Because each task deserves some elaboration, they will be broken into three separate articles. As you read these tasks, think about how each becomes even more challenging when you are a stepcouple.
Task #1: Create “coupleness” while successfully separating from your family of origin.
Successful couples create a “you and me against the world” mindset, with the husband and wife making their own rules for their new relationship and family. While it is still important to maintain a relationship with their families, the couple relationship should be the one they are most loyal to and put the most effort toward. Doing that creates a unity between you and your partner that cements your relationship together.
This task is immediately challenged in stepfamily life. The partner without children is challenged with the realization that, while her new partner may have separated from his family of origin, he is still in contact (often daily) with his old family. The children are a constant reminder of this, as are the regular phone calls with the ex about the children. Stepparents often struggle with this reality — that the ex-family will not go away — and while they may have anticipated the children, they could not have anticipated how intrusive contact with the ex-spouse would feel.
These constant conflicting loyalties are just a fact of stepfamily life. But it doesn’t mean you two cannot create boundaries by working together to help you solidify your relationship as a couple. It is still important in a stepcouple to create and solidify the bond in your couple relationship, which often means that both of you have to work toward a middle. For example, the bio parent could begin to minimize calls from the ex while, at the same time, the stepparent develops some acceptance that good communication with the ex will be better for the children. If the children are happier, it will cause fewer problems in the stepcouple and create a more satisfying relationship.
Task #2: Build a sense of togetherness and create autonomy.
This sense of togetherness is “built on a solid foundation of love and empathy, where each partner can learn to identify with the other and both with the marriage,” according to Wallerstein. Without that feeling of empathy, each partner will feel alone in the new marriage, especially if one stays blind about what their partner is experiencing as a stepparent.
The stepparent, who often feels like an outsider, will feel even more outside if she is being yelled at or told what to do by her spouse. That is not empathy. And the bio parent, who is often caught between what he wants to do with and for his children and what he wants to do to make his partner happy, will not feel understood and will almost always lean toward protecting his children during times of conflict.
In happy marriages, couples talk about what is good for or harmful to the marriage, as well as what is good for each individual, says Wallerstein. Stepcouples need to talk more often about what is good for the marriage because it will likely be in conflict with what is good for the individuals. The partners in a stepcouple must develop a shared vision based on being realistic about what they can accomplish in a marriage where children are brought in.
The fantasy many stepparents have that the children will go away will not build a strong sense of togetherness. “Many marriages fail because the couple has not built a sense of togetherness,” Wallerstein said. “Some think marriage just happens with no need to give up part of themselves — they are reluctant to stop self-focusing.”
A stepfamily asks more of a stepparent than of any other member and, because they are giving up so much to be with their partner, it hardly seems fair to ask more of them. When the bio parent can accept and understand this, he can help his partner by showing her love and respect for agreeing to being in this with him. Respect and honor go a long way in helping someone feel like it is worth staying in the relationship, no matter how hard it may get. Part of the respect and honor is to realize that your partner is in this relationship to be part a couple with you, so help your partner create that special time that belongs to just the two of you.
Task #3: Become parents.
In a nuclear family, the couple can meet, fall in love, and build their connection and their romance for several years before deciding to have children. They can move in together, learn about each other, develop their routines and their patterns, and then bring in a child (even if they don’t do it in this order, exactly). Any decisions about when and how to have a family are made together.
This is one of the tasks that a stepparent will have the hardest time with. If she wants a child of her own, it won’t be as organic as it would have been if there was no prior family. That can result in much resentment.
It is important for couples to talk about this early in the relationship so that there are no surprises later. If you are with someone who already had children and doesn’t want anymore, you need to know that before the relationship progresses.
The shared creation of a family is an act that often bonds and fuses couples together. As a stepparent, you are confronted daily that this stage already happened between your partner and someone else. But it doesn’t mean it can’t happen again for your partner with you, making it a special bonding event in your own partnership.
The first three tasks already challenge a stepcouple enough. Being blind to these things — as I certainly was with my first husband — will not help your marriage survive.
The next two tasks in Wallerstein’s study are so important that they are the focus of next month’s article on creating a satisfying marriage. Until then, take time to work on the first three steps so that you begin to develop the skills you need to make sure you have a long-lasting and successful stepcouple relationship.