Important Advice for Step-Dads
Men who marry women with children come to their new responsibilities with a mixed bag of emotions. Your motivations may be very different from the reasons a man assumes responsibility for his own biological children. As a new husband, you might react to your instant family with feelings that range from admiration to fright to contempt. You might even see yourself as less effective than a biological father. A new stepfather typically enters a household headed by a mother. When a mother and her children make up a single-parent family, she tends to learn autonomy and self-confidence, and her children do more work around the house and take more responsibility in family decisions than do children in two-parent households. These are good things, but to enter such a family, you must work your way into a closed group. For one thing, mom and kids share a common history, one that does not yet include you. Moving into your wife’s house can make you feel like the odd man out. It might be months before you feel comfortable and at home. In truth, initially, stepfathers do have less power relative to stepchildren, particular adolescents, when they move into the mother-child home.
You might feel out of place because of a different background or because you have a different perspective on what family life is all about. After years of living as a single-parent family, for instance, both mom and kids are likely to have developed their own chore allocation system. As a newcomer, especially if you assume the traditional male role in a two-earner remarriage, you may draw complaints that you are not contributing enough. Or, while you think it helpful not to interfere, your behavior might be seen as an unwillingness to contribute.
The hidden agenda is one of the first difficulties a stepfather runs into. The mother, her children, or both, may have expectations about what you will do, but may not give you a clear picture of what those expectations are. You may have a hidden agenda of your own. You may see your new stepchildren as spoiled and unruly and decide they need discipline. Or, you may find that after years of privacy, a bustling house full of children disrupts your routine.
A part of the stepchildren’s hidden agenda is the extent to which they will let you play the father. Children can be adamant in their distaste for or jealousy of their stepfather, or they may be ready and anxious to accept you as a “new daddy.”
Stepfathers tend to be more distant and detached than stepmothers, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some detachment might be just what’s needed in order to have a workable relationship with your stepchildren, especially during the early years of your marriage. Teenagers may be mature enough to think of you primarily as their mother’s husband rather than as a stepfather. Teens, and younger children, may be unwilling to go back to being “children”—that is, dependent on and subject to adult direction. To you, they may seem spoiled and undisciplined rather than mature. Try to keep in mind that as part of a single-parent family, their responsibilities and participation in decisions were probably encouraged. The hidden agendas of mom, children, and you may be over simple matters of everyday living, things like food preferences, personal space, and the division of labor.
Discipline is likely to be particularly tricky for everyone. Two parents rather than one now establish house rules and influence the children’s behavior, but you and your spouse may not agree. A second problem can be the influence of the biological father. To you, there may sometimes seem to be three parents instead of two—especially if the non-custodial father sees the children regularly—with the biological father wielding more influence than you, the stepfather. The key is for everyone to work together.
You might react to all of this in one of four ways. First, you might be driven away. Second, you might take control, establishing yourself as undisputed head of the household, and force the former single-parent family to accommodate your preferences. Third, you might assimilate into a family headed by a mother and have relatively little influence on the way things are done. And fourth, you, your new wife, your stepchildren, and their non-custodial biological father can all negotiate new ways of doing things by taking to heart and incorporating the information you are about to learn—the most positive alternative for everyone.
Okay. Now you have a pretty good feel for what everyone is going through. How do you start to make it better? How can you give yourself breathing space—time to catch your breath while your new family begins to come together emotionally and learns how to work together, a process that can take years? First you must be very clear about what you want and expect from this marriage and the individuals involved, including yourself. What are you willing to do? What do you need from your spouse in order to feel supported physically and emotionally? In a loving and positive way, now is the time to articulate, negotiate, and come to an agreement on your expectations and about how you and your partner will behave.
The best marriages are flexible marriages. But how can you be flexible if you do not know where you, your spouse, and the children stand and what everyone needs right now? Needs will change over time. There must be room for change. People change and promises will not prevent change. People who vow never to change often try to hide their personal growth from each other, and the result, of course, is lost intimacy. People who are not flexible, who cannot change, may be left with a permanent, but stale, relationship.
In flexible marriages, partners are freer to reveal their changing selves and the parts of themselves that no longer fit into their old established patterns. You and your partner must continue to be in touch at a deep emotional level even when the outer framework of your lives changes. The more you know, the more you grow. You couldn’t possibly have known at the beginning of your new family what you know now and will learn later. Flexibility in your relationships will enable growth rather than tearing them apart.
Get in touch with your expectations and encourage every family member to do the same so you can compare and negotiate the differences. Your goal, and your partner’s, are to actively begin to define and built a healthy, supportive relationship. Talk over specific problems. Just because you were unable to predict some of the problems, don’t let that stand in the way of dealing with them now.
It is not uncommon for people who marry again to feel reluctant to fully commit themselves emotionally, even though they want the marriage to work. The struggles of your first marriage and divorce can leave scars. When not openly acknowledged and healed, past failure, rejection, loss, and guilt can undermine a new intimate relationship without either of you understanding what is happening. One way to release these feelings is to share them, and to make it safe for your partner to do the same. Each of you needs to feel secure, respected, positive about yourself, and as comfortable as possible in your new family unit.
You may feel the need to avoid conflict, even more than in your first marriage. It is understandable that you want to make this marriage work. You might feel too “battle-scarred” to open a can of worms. And so, you gloss over differences that need airing and resolution—differences over which you may not have hesitated to wage war in your first marriage. Avoiding airing your differences is a serious mistake. It is important for you to understand your own and your partner’s needs because society hasn’t a clue how step families should work. Unless you talk about your expectations, they are likely to be unrealistic.