Stepfamily life doesn’t always end when the kids turn 18. sometimes it’s just beginning.
Stepfamily life doesn’t always end when the kids turn 18. Sometimes it’s just beginning. Click To Tweet
When we think of stepfamilies, we generally picture a couple with one or more primary school children and perhaps a teenager thrown into the mix for good measure. It’s rare both in the research and in the currently available stepfamily supports to find much of anything that focusses directly on adult stepchildren.
But, ‘late in life’ marriages/partnerships are on the rise.
We are living longer. We are more socially connected. We are more likely to be working until 65 and beyond. And that means, we are seeing an increase in older people ending and forming new relationships – and may of those involve and impact on grown children. In fact, there are some family demographers who believe counting stepfamilies with adult children would double the number of stepfamilies in the USA.
We are also having fewer children, so relationships between adult children and their parents are increasingly important. Stepfamilies require big adjustments for children no matter if they are 4, 14 or 44 years old at the time. Patricia Papernow, author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t, notes that stepfamily dynamics can be just as complicated and stressful in stepfamilies with grown children as for stepfamilies with younger children.
Some challenges in stepfamilies look similar for both grown and younger children.
A child, no matter what their age, is likely to experience the following to some extent when a parent enters a new relationship:
Feelings of grief and loss
Feeling uncomfortable, rejected or betrayed by a parent’s decision to remarry
Feeling angry at their parent and/or stepparent
Disliking their parent showing overt signs of affection such as embracing or flirting with a new partner, and
Problems coping with parental pressure to develop a close relationship with a stepparent.
BUT, There are some stepfamily challenges that look very unique from the adult stepchild’s perspective:
While the burden is on the stepparent and parent/s alone to help a younger child adjust to stepfamily life, an adult child is capable of, and can rightfully be expected to, significantly contribute to working out relationships. It is true that an adult child has more control over the parent-child relationship than younger more dependent children. However, relationships need to be reciprocal. Biological parents and stepparents of adult stepchildren have significant roles to play in maintaining and/or building positive relationships with the children.
Shift in parental focus
Older parents who are re-partnering need to invest time and energy into their couple relationship. Depending on how this is managed and the amount of time the parent previously spent with his/her children and grandchildren, this can result in the parent spending less time with their children and grandchildren.
Parents with adult children in the midst of a new courtship/relationship may overlook that their adult children still have developmental milestones to achieve – i.e. further studies, employment promotions, home ownership, travels, new relationships and children of their own, etc.
Adult children do need their parents to remain interested and supportive of their activities (and those of their children) and celebrate their achievements even if they are no longer living together or seeing each other daily. Given their children are adults, a parent may give less regard to their achievements and spend more time and effort on their own couple relationships. A woman completing her master’s thesis provided Dr Papernow the following example:
“I have accomplished a lot. But it’s like there’s no place to take it to! My dad’s acting like a teenager in love and my mom is going nuts. They’re both too self-absorbed to notice.”
TIPS: It’s important for parents/stepparents to continue to acknowledge and be involved in the important milestones in their children and grandchildren’s lives.
If an adult child is feeling neglected, it’s appropriate to let their biological parents know – without blame or finger pointing.
Stepparents who are unable to have a relationship with their adult stepchildren (for whatever reason) can support their partner by encouraging him/her to continue their relationships with their biological children and attend and celebrate the children’s important milestones even if they choose not to be involved themselves (for whatever reason).
Stepfamily formation following loss of a parent
Grief and loss of a loved one can play out in unexpected ways – particularly when mixing in with stepfamily dynamics.
Generally speaking and depending on the timing of the new relationship, adult children are often pleased that their parent has found companionship. The ongoing care and support of aging parents can be a significant concern for adult children. However, the new relationship and how it is managed can also bring with it renewed grieving.
From an adult child’s perspective, stepfamily formation following (or during) the death of a parent is likely to result in difficult and unexpected interactions and situations. There can be painful feelings, for example, if the family home is sold because a parent is moving in with their new partner. Adult children may find it challenging to watch their mum or dad’s new partner share what was once their family home. Furniture, family photos and other keepsakes being replaced can also trigger feelings of significant loss. Aging parents may give away items without thinking of the effect on their adult children. For the adult child, those objects may represent pieces of themselves or special memories lost.
