by: Toni Coleman, LCSW, CMC
I’m a 45 year old woman who is almost a year into my second marriage. My husband Harry and I both have kids from our first marriages. He has a boy, 13 and a girl, 11 and I have two boys, 10 and 8. When we met, and throughout the time we dated, we were always able to talk about our kids and offer each other suggestions or just be a supportive sounding board when one of the kids was presenting a challenge.
No child is perfect and this includes mine. I am fully aware of how divorce can impact their growing up years and then having to deal with a new stepparent just adds to that. All of this is to say that I felt that we had the right stuff to handle the challenges of a blended family and even though I knew the adjustment would be a challenge, I believed we were ready and very much on the same page. How could I have been so wrong?
When Harry’s kids are living with us, which they do about half the time, they are often sullen around me or ignore me altogether. If I ask them to help out with a household chore, clean up after themselves or remind them to do their homework, they remind me that I am NOT their mother and are usually resistant to doing anything I request. Harry often works late and travels on occasion for work, so I am often the only parent in the home and they are my responsibility and problem, I’m afraid.
I have raised the issue with Harry many times and he tends to negate my feelings, suggesting I am overreacting and tells me I need to give it more time. In the meantime, it only gets worse as the kids know I have no real authority over them or any way to enforce rules with them. When he is there, Harry will bark at them to do what I have asked and they will quickly comply which seems to reinforce his belief that it’s more me than them.
Needless to say, this has caused a rift between us as I have felt growing resentment and dislike for his children’s behavior. It’s also making our household tense and my kids are angry about it and occasionally they get in fights with their step-siblings about how they treat me. I’m afraid this situation will worsen until I stop making the effort, don’t want to be bothered with them anymore and just parent my own kids - or just decide I can’t live like this anymore, period.
Can you offer me any guidance in how I could approach this problem differently and get the help and backing from my husband that I need?
Dear Stepmom in Siberia:
Your last line hits the nail on the head when you ask how you can get Harry’s backing and help. It’s right on because neither the problem nor the solution belongs to you alone. And until, and unless, you and Harry can approach this as a team and present a united front- there will be no solution.
Your first mistake was in making assumptions. Assuming that because you and Harry could communicate well while dating that it would be the same when married, assuming that since you could talk freely about your kids that it would always be easy to do so, and assuming that you already had everything you needed in place when you got married and moved in together — essentially blending your families with relative ease once the adjustment period was over.
Let me emphasize that assumptions are a problem for many couples, and they are often the reason that couples become confused about the how and why or even feel betrayed when things are different than they had assumed they would be. Therefore, the first thing you need to do is to let go of any assumptions you brought into this relationship and go back to the beginning with discussion, negotiation and putting a working and flexible plan in place.
To do this, you and Harry need to sit down alone together away from the kids and hash things out between yourselves first. Both of you need to feel safe to air your feelings, raise your concerns, ask for help and offer solutions that would work for you. It may be that you will need to have several discussions before you can come up with a plan that helps you create a more functional and harmonious blended family. The goal here is not to formulate a plan that you both see as set in stone and that will address all problems before they arise. Instead, it will be a framework for how you as a team will approach parenting, discipline, limit setting, and even offering help, nurturing and the advice giving that is very much a part of every parent’s job.
Because this is a working plan, it is open to tweaking, rewriting and throwing out altogether if it is not working well for you. There is no right or wrong way to put a plan like this together. It is only important that both of you sign on to it and have input into its design. Otherwise, you will both be susceptible to becoming passive-aggressive or even to sabotaging it altogether.
Once you have your plan, the next step is to present it to the children in a family meeting with everyone in attendance. Cell phones need to be turned off, and any distractions dealt with before beginning. Then you and Harry present the plan together. You can alternate, deciding who should go first and which parts each of you should start the discussion. If you do this right, your kids will feel encouraged to share their feelings about what you have come up with, offering objections, suggestions or any feelings they may have.
Just as you and Harry need to buy into the plan- it will have a much greater chance of success if the kids also feel some ownership and choice about it. However, the bottom line is that you and Harry as co-parents will have the ultimate say because that is your job and how healthy families function. You might want to consider having weekly or bimonthly family meeting to talk about how things are going, what is and isn’t working, and what changes might be useful.
Lastly, if you and Harry find you cannot sit down together and start this process or come to a satisfactory plan together- consider finding a good therapist who has experience in this area to help you. An objective third person can facilitate the hard-to-have discussions and raise topics that feel too scary for one or both of you to touch. They can help you find the right words and deliver them in a way that they will be heard in the manner in which they are intended.
One final note is my caution not to put this off. Delaying will only allow the situation to deteriorate and this always makes it harder to find your way back again- to that place you assumed you would be by now.
Toni Coleman is an internationally recognized dating and relationship expert and founder of http://consum-mate.com. Her expertise is sought frequently by local and national publications, top-ranked dating and relationship websites. Toni has been a guest on a number of radio and TV programs. She is the featured relationship coach in The Business And Practice Of Coaching, (Norton, September 2005); and authored the forward of Winning Points With The Woman In Your Life, One Touchdown At A Time (Simon and Schuster, November 2005). Toni's popular relationship articles can be found in several magazines and a number of self-help, personal growth, and dating/relationship websites. From March until December 2005, she was a weekly contributing commentator (love and dating coach) on the KTRS Radio Morning Show, (St. Louis, MO). Toni holds a master’s degree in Clinical Social Work, is a licensed psychotherapist in the state of Virginia, and holds certification in life coaching. She is a member of The International Coach Federation and The National Association of Social Workers. Toni writes bi-weekly for HopeAfterDivorce.org and FamilyShare.com. Follow her on FB at www.facebook.com/coachtoni.coleman and Twitter @CoachToni.