Let’s face it, modern relationships can be kinda complex. And if you’re in a relationship with someone who has been divorced, and has children from their previous relationship – or if you have children from a previous relationship, then you’re probably in the middle of that kind of complexity. Back in Episode 21, with Katherine Woodward Thomas, we talked about Conscious Uncoupling and the inner work required to heal from past relationships so you can be present for your current relationship. In today’s episode, we’re going to tackle the topic of success in a post-divorce family head-on. There are challenges that are unique to this situation – and you’ll find that the strategies for succeeding come down to themes that we’ve been covering on the show. How do you connect, communicate, co-parent, and get really clear in a potentially complicated situation? That’s what today’s show is about.
Our guest is Susan Wisdom, retired therapist and author of the classic book “Stepcoupling: Creating and Sustaining a Strong Marriage in Today’s Blended Family”. It’s one of the few books on the topic – and fortunately it offers a lot of helpful information and strategies for strengthening your relationship, and your family, when you’re operating in a post-divorce world. If you’re not in this situation, then I think you’ll find that today’s show has some great insight that can help any relationship, especially if children are present.
In this conversation, Susan Wisdom and I cover the following:
The 4 C’s are helpful building blocks for successfully navigating stepcoupling, they are:
CONNECTION: Connection is that wonderfully good feeling that is the glue that keeps couples together. It can be in the form of a thought, a behavior, a caring action, or a feeling that conjures togetherness. The more connection that exists in the stepcouple, the better coparents you will be, and the sooner the children will feel safe and trusting of their new family dynamics.
COMMUNICATION: Communication is key in building and sustaining the stepcouple (and any relationship). It is important to learn to communicate in healthy ways, and from a place of deep respect and curiosity. Remember that listening and receiving is just as much part of communicating as voicing and articulating. When you hear your partner say something that begins to boil your blood or trigger you, try on a “hmmm” response- switching from immediate reactivity to questioning and curiosity. Clear communication relies on calmness- calm language and a calm nervous system- if you find yourself drifting out of this, take a deep breath and try again.
CO PARENTING: Issues around co parenting go hand in hand with a dedication to communication. Successful co parenting does not necessarily come naturally, rather it is a dynamic that must be addressed head on, created together, and continually nurtured. Face this directly- develop a plan and find strategies that work for the two of you. As you do this, be patient with each other- you are not always going to get your own way. Instead, observe your partner as they parent, and be open to their influence. Furthermore, be open to the concept that by letting go of some control, you are helping to create a stronger team.
CLARIFICATION: Be willing and able to look at your coparenting dynamic from multiple perspectives, and with a curious mind. Notice, inquire, and remain aware of how issues from the past are manifesting in your current relationship.
Stepcoupling- The foundation of a strong blended family relies on the health and strength of the step-couple themselves. When all’s said and done, are you each fully committed and in love? Your YES will carry you through the constant challenges (and blessings) inevitable when raising a blended family. It is common for children of split families to try to drive a wedge into the new couple as a reaction to their still being upset about the loss of the original parental couple. If the stepcouple themselves does not feel like a team, the couple AND the children will begin to feel threatened, weakened, and ultimately untrusting. If on the other hand the couple is strong, then the children will begin to trust, adjust, and it will be more natural.
Be aware that an adjustment period is natural for all- and be careful to balance your attention between the bond you must maintain with your children, and your excitement for this new blossoming relationship you are in. Know that it is possible! The good news is that if you travel the distance together, there is a tremendous amount of love and fun that is possible!
Differences are inevitable and beautiful. There is often a period of shock for partners after deciding to move in together because there are dynamics and details that were never visible or experienced during the honeymoon phase. Accept that these challenges are inevitable. Be patient, join support groups, get counseling, and begin to bust through these unrealistic co parenting expectations and myths:
MYTH 1: You will quickly and naturally adjust to your partner’s children once you
MYTH 2: You will instantly love your stepchildren as you love your own children
MYTH 3: You will attach and bond equally with all children in the family
You don’t have to immediately love your step children. Shall we repeat this? You do not have to immediately love your step children. In fact, it is very natural and normal to not love your step children. So stop shaming yourself if you find that you do not love your partner’s children as if they are your own, and focus on being a responsible adult, caring for the children, and responding and providing for their needs. Honor the fact that your relationship with your stepchildren is a unique and different form of relationship, and allow the love to grow in its own time.
It is all a work in progress. It can be helpful to acknowledge that blending your families together is essentially an exercise of figuring out how a group of strangers can fit together. This adjustment is going to look different for every family, and for every member of the family. It will develop over time, and it will develop that much stronger if the couple does not hold tightly to expectation that “we love each other so this should be easy”. It is unrealistic to believe that you will agree on how to raise or discipline your children, in fact, you may never together agree- but you can find ways to compromise and to create new ways together. Remember the beauty and gift of blending families is that you get to develop your own family system!
