younger sibling—half-sibling/step sibling. Kids' positions change, and that—you know when the vaccination thing came, it hit right on that spot. My kid is the outsider.
Kids also—a new partner is often a loss. It's a wonderful gift for the adults. I found the love of my life; what could be better? But study after study finds that kids experience that when a parent recouples, they/kids lose parent parental attention. And it's cause grownups are just as gaga as kids are.
Patricia: And now on your phone texting; you're supposed to be at dinner with your kids and you're texting your sweetie, you know? [Laughter]
Patricia: The other thing is loyalty binds. If my mom is upset because my dad recoupled, that's going to be/make it much harder for me to welcome a new stepparent. One of the things I think that's really important, and the reason I want to make sure we talk about this, is the adults are often in such a different position from the kids. And what we know about all people, but especially kids, is what's most regulating and grounding is you get where I am. It's a guy named Dan Siegel. He calls it “Feeling felt.” You get how hard this is for me to have a new stepparent. Well, a parent is thrilled and so it's often hard for the adults to really get where kids are coming from.
Ron: That too is a discipline for that biological parent, for example, who has to say, “Yes, I'm thrilled, and I wish you would get on board, but I can't really try to push that on you right now. What I need to do is tune in to you and listen and affirm.”
Patricia: That's right. I think often parents and stepparents need to learn something about where kids are coming from. They need to read about it, hear about it. They need to get information because they don't have it and kids may be saying something like, “I hate her.” Well, that doesn't give the parent a whole—you know a really tuned in parent would say, “Oh, something's hard for you about this.” But most human parents would say, “How could you say that? She's a perfectly nice person.” about their new sweetie. So oftentimes the adults really have to study a little bit in addition to being disciplined.
Ron: And it occurs to me that I would have to believe that I'm not being disloyal to my spouse to say to my child, “Oh, this is hard for you. I can see how you feel lost in the mix.” That that's not being disloyal to your spouse to just connect into the child, and it would be doubly important for that stepparent to say, “Hey, look, you have my permission to tune into your child about— I'm not feeling left out in the cold. I understand your child needs this.”
I tell people all the time, biological parents move toward your children even as you're moving towards your spouse. Because if your children don't feel your movement toward them, they can't move toward your spouse. That's what sort of completes the picture but it has—
Patricia: They need you or else they're deprived.
Ron: That's right.
Patricia: Your partner is a deprivation for them and you're guiding them to fill the need, so it's a little easier to make room.
Ron: So much wisdom. Patricia, thanks for joining me today. I really appreciate your time. And again, thank you for all the work that you've done through the years to invest in teachers, academics, institutions, clinicians to help them do a better job working with stepfamilies. Thank you.
Patricia: Well, I'm always glad to put this information in the hands of people who can use it, so thanks for asking.
Ron: If you want to learn more about Dr. Papernow you can look at our show notes. If you want to leave a question for a future episode of our podcast, we'd love for you to submit that as well.
By the way, it occurs to me, a little follow up thought, if you want to know a little more about the Turning Points research that we referenced, I do a review of that in our book Building Love Together in Blended Families. And I'm mindful of Lauren Reitsema’s book. We've had her on this podcast many times before. Her book is In Their Shoes, which is all about the journey of children going through parental divorce, single parent years, and then into a blended family. if you want to, as Dr. Papernow was talking about, if you really want to try to understand children better and how you connect into their world, their feelings, I want to recommend the book In Their Shoes to you.
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Next time, we're going to have another episode about what we call Growing Up Blended. That's a series of interviews that we've done over time where we get to hear from adult children talking about what it's like to grow up in a blended family. I'm going to be talking with Dr. Darrell Bock. That's next time on FamilyLife Blended.
I'm Ron Deal, thanks for listening. I appreciate you being a part of this podcast.
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