Outsiders and Insiders

Step-families are much tougher than I expected. Divorce rates are reported to be about double, and both parents and kids are affected in ways that I have never realized. One way to understand the challenge is to identify the perspective of two groups, and each family member can be part of either group at different times. The two groups referred to are Insiders and Outsiders. Both insiders and outsiders are marked by loss, fueled by jealousy and can potentially isolate step-family members. It affects both the marriage and parenting, and both parenting with our spouse and parenting with our ex.

Insiders are connected with biological bonds that are automatic in both defending the bond and desire to connect. They are based on a lifetime of shared experiences and values. You know the feeling of falling in love? That really never goes away with your children. It is big enough to endure in sickness and in health and for better or for worse till death do you part. If you criticize the child you criticize the parent and vice versa.

Outsiders often feel like Intruders. They have to earn their way to build a bond. It takes years and sometimes does not happen. They can feel alone, invisible and inadequate. There are so many ways they give as a parent would but may not be recognized as a parent would.

Loss is an undercurrent behind typical blended family issues. The loss of a marriage, and time between parents and kids will appear behind the scenes in a blended family. It’s like a two-sided coin where enjoyment with one side of the family is accompanied by sadness. Kids and parents often don’t have the language to express this well because it is going on behind the scenes.

I know that my stepdaughter felt this way when we were having fun she missed her dad. It happens for parents too. For example a couple of weeks ago I came home one night really looking forward to spending some time with my son because I hadn’t seen him. When I got home he was not there and I was disappointed and when my wife was having fun with her kids I felt sad and jealous. My wife said she was in kitchen with her daughter and they were laughing and I walked in and she threw a carrot at me. I turned around and walked away. She used to get annoyed with me because it seemed I went into hiding. She is thankful though when I shared what I was feeling with no blame. She was “on the top of mountain” with her kids but also feeling low in a valley because her high equaled my loss. She used to think she wasn’t allowed to show that I was having a nice time with her kids. Usually when care is shown, feeling can dissipate and bonding can occur.

Other losses include loss of attention and space in the home. Sharing a home with another parent and other kids can be tough. It is often too much change too fast.

Insiders have a dream that their new spouse will be a better parent then their ex. The reality is that kids are not looking for that. They may live under the same roof but still have to be reminded to say hello, while it is natural for a biological parent. Patricia Papernow, a stepfamily expert, said, “Even the best artificial limb can’t replace the real one.” Loss is helped by striking a balance between insider and outsider time for both parents and children.

Parenting involves a balance between attempts to connect and attempt to correct. With biological and insider bonds there are millions of connections that have already been made that can withstand a large number of corrections. For stepparents without the complex network of connections, corrections will be far less effective. Even if a stepparent can get the child to comply with rules, the chance of a close relationship is reduced.

Sadly, step parents can feel more comfortable with correction and parents feel more comfortable with connection. Actually, the reverse usually works better. In many mature thriving stepfamilies, step parents do not ever step into a disciplinary role.

One night my wife and stepson had an argument and she had asked him for his phone and he refused and was disrespectful. She got scared and called me for back-up. She was wishing for me to ask her son to hand his phone over. I came in at a different angle and suggested we calm down first and then sit down and talk. She did not feel supported and got angry at me. Now we were all angry. We needed to calm before we could work it out.

Unlike becoming a parent, becoming a stepparent is a choice that can be undone. The challenge is overwhelming at times. I had to give myself room to accept this, and find support.

Ex-spouses are also insiders and outsiders and impact stepfamilies. Understanding the three levels of co-parenting relationships with an ex helped me set boundaries. The ideal levels for the benefit of the kids is to be cooperative. The second best would be to maintain a parallel parenting relationship. The worst on kids is a high conflict co-parenting relationship. I would say from the beginning years up until high school I had a cooperative relationship with my ex. In high school our value differences became wider. There were times I got blamed by both my ex-wife and my current wife for problems. Those were certainly my lowest points.

Communication involves both sides talking about both sides. It is not the point and counterpoint of an argument. Accountability involves asking another person for something without trying to convince them. If the other person refuses then you make another offer or set a boundary. A boundary is the line between what you are willing to do and what you are not willing to do.