Tip: It’s key to remember that everyone grieves at their own time and space.
Remembrance is important. It helps if everyone can work together to find appropriate ways of honouring the parent and remember his/her significance – no matter how awkward it may feel.
Biological parents participating in remembrance rituals with their children and grandchildren without their partner present can be very important for adult stepchildren. It’s important for stepparents of adult stepchildren not to take this personally or as a reflection of their relationship with their partner’s adult children.
If the children are not accepting of the stepparent or vice versa, it is still important for the biological parent to initiate/accept connections and participate in rituals with their adult children and grandchildren to remember important dates such as the deceased parent’s birth and death dates.
Uncertainty about stepfamily roles
All stepparents and stepkids grapple with some role ambiguity at the beginning of their relationship. They may find themselves wondering: How am I supposed to be with this person? What’s expected of me? Who am I to him/her?
With adult stepchildren and their stepparents, the questions can be more pressing – and puzzling. It’s easy to slip into a pseudo-parental role with a six-year-old stepchild who skinned her knee. But what happens when the child is 36 or 46-years old?
Adult children don’t need (and may not want) another parent in their world. Particularly if the stepparent is the same age or younger than the stepchild.
Grown stepchildren can feel more comfortable relating to a new stepparent initially as their dad or mum’s new partner/spouse. This provides an opportunity for stepparents of adult stepchildren that is not typically available to stepparents of younger children – i.e. not being burdened with an expectation or requirement to be ‘parental’.
Adult children and stepparents have the ability to develop a relationship that suits who they are as individual people, rather than something dictated by child-caring responsibilities.
TIP: Give adult children the time and space to determine the kind of relationships they want with both their parent’s new partner as an individual and their parent’s new relationship as a couple.
In other words, it assists to let the adult children define the quality and extent of the relationships, including with the grandchildren.
Financial issues in stepfamilies are emotionally laden at the best of times. Financial issues for late in life stepfamilies can be a source of emotional turmoil for all involved for obvious reasons – more wealth has been accumulated, wills have been written (and perhaps re-written), and decisions about inheritances need to be made.
A late-life marriage with adult children can bring about changes in income and death benefits, which may cause stress and uncertainty for the children. Adult children are sure to have questions about what the future arrangements will look like, such as – Will the family home end up going to the new partner? Will the previous decisions/discussions around inheritance be changed?
Some older couples may feel dividing assets ‘equally’ among all of their children seems fair, but each parent’s biological children are unlikely to agree. Older children whose parents re-partner or start a second family that includes younger children and/or new biological children can often feel cut off financially.
TIP: Experts who work with couples with adult step/children often advise having frank discussions and even consultation with a trust and/or estates lawyer to consider different options and lessen the likelihood of confusion, dashed expectations or anger over inheritance issues.
Less support all around
Research on European couples conducted by De Jong Gievald & Peters (2003) indicates that re-partnering may hurt the biological parent-child relationship resulting in less family support for both biological parents and their adult children.
There is also some evidence that stepcouples with adult stepchildren live further away from their children geographically, see their children less often and have lower-quality relationships than biological parents. This can mean that adult children whose parents re-partner find themselves transitioning through adulthood receiving and providing less parental support.
Older stepparents have been found to give less advice and household help, provide less companionship to adult stepchildren and receive less support from them. Ganong & Coleman (2006) also found that adult stepchildren are perceived to have fewer obligations to their stepparents than to their biological parents, which may impact on the level of support provided and received.
TIP: Social and family connections are important for wellbeing – both for aging parents, stepparents and adult children.
Parents and adult children should work to maintain the same level of interaction that occurred prior to the parent’s forming a new relationship. New stepparents can help by supporting and encouraging these connections.
We’d love to hear your experiences and any tips/strategies you have for managing relationships in stepfamilies with adult children in the comments below.
Generally when we talk about stepparent-stepchildren relationships it’s from the adult perspective – not the kids. The research into stepfamilies over the years has also tended to follow the trend of an adult focus.
What’s been missing from these conversations is the children’s view.