Styles and value differences in families can be DELIGHTFUL. Parenting is always difficult, and coparenting can be exponentially harder because there are inherently more differences in the picture. Not only is the couple coming from different backgrounds (as is true in all couples) but the children also come into the new family with their own differences in backgrounds, experiences, temperaments, genes, traditions, values, senses of humor, etc. In original families it is possible to maintain an illusion of some cohesion in values, but as soon as you are working in a blended family, all bets are off! It is up to the stepcouple to hold a space for all these differences, and in order to do so there must be strength, love, humor as the glue to hold together the differences of the couple themself! You will have to try to do anything and everything to foster acceptance of the breadth of experience and values that are now essentially being married together. On the toughest days, try on the mantra: different can be delightful! Can you find ways with your partner and your kids to celebrate this chance you have to redefine values, create new patterns, and cohabitate a myriad of differences?
Do you want to be right? Or do you want to be together? As you figure out what is going to help make your family stay together over time, return to this question often. Learn to recognize when you are triggered, stop playing the right/wrong game, and find ways to ground yourself in a process (versus immediate result) oriented view. There WILL be compromises. There WILL be adjustments. There WILL be misunderstandings. And there WILL be solutions.
Try to not take it personally. Do you find yourself saying “my stepkids do not respect me” or “my stepkids never listen to me”? Taking behavior personally is a common and nearly universal reaction for stepparents. Have patience with your vulnerability, while trying to not take your stepchildren’s actions too personally. The truth is that they do not know you yet, and they are likely not excited about your entry into the family- for reasons having nothing to do with who you are, rather with that you represent a loss and change. Furthermore, the children are protecting themselves from more disruption and change by testing you to see if you will stay. This trust takes time. And in the meantime, remind yourself often that these children have good reason to not trust, and that their extreme behavior is likely a manifestation of their incredible self-protective instincts.
Get curious. Bear in mind, especially in the hardest moments, to embody the qualities of RESPECT and CURIOSITY. Get seriously curious. Who are these children? Where did these children come from? What do they like? What do they not like? Get to know these children. Try dedicating time to get to know each kid independently, while also creating times and ways for the whole family to come together, whether this is during meals, weekend activities, or certain rituals and traditions. Your place as a stepparent will develop over time, and it will come from personal authority versus positional authority. You are setting yourself up for major struggle and tension if you come in believing that “these children should respect me- I’m the adult here”. Personal authority, instead of positional authority, develops from the slow building of rapport and trust. It is slower to develop but it is genuine and long lasting.
Extend curiosity to your partner. As you begin to blend your families, you will begin to observe reactions, responses, actions, and patterns in your partner that you might not have been aware of before. Do not assume you understand why your partner does or believes what they do- ask! The more questions you ask yourself and your partner the more clarity and connection you will feel that will help to create that sense of togetherness that is essential in building a strong family foundation. Ask your partner what their relationship is to cleanliness, to religion, to money. Ask how their parents disciplined them, how their parents showed affection, how they were taught to respect their parents, and on and on. You can get creative with your curiosity! This inquiry will yield helpful insight, at the same time as it will develop a sense of feeling respected and invested in. Nothing is more loving than asking those open-ended questions that say ‘my heart wants to understand you’.
Acknowledge the children’s feelings and discomfort. Even in the best case scenarios, familial transitions and blending of families is disruptive for children. It is confusing for kids, and it must be known and appreciated that it will take a while for kids to trust the new arrangements. It takes time, gentleness, developmentally appropriate responses, flexibility, and consistency. Truly be there. For the good, the bad, and the ugly, the stepcouple must be there. The stepcouple must show the children that their relationship is strong enough to keep the kids safe, and they must model for the children that having mixed emotions is okay and tolerable. Be aware that the stress that you feel as a couple reverberates throughout the family, and take responsibility for looking inwards when there is stuff coming up with kids.
See yourself as the source of your experience- Be mindful of any victim narrative you are living in. Meaning that if you find yourself feeling like this family happened to you, instead of it being a conscious choice you made, then take a moment to step back. Check your triggers. Check your sense of self. No matter how lost, weak, small, or helpless you feel, remind yourself that you are an adult who has the power to shift the dynamics, and that you are always able to change how you relate to the reality that is your new family situation. The children, and your spouse, will respond to your sense of self confidence, and the whole family will feel more stable and safe when you are able to reconnect with your own strength. When you are rocked, reach out for support- ask your partner, your friends, your community to help you find the strength to be with what is, and to change what is needed.
Learn more at Susan Wisdom’s website
http://www.neilsattin.com/stepcoupling Visit to download the show guide, or text “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions to download the show guide to this episode with Susan Wisdom and qualify to win a free copy of Susan’s book, Stepcoupling.
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