You’ve pictured it since you met your new partner: the marriage, the children, a cozy home together.
You never thought of all the things that could disrupt this idyllic picture: the chance that your stepchildren won’t like you, the ex that will not seem to disappear, and the challenges of parenting a stepchild.
Entering into a stepfamily often means entering into many unrealistic fantasies. Below are five common fantasies you may have that often create disappointment in a stepfamily.
Fantasy: You will instantly love your partner’s child.
Reality: The reality is that love does not happen instantly! Stepparents do not have the bond with their partner’s child that forms at birth, and early bonding with a child has a lot to do with developing love. We can never force ourselves to love. Focus instead on developing a friendship with your stepchild. Over time, you may find that your friendship evolves into a caring relationship and if love develops, it is a wonderful bonus.
It is also important that your partner understand that love takes time to grow, but that it doesn’t mean you don’t care about his child. By talking with your partner, you can explain that you respect how much he loves his child and that you like and care for your stepchild and are willing and hopeful that it will grow into a strong relationship. Showing your partner this respect — acknowledging your partner’s love for his child and talking about the fantasy that you will immediately love his child — gives you the time and room you need to develop a relationship with your stepchild. And becoming a caring friend is a wonderful relationship without the burden of instant love.
Fantasy: Transitioning into stepfamily life will be easy, and there will be little turbulence.
Reality: Research shows that stepfamilies will experience two or three extremely turbulent times, including dealing with kids in loyalty binds, kids rebelling, and difficulties with the ex-spouse, and you never know when these turbulent times will show up! The truth is, the younger the children are, the easier it will be to transition into a stepfamily. The older the children are, the harder it will be because they are often more resentful of having a new adult in their home. After all, teens want to get away from their parents, not add another one!
It is not that you should or shouldn’t have this fantasy, because most of us do. But realistically, you should come together with all of your good intentions and expect that there will be turbulence at some point. Remember, it won’t last forever. The key here is to talk with your partner about your expectations and concerns so that each of you understands this is a normal part of stepfamily life. This way, you can support one another through the turbulence and come out stronger as a couple when it is over.
Fantasy: You will have an instant parental role, including disciplining the children.
Reality: While you can develop a role in a parental capacity, remember that it takes time to be accepted. And, depending on the age of the children, don’t expect it to happen quickly. If the kids are younger, proactively create house rules with your partner and develop techniques for enforcing them together. Let go of the idea that you will immediately be accepted as the disciplinarian.
At the beginning, act like the babysitter who enforces the parents’ rules to the children. In that way, you open communication within the family instead of having the children be resentful of you. It may take years for children to accept you as a parental figure in their lives, and they may still resist your authority even if they like you. It is natural to want to bring your own ideas of what being a parent is into the relationship, but be sure to discuss these with your partner before you simply enforce them.
For some bio parents, it may take time for them to trust you to parent their children; other bio parents want the stepparent to have parental authority quickly but it is the child that is feeling resentment and resistance. What often works best is for the two of you to talk about ways to enforce consequences that you can participate in more over time, but the bio parent should be the lead enforcer for the first year or so. The goal is that you as the stepparent eventually integrate into the family but, remember, it is a process and takes time!
Fantasy: Your partner’s ex-spouse will just disappear, will be appreciative of your role in her child’s life, or will accept you as your partner’s new spouse.
Reality: This is one fantasy you should just give up. The ex-spouse will never go away and, no matter how hard you wish, it won’t change. Some ex-spouses can be accepting of your presence in the lives of their child. But, especially the early years, most exes are afraid you are going to try and assume their role, that they’ll lose their child to you, or that you’re going to be a better parent, which will make them look bad in the eyes of their child. The ex has already suffered through loss and doesn’t have her children every day, and you are seen as a threat.
Instead of hoping the ex-spouse will magically disappear, try and have a conversation with your partner’s ex-spouse letting her know that you are not trying to replace her and that you will respect the relationship between her and the children. Be as friendly as possible and hopefully, over time, she will let go of seeing you as a threat to her role with her children.
Even with this, there are still some exes who will never accept your role in their child’s life. Try not to take it personally, as hard as that is to do, because it is more about them than it is about you.
Fantasy: You won’t have any firsts together as a new stepcouple because your new partner has already had a first marriage and a first child with someone else.
Reality: Stepmoms often feel cheated that they lost having all of their first experiences with their new partners. While you may not be the first one your partner married or the first one your partner had a family with, it is very important to realize that everything you two create together will be special because it is an expression of the love created by the two of you.
So you can be sure that your first home together will be special because it is a part of your relationship and signifies the home you have together. In the same way, your first child will be special because it is a result of the love created by the two of you.
The feelings of disappointment that many stepmoms or stepdads feel should be talked about and acknowledged. At the same time, it is important for both of you to place a great significance on all of the “first” and special experiences you will have together as a result of falling in love with one another. These are most special experiences, too!
These fantasies are some of the most common people have when they enter into a stepfamily. They are unavoidable, but it helps to know that they exist and that most stepcouples experience them. Knowing and talking about these fantasies and how unrealistic they are will hopefully produce meaningful conversation with your spouse.
By being less resentful and wiser about stepfamily life, you and your partner can separate your current relationship from the former and create happiness in your married life!