The reality is that positive stepparent-stepchild relationships actually predict stepfamily stability. In fact, Dr Claire Cartwright from the University of Auckland found in her research that stepparent-stepchild relationships not only impact on how stepparents feel about themselves, but they also affect a stepchild’s self-esteem and the closeness of the step-couple relationship. The relationship you and your stepchild have with each other really does matter – for all of you.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina conducted a systemic review of the available research to find out what children who live in stepfamilies believe makes or breaks a relationship between a stepchild and their stepparent. And, we think it’s important information to share because every stepparent knows their stepkids have a significant role in the stepfamily and play a big part in how bumpy (or not) stepfamily life may be.
Children in stepfamilies tell us there are 4 practical things that their biological parent can do to help them feel closer to their stepparent:
1. Be a role model of respect in the home.
2. Help create positive moments between the stepparent & stepchild.
3. Don’t bad-mouth the other parent.
4. Allow the kids to decide what to call their stepparent.
Close ties between children and their biological parent have also been found to have a positive impact on the stepparent-stepchild relationship in the home. In other words, the better the relationship between your stepchild and your partner the more likely your relationship with your stepchild is going to be a good one. Providing that one-on-one time for your partner and their kids actually helps you get along better with your stepkids. You taking that time to establish a self-care routine or do something fun for yourself is an added (and needed!) bonus.
Stepchildren also say that when they have the ability to talk openly to their parent about their stepparent it helps their relationship with their stepparent. This can be difficult for a stepparent to accept. But at the end of the day, everyone – including children – need someone they can confide in about what’s happening in their life. Kids that are able to do that with the parent that lives with their stepparent feel more comfortable in the home.
From a stepparent’s perspective, it’s in our best interest that the child shares their insecurities, qualms and questions with our biggest supporter and the person who loves us most. These conversations allow your partner to be the bridge between you and your stepkids. Let’s face it. All relationships take time to develop and form. You and your stepkids need time to get to know each other. Why not let the person who knows you both the best help you both? It’s much better than the alternative: your stepkid confiding in their other parent, who definitely doesn’t know you and may not like or accept you being in their child’s life, about your relationship.
Children and adolescents in stepfamilies also tell us that they feel closer to stepparents who:
• Put effort into developing a friendship with them – (even if it isn’t always reciprocated)
• Accept them and their family situation
• Treat their parents well
• Don’t attempt to discipline the child early in their relationship
• Have a flexible parenting style
• Are affectionate to the child – (keeping in mind that showing affection doesn’t always need to be physical particularly for preteens and adolescents)
• Share or show an interest in the child’s interests
• Don’t try to replace their other parent,and
• Communicate with the child often and regularly.
In general, stepkids say that they have closer relationships with stepparents who invest more in their lives than with those who don’t.
Stepkids who have close relationships with their stepparents also report that their stepfamily as a whole:
• Openly communicates about feelings
• Is flexible and able to adapt
• Uses positive communication their everyday talk and their nonverbal cues (tone of voice, body language, gestures, facial expressions, etc)
• Spends time together
• Has clear rules and boundaries that everyone knows and understands
• Uses humor and family problem-solving to create common ground
• Engages in active listening with each other
• Directly confronts problems, and
• Talks about their sense of belonging and togetherness.
The way you speak to each other in your stepfamily also matters according to the kids. Verbal aggression, sarcasm and criticism are the top communication no-no’s if you and your stepchild are to develop a healthy relationship.
And what about your stepcouple relationship?
Surprisingly or not, the couple relationship wasn’t high on the list of things that kids reported make them feel closer to their stepparent. The idea that focussing on your couple relationship will fix any issues in your stepfamily is … well, it’s wrong. Stepfamilies are much more complex than first-time families and successful stepfamilies spend time focussing on each relationship separately (i.e. birth parent/child, stepparent/stepchild, and couple) as well as spending time together as a family too.
Of course, you and your partner arguing excessively and being generally dissatisfied with your romantic relationship, isn’t good for anyone. In stepfamilies, it’s not focussing on EITHER your couple relationship OR the child relationship, but giving equal attention to the couple AND the parent/child AND the stepparent/stepchild relationship that works.
