“I don’t understand how she cannot love Isabel (8). I know she’s acting out a lot of anger about the divorce, but she’s so loving and adorable!”
It is said that nobody can truly love a child like a child’s own parents. We were the ones who saw how precious they were as infants, and who they needed and depended upon growing up. We were the ones feeling pride at each and every milestone, as if our kids were the only children learning to turn over, crawl, and walk. And we fell in love completely the first moment we heard the words “mama” and “dada.”
This love we have for our children is often so powerful that we cannot imagine how a new spouse, who professes to love us so much, does not feel the same way.
The Biological Bond
While a new spouse will never have the same connection to a child as the natural parent, it is possible to develop a loving relationship. To do that, it is first important to really understand the biological bond that exists with our own children. It is powerful, and often very strong.
It is the attachment that we form with our infant — often while it is still in the womb — and how that attachment grows stronger each day that forms the biological bond.
The early years with a baby bring up such a powerful emotion in most parents. It is a feeling of love they often had not experienced before, along with being the child’s protector and champion in life. We fall in love with the role of being the parent. And that is a wonderful thing.
But when we are with someone new, that person doesn’t have the bond we developed early on that helped us to “fall in love” with our child. Your new spouse is now living with a child who is “acting out,” “being disrespectful,” “talking back,” and “getting away with murder.” Your new partner doesn’t see or experience a child’s “adorable” moments in the same way that you do. Your bond with your child produces a tolerance others simply will not have.
This special bond that you and your child has also means that your child knows you will love them no matter what, so that even if you’re angry or upset with them, they have a baseline of knowing that you love them. This is something your child cannot experience with your new partner. Therefore, every upset look, every slight glance that indicates that your new spouse is annoyed or upset by your child’s behavior will be taken much harder by your child.
For the stepparent, this is often a very hard place to be. And, of course, it becomes harder the older the children are. If they are teens, they often do not want — in fact the very last thing they want — is another adult telling them what to do or letting them know they are doing something wrong. When a child is acting out or rude to your new partner, it is unrealistic to expect your partner to “fall in love” with your child. When you become upset with your new spouse because of this, you both end up feeling like failures, and that may fracture your new relationship.
You know the statistics: 60% of second marriages fail because of all the strains and stresses that are on a stepfamily that simply are not on a nuclear family. Eliminating some of those stresses, including lowering any expectations that your new partner will automatically love your child, can better those statistics. Following are some tips for managing the bond between a stepparent and a child.
Managing the Bond Between a Stepparent and Child
For the biological parent: As the natural parent, you will often struggle with feelings of conflict, being caught in the middle of
your child and your new spouse. You will want your child to love your new partner as much as you want your new partner to love your child.
However, it’s important to realize that nobody can ever love your child as you do. While it is possible for love to develop, the early bonding and attachment you have formed with your child cannot be formed by your new partner. Your new partner doesn’t have the memory of the precious childhood years to fall back on. Instead of expecting love, lower your expectations to expect a possible friendship to develop. Here are some ways to do that:
- Give the relationship time. Your new partner and your child are virtual strangers coming together. Remember that most stepparents want to at least like their stepchildren, so be patient. It may take longer than you want for any type of relationship to develop.
- Let go of unrealistic expectations. Even the expectation that you can all have a good time together may just be too much. Instead, consider that each time you actually do something together, you are building memories and traditions. Give it all time to develop; don’t push it.
- It’s important for you to be understanding of the struggles your partner will have in the role of stepparent. Try not to get offended if your partner is having a harder time adjusting to your child than you would have liked, or hoped. They will appreciate your understanding.
- Be supportive of your new partner rather than adversarial. Take time to understand where your partner is coming from and working through what it would take to build a relationship between your partner and your child. Remember, it’s a collaborative marriage that will survive the stresses and strains of stepfamily life. So don’t try to “make it better” by throwing them together. That may be the very last thing that will help!
- Do not take it personally. We often feel our children are such a part of us that if our partner cannot love them the way we do, we make it about our partner not loving us enough. But try to remember that this really is not a reflection of you!
For the stepparent: As the stepparent, you will often feel like the outsider when it comes to your new partner’s child. You don’t have memories together or any rituals, and may find it hard to like the child, much less love them. This can be a struggle for some time.
It is important to not expect to instantly love your new partner’s child. We don’t instantly love most people. As with most relationships, love between you and the child can grow over time. Or, you may never end up loving them.
But, you can consider becoming the child’s friend by talking with him or her, showing an interest in his or her activities, or by going out to lunch. Becoming a friend is much more possible than working hard to love the child. Here are some ways to foster that relationship:
- Be patient with yourself and the child. Don’t have high, unrealistic expectations for either yourself or your stepchild because they are rarely met! Take time to let the relationship develop naturally. It may end up somewhere better than you thought it could.
- Respect the struggle your partner is in. Your partner loves his or her child and wants you to like and care about that child. Your partner may often get caught between his or her love for you and for the child. Understand that this is a very hard place for your partner to be. Your partner has responsibilities to his or her children, and part of the reason you married this person is because you saw a loving parent. Be empathic to your partner for this struggle; your partner will feel hurt when the relationship doesn’t develop easily, but don’t take it personally!
- Develop empathy for your stepchild’s experience since the divorce and remarriage. Children often struggle with this dynamic even when they won’t admit it. Your stepchild may need time to adapt to the changes, and may not necessarily want to include you in that. And, the truth is, a child may be very resentful that you are there because it means that mom and dad will never get back together (understand that this is almost always a deep down fantasy of most children, because life for them would return to normal if their parents were to reunite). Again, try not to personalize it.
- Understand developmentally where your stepchild is and what he or she is realistically capable of. This will help you tremendously, and is particularly important if you have never raised children.
- Remember that your stepchild will always love the ex, their other parent, and will often struggle with a loyalty bind that may make it difficult for him or her to be nice to you. This may be very hard for you, but it happens all the time. So, be careful to not mock or criticize the other parent in front of your stepchild, and to show that you encourage a relationship between the two of them. Your stepchild may react more positively to you if it doesn’t feel like you are trying to steal him or her away from their other parent.
Stepfamily life is certainly not easy, as the high failure rate will attest to. It is important to not add the extra pressure of forcing your new partner to love your child. It may come over time, or it may never come. But understanding what each partner’s expectations are and working as a couple to meet those can create better relationships for everyone.
Remember — your new relationship is the weakest link, so treat it respectfully, understand the pressures each person in this new relationship is under and become a collaborative partnership. This will offer your very best chance to keep the love flowing in your relationship and may help to create a more loving and caring bond between your new partner and your child.