There will, of course, be times where a relationship between a stepparent and a stepchild is just not possible.
In these circumstances, the focus for everyone should be solely on the two of you being civil to each other. As a stepparent, you can and should control how you speak and interact with your stepchild. If your stepchild is unable or unwilling to do the same, it’s time for your partner to step in and set boundaries around respectful and civil behaviour and communication in your home. Having no relationship and engaging in civil communication when it’s required is much better for a stepfamily than an openly negative relationship occurring regularly between you and your stepchild.
As with most things in stepfamilies, stepparent-stepchild relationships, are complex and dynamic. But it is just that which makes them so rewarding and gives us hope they can change. As Dr Lawrence Ganong, a stepfamily expert with the University of Missouri, says –
“…even if stepchildren initially reject their stepparents, it shouldn’t be viewed as permanent. Relationships among stepchildren and stepparents can grow in acceptance, friendship and bonding, regardless of how they begin. Negative relationships don’t have to last forever.”
We’d love to hear what tips and strategies you have used to develop a close bond or civil relationship with your stepkids in the comments below.
A stepparent’s relationship with their partner’s Ex could definitely be top contender for one of the most awkward relationships of all times.
Having to make small chat repeatedly with someone who has slept with your partner repeatedly is just not what most people want in any of their relationships.
But, here you are…in love with an individual that has other individuals attached.
And, you’ve got to manage this… to work out how you and your couple relationships fits in with all of these additional attachments.
Some times people just click.
Your partner has a positive, functioning co-parenting partnership with his ex and she accepts you as an integral part of her children’s lives. Their interactions are healthy. Their boundaries are clear. And, if you are one of these stepmums, this article isn’t for you.
Other times the relationship with the Ex is a great deal more messy.
It’s awkward and ill-defined. Boundaries are non-existent or getting stampeded on all over the place. If that’s you, then read on.
The relationship with the Ex (or lack of) may be driving your partner crazy resulting in him being detached, distressed and/or fuming. You may desperately want to be the bridge that transports all of the adults to the wonderful world of civility so your partner can stop hurting and your stepkids flourish.
The relationship may be driving you crazy. An Ex that doesn’t accept you when your partner still needs to co-parent effectively can bring a great deal of stress to your stepfamily. Or maybe it’s you that isn’t able to accept the Ex bringing about its own set of challenges. As a grown woman, choosing a partner with kids does not mean you have to choose or be involved in co-parenting with the Ex. Alternatively, you may be dealing with an overly involved Ex. Good intentions, but allowing no space for your family to develop and grow outside of her continually presence.
No matter what the circumstances, the relationship with the Ex can be extremely challenging for stepmums and stepfamilies alike.
All relationships take two except when it comes to stepfamilies. These relationships take three or four and sometimes more.
Stepfamily dynamics are different than first-time families. Interactions come with baggage and history. They can be awkward and tense. Boundaries can be complex. Being a stepparent is hard.
There are times, in any relationship or stage in life, when faking it until you make it is the best strategy. The sensible way forward when so much is unclear and you need time to adjust or find your place. For a stepmother, managing the relationship with the Ex can be one of those times.
When you find the idea of seeing or needing to interact with the Ex weighing on you. If you find yourself worrying how you should behave when she is around. If it is impacting on your thoughts and taking up way too much time in your day, then it is absolutely okay to just be a complete and utter fake and get on with the relationships that need and deserve your time – those with your partner, your stepkids and yourself.
There is research that shows ‘faking it until you make it’ works in relationships.
Psychologist James Laird confirmed the theory that we can cheer ourselves up by just smiling ‘as if’ we are happy. Absolutely worth having a go in the mirror on those days that you are feeling a bit down in the dumps. Or when the Ex is on her way and you’re feeling stressed about it.
A further study outlined in the book, Rip It Up, shows that action can lead to emotions – not just the other way around. Richard Wiseman, author and study lead, states “Behaving like you are in love can lead to actually falling in love. People are always going on about positive thinking when this suggests positive action is just as valid.” In fact, he says “actions are the quickest, easiest and most powerful way to instantly change how you think and feel.” So, it can help to behave or act like you respect the Ex even when you don’t. Or in other words, just fake it.
There are some other reasons specific to stepfamilies for why faking it can work well for stepmums when managing interactions with their stepkids’ other parent:
• Stepkids can and do grow up just fine when their stepmother has nothing to do with their mother. It is absolutely okay for your partner to do all the heavy lifting in the co-parenting with the Ex while you keep your distance behind polite and fake smiles. The expectation that stepmothers need to be heavily involved with co-parenting of the children is just that – an expectation. It is not a requirement to raise healthy and happy stepkids or to have a loving relationship with your partner. What is a requirement for your own wellbeing and that of your stepfamily, however, is to let go of any and all unrealistic expectations.
As Brene Brown states ‘expectations are just resentments waiting to happen’.
• Divorce doesn’t hurt children. Parental conflict does. If you and the Ex just can’t get along for whatever reason, then it’s best to fake it for the sake of the kids and yourself. You don’t need to attend every argument you get invited to. There is also no need to go over the top with niceties. Faking it doesn’t mean you have to invite the Ex into your home for a cup of tea at handover. It can look more like you waving at the front door while the kids head out to their mum’s car with your partner. It means civil, respectful and polite whenever your are with the Ex or your stepkids are in earshot.
• It’s easy for the relationship between the Ex and a stepparent to become exaggerated into more than it actually is. The two of you might not be as close as it feels you are or think you should be. In looking at the level of the relationship from a perspective outside of stepfamily dynamics, you two only know or interact with each other due to a mutual connection – your partner. In typical relationship terms the two of you would fall into the category of a casual or mutual acquaintance.
Having personal knowledge about each other doesn’t automatically mean you have a close, personal relationship. Neither does separately parenting the same children. But it may feel that way. Or feel as if you should because of the added stepfamily dynamics. But the reality is the two of you are most likely closer to that of a casual acquaintance on the relationship continuum. There is no guilt or shame in faking politeness with someone you don’t know very well or don’t need or want to know very well for the sake of your mutual connections and your own wellbeing.
Being a complete fake may just be one of the best strategies to reduce stress, anxiety or conflict you may hold around interacting with the Ex – for both you and your family.
We’d love to know what other strategies you use in the comments below.
Mother’s Day is annually observed in Australia and New Zealand on the second Sunday of May. It is an opportunity for everyone to pay tribute to their mothers and to thank them for all their love and support. For stepfamilies however, this day of appreciation of all things mothers can raise a whole lot of something, and not all of it always feels good.
For many reasons, it can be difficult for children in separated families to celebrate both their mother and their stepmother. Even those children with the most amicable of co-parents can struggle with this Hallmark celebration. Mother’s Day can often highlight the most intractable problems between mums and stepmums. It can bring to the children’s attention an underlying sense of competition or jealousy and even leave them feeling like they are fighting the ‘Battle Royale’ of internal (emotional) battles out in public, for their whole world to see.
For many stepmothers being ignored or overlooked by your stepchildren on Mother’s Day can feel like a punch to the gut.
For many stepmothers being ignored or overlooked by your stepchildren on Mother’s Day can feel like a punch to the gut. More so, if you have been in the picture for a long time, significantly contribute to their care and upbringing and/or do not have children of your own. Putting yourself in your stepchild’s shoes and trying to look at the situation from their perspective can help your head to know that it is not personal. But the heart can still experience the sting of being overlooked on an occasion heavily marketed and advertised as being a special day for “all” types of mothers.
So, what are the reasons a stepchild might ignore or overlook their stepmother on Mother’s Day?
Their focus is elsewhere – If your stepchild does not acknowledge or celebrate you on Mother’s Day, it may just be because they are focused on celebrating their actual mum, with whom they will most likely be spending most, if not all, of the actual day. Their failure to acknowledge all you do for them on a day set aside for giving thanks (to mother’s) could actually just be an innocent omission, with no spiteful or malevolent intent. Depending on their age they may also not have actually made the connection between your role as a stepmother (and all the mothering-type things you may do for them) and Mother’s Day. In their head they may view you as “Dad’s [rather nice and lovely] wife/partner”, as opposed to a mother-like figure and not put two and two together when it comes to showing appreciation for you on Mother’s Day.
The protective factor – Following a parental separation and the ensuing family break-up, some children can become their mother’s champions and reject a stepmother on Mother’s Day, (or on any other day for that matter), for reasons which are not entirely their own. These children are intentionally or unintentionally led to believe liking or celebrating your role in their life, may cause their Mum hurt or (emotional) pain. In this scenario, because they love their mother very much, your stepchildren may adopt somewhat of a protective role with regard to their Mum and will do anything to protect her from hurt and emotional pain. This includes ignoring you on Mother’s Day.
Loyalty binds –It may be just too emotionally hard for your stepchildren to reach out to both you and their mother on Mother’s Day. This is particularly relevant for children who have been exposed to parental conflict, parental insecurities or adult issues relating to their parents’ marriage, separation and post separation parental relationship. In unfortunate situations where there is an element of competition in the mother and stepmother’s attitudes to one another, children may have received a message that their mother does not want them to show their stepmother any positive affection on “her” day. Little Joey and Matilda might therefore worry that to show their stepmother any type of thanks would be seen as them being disloyal to their mother and might result in their mother feeling sad or upset or angry (which no child wants to have happen).
Different expectations – Adults and children can have different perspectives about what is going on in their worlds. They can be in the same situation and experience and react to things very differently. Relationships and Mother’s Day are no exception. There may well be a positive vibe and warmth displayed in your day-to-day interactions with your stepchildren. However, it could be that they perceive this relationship to be less significant and that the two of you are just not as emotionally close as you perhaps do. As a result, they may not consider celebrating or acknowledging you on Mother’s Day as being necessary, needed or required.
Permission – In an ideal situation, a child would freely celebrate both their Mum and their stepmother on Mother’s Day. However, in order for this to happen, a child must perceive that they have permission to do so from their parents – their father and their mother. Not only do children need both parent’s permission, they will also more than likely need their father’s help and encouragement to buy or make a card, bake a cake or determine an appropriate gift to bestow on their stepmother.
Lack of support – Generally speaking, society doesn’t make celebrating stepmothers easy. It’s only been in recent years that you could find a Hallmark card appropriate for a stepmother on Mother’s Day. Even now, depending on where you live, suitable cards can be few or far between. Your stepchild may have looked for a card to give you and just couldn’t find one with an appropriate message. Or, how about those special Mother’s Day mementos kids bring home from school? It is rare for a teacher to offer or help a child make two – one for their mother and one for their stepmother. Sometimes a lack of gift is about nothing more than a lack of support and resources.
So, as a Stepmother, what can you do?
Ultimately the best celebration around Mother’s Day for any stepmother would be the freedom in knowing that you are secure in your place within your family and in life. But there are also practical things that you can do to ensure that the day is as comfortable as possible for everyone. This includes:
Talk to your partner about how you feel and your concerns and expectations for this specific day. Plan ahead to ensure that your partner knows what they can do to support both you and their children over the Mother’s Day weekend. Remember no one is a mind reader.
Disengage from any power play.
Don’t let your feelings about the day put your stepchildren in a difficult or compromised position. “Give” Mother’s Day to your stepchildren to celebrate with their mother. Let them, and yourself, off the hook and let go of any expectations that they have to do something to recognise you (and all that you might do for them) on this particular day. After all, it is one day out of the year and it represents only that which we assign to it. It is not a test of your stepchildren love or appreciation.
Celebrate in your own way.
Make a conscious choice to use Mother’s Day to celebrate and pamper yourself in whatever way feels special to you. Tell your partner what you would like to do that day. Use it as an opportunity to develop special traditions for your stepfamily in relation to your role as a stepmother. Use the child-free time to connect with your partner and strengthen your step-couple relationship. You choose.
Allocate another date and time.
Find another day for you and your stepchildren to celebrate what it is you that you do for them. It may be the anniversary of the first day that you met them or any other day of the year for that matter. Make it fun, make unique and make it yours.
Help your stepchildren celebrate their mum.
Let your stepchildren know that you are 100% okay that they want to celebrate their Mum and that you actually want and expect them to do so. Let them know that they should do what’s best for them. There’s absolutely no guilt on your end. If necessary, ask them if they need any help and then firmly direct their father to help them out.
If your stepchildren want to do something special for you on Mother’s Day, it’s your partner’s role to help in purchasing and picking out gifts or planning something special. Just as your partner should be the one to help the children purchase a gift for their mother or speak with the teacher/school if his child is worried about only making one Mother’s Day craft instead of two.
Don’t do anything.
If Mother’s Day is not something that holds much meaning for you then that is okay too. Rest assured that choosing to celebrate or not celebrate Mother’s Day as a stepmother does not in any way, shape or determine the success of your stepfamily.
Research tells us that stepfamilies are at greater risk for divorce and separation than ‘first’ families due to the unavoidable stresses that accompany stepfamily life. The first two years in particular are considered a period of greatest challenge for “newly” formed stepfamilies. Whilst jumping right on in and hoping for the best is one approach stepparents and their partners can take when getting married and/or deciding to all move in together, taking the time to talk about difficult issues will help give both your relationship and your stepfamily a better chance of overcoming stressors and of success. The types of tricky topics on that difficult conversation list can include: talking about roles and responsibilities with regard to the children, parenting and household duties; space (or lack thereof); how you plan to make time for the couple relationship; how to manage discipline; how to manage the Ex; what are appropriate boundaries (and how you both plan to enforce them); financial responsibility for your stepchild; and the management of household finances general. They aren’t necessarily the most romantic conversations or discussions that either of you want to have. But they are necessary and do need to be addressed at some point if your stepfamily is to beat the odds.
It can be extremely frustrating however, when you want to talk something out with your partner and the only response you get is, “I don’t know”, “I don’t want to talk about this” or perhaps even worse, a blank stare. So, what do you do if one of you is very good at avoiding talking, just won’t engage or is refusing to “play along”?
Unfortunately, there is no magic solution to making someone sit down and talk if they really don’t want to. But for those that are just struggling with a partner who is more avoidant than completely unwilling, we have put together some tips and strategies that might increase the chances of them partaking in conversations and responding from a more solid (and hopefully helpful) place.
Where to Start?
Sometimes before you even get to talking about the big significant things, you need to hold a conversation about the pattern you’re experiencing whenever you try to address critical issues – i.e. the way in which the two or you talk or don’t talk about things that are important. That’s the conversation that might go something like this: “Hey Hun, I feel that we really need to talk about our household finances, especially now that your child support obligations seem to have increased. The last couple of times I’ve tried to broach the subject with you, you’ve said, “not now”, “it’s under control” and last week you even said, “I don’t want to talk about that” and walked out of the room. I know that this is not the most pleasant conversation for us to have and I really don’t want to make it a big deal. I just want us to be able to talk about these, types of things, as a team, and make sure we are both on the same page. Why do you think it’s proving difficult for us to have these talks? What’s going on?”
If your partner still refuses to talk, try asking, “Will you please think about it? I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I just want to us deal with some of these issues, together. Could we perhaps set some time aside over the weekend when the kids are at their mum’s house and talk about how we might manage these types of conversations?”
Preparation.Manage your expectations. If you assume that having a “talk” about a sensitive issue will start an argument and make the situation worse, it probably will. You need to define your expectations of the conversation and to do your best to think in positive terms.
It also pays to manage your expectation about what can be achieved in any one conversation. Some difficult or sensitive issues can be resolved through in one sitting and some cannot. Some topics, by virtue of their content, may require multiple conversations. Sometimes the first conversation merely sets all the issues out on the table and allows you to prioritise topics.
It terms of your expectations, it also pays to not assume your partner knows what you want to talk about and why. Remember no one is a mind reader.
Know why you want to have the talk. Do you want to talk with your partner about a difficult issue to gain a better understanding of their perspective on the issue? Do you want to clear up a misunderstanding? Do you need to talk to your partner about their children or about inequities that you feel exist in parenting or in the running of the household? Are you concerned about your spouse’s Ex intruding into your home and want your spouse to do something about it? It really does help if you are clear in your own mind about what it is that is driving the conversation and what you hope to achieve.
Accept it may be a stressful conversation (and that really is okay). Although you don’t want either one of you to be stressed, hurt, or angered by the conversation, it is important to realize that you both may become defensive, anxious and emotional as you talk. This increases the chances of one or both of you resorting to counter-productive behaviours. Don’t get side-tracked by emotion or poor conversation etiquette. If you notice that you or your partner are getting stressed, pause and get yourselves under control rather than getting into it about what the other is doing “wrong.”
Ways to Start the Difficult Conversation. Start smart. Start soft. Start calm. Try starting your conversation with a statement that acknowledges that the topic is difficult, sensitive, confrontational, or a bit touchy. Blurting out “We have to talk,” or “We need to talk” when you’re upset after a rough day of nothing going right, usually makes people fear the worst, which tends to increase the chances of them trying to avoid or escape the dreaded conversation.
Alternatives to start these types of conversations could be:
“I’ve been thinking about …”,
“What do you think about …”,
“I’d like us to begin to talk about …”,
“I want to have a better understanding of your point of view about …”
“Hey, how do you think we could …”
“I’d really like to seek your input about …”
“When might be a good time for us to sit down and have a chat about …?”
One step at a time. It pays to only try to talk about one difficult subject at a time. Couples can get into a “while we’re at it” mentality and try to cover too much in any one conversation (possibly motivated by a fear that this is the only chance they’ll get to ever talk about things). However, trying to cover everything in one go tends to only make both of you feel exhausted and overwhelmed. The goal should be to have a supportive and helpful conversation with your partner, not to bury one another!When and Where to Have Difficult Conversations.Agree on the where. Unless you both agree to having the talk in a public location such as a restaurant or the local park, wait till the kids are with their other parent, get a babysitter or drop them off to their grandparents, and have the talk at home. This gives you both privacy and the space to take a time out if needed, to get up and walk around or make a cup of coffee if either of you start to feel stressed or overwhelmed.
Don’t manipulate or trick your partner. Don’t invite your partner out to dinner when you really plan on instigating “the talk” at a restaurant. In a similar vein, don’t surprise your partner with a difficult conversation when you have them trapped in the car or on an airplane and there is no escape. People tend to respond better when they know what is coming, what is expected of them and they have had a little bit of time to prepare.
Timing. It goes without saying that you need to pick the right time for the conversation. Don’t ask your partner to agree to a time to have a talk when one or both of you are wound up, angry or upset, drunk or hungover. Don’t have a difficult conversation before or after sex or when the children are around or if one of you has to leave in 20 minutes to pick the children up from sport.
How to Increase Chances of Success?
Slow things down and take it in steps.
Always address your partner with respect. Don’t make it personal. Don’t speak down to your partner and do your best not to constantly interrupt them when they are speaking.
Be prepared and if appropriate back up your concerns, thoughts, with research and facts, but keep it simple. Pay attention to the point(s) you’re trying to make and articulate them clearly. Keep your conversation on the topic you agreed to discuss. Don’t talk on and on and on.
Your partner does not have to agree with everything you say in order for you to say it. The goal is to voice your ideas, concerns and/or experience, which is about you and does not need to be validated.
Make sure that you take the time to also listen to your partner’s perspective and concerns. Do your best to be open to your partner’s point of view, whether or not you agree with it. Acknowledge what you hear with the understanding that acknowledgment is not necessarily agreement.
You should always aim to first listen to understand and don’t rush straight into problem-solving or worse, blaming.
Be willing to look below the surface to understand what your actions and responses say about what is happening for you.
Make sure your emotions are in control before you open your mouth.
Aim to reach a resolution that you both can live with, not necessarily the one that makes you happy. Then set a time to follow-up to see how you are both dealing with the issue and if the original resolution needs to be tweaked in some way.
Do your best to avoid thinking there are winners and losers. Keep sight of the fact that this is love, not war.
Having the difficult talk shows you care enough about your partner, your relationship and your family to have the conversation. There is however, a difference between someone being unable or struggling to engage in these difficult conversations and someone who is just plan unwilling. Know how to spot the difference and if the issue or situation continues to create problems in your relationship and for your stepfamily know when to perhaps seek professional assistance and advice.