Understanding how insiders and outsiders impact parents, kids, and ex-spouses can alleviate a lot of pain and resentment. The losses are real, but may be covered by anger. Without the language describing the emotions and fears underneath the pain, battle lines can be drawn and years can be in turmoil.

For more information: What to Expect When Blending a Family and Blending Family Myths.

Redemption Story: Blending Families

By Dan Blair Marriage Counselor and Family Therapist

The challenges of remarriage and blending families after the wounds of divorce or the death of a spouse is likely to be more stressful than the loss of the first marriage. Many hungering for a second chance are yearning for intact family stability, but there are differences between original families and blended families. Loving your biological family is automatic and natural; learning to love a new family takes an extra “step,” a choice to treat non-biological kids as you would your own. Another difference between the original biological family and the blended family can also occur. With biological families, the best thing you can do for the kids is love the other parent, and that does not change even when divorced or after death. With blended families, showing affection to the new spouse may be difficult for the kids, and may cause a sense of loss and possibly resentment. Protecting time between the biological relationships can provide relief to counter natural feelings of jealousy, inadequacy and resentment. Finally, another difference between the two kinds of families are indicated by the stressors. For the original parents, security is threatened most by financial or intimate issues. For blended families, parenting issues are the top problem reported. Being aware of the issues unique to blended families can save years of struggle due to unrealistic expectations.

Blended families are complex, and complexity is stressful. Stress can strengthen biological bonds and weaken other bonds. Over time as blended families forge a new identity they remain vulnerable but are strengthened by overcoming opposition together. This takes flexibility, adaptability, and a sense of humor when needed. The key to building new bonds is low pressure, giving kids all the time in the world to connect, and finding middle ground when there is a culture clash. Bonds are built best when there is no demand for it. In addition, Susan Papernow, a renown researcher on stepfamilies, uses the terms “insider” and “outsider” to reflect biological bonds, and step-bonds. Ron Deal, in his book “The Smart Stepfamily,” refers biological bonds as having auto-responses, like auto-acceptance, auto-access (my space is your space), and auto-patience and grace to one’s own kids, and that an extra step may be needed to provide that in step-relationships. In step-relationships, three weeds can prevail: jealousy, inadequacy, and resentment. These natural feelings in normal people are fed by a sense of loss. These feelings of loss, including loss of time with biological parents and kids, appear throughout life especially at major life events. When there is uncertainty, fear or resistance in stepchildren, kids are often feeling the loss. It must be acknowledged and expressed. Stepparents have to learn to not take it personally.  The other biological parent may have to give some kind of permission to develop a step-relationship. These efforts on the parent’s part may take a lot of pressure off the kids and reduce their anxiety about step-relationships. Though step-bonds are different than biological bonds, both kinds can grow strong, and are often the strongest after the kids are grown.

Since a healthy marriage is crucial for a healthy family, the best thing you can do for your kids is invest in your marriage. The top-down trickle effect impacts kids. Kids will benefit from a secure marriage. That means the marriage comes first, but biological bonds are not neglected, and step-relationships benefit from these prerequisites. Kids don’t want to be in the middle of a contest for a biological parent’s attention.

When it comes to parenting, biological parents are the most effective, but declaring your loyalty to your spouse can enable the stepparent to back you up. The biological parent has relational authority and the stepparent has positional authority, but is ineffective without the biological parent taking the lead in family routines and discipline. Since there probably is some sort of family culture clash, meeting in the middle when it comes to parenting decisions is probably the best. The toughest time reported by Deal to start a step-family is between the ages of 10 and 15. Error on the side of protecting your marriage to limit the struggle.

For more information: What to Expect When Blending a Family and Blending Family Myths.

The challenge to build new relationships with a new spouse and new kids and parent together in a blended family is hard enough but some feel out of place or even ostracized by their religion when faced with divorce and remarriage. Also, stepparents can feel like second class citizens in religious communities. Churches have forbid leaders who have been divorced. The Bible, though, is marked by dysfunctional people and families even in the “faith hall of fame” (Hebrews 11).  God divorced Israel at one point and Christians refer to His remarriage to the Church. Even Jesus had a stepdad.

On a personal note, when feeling trapped, choose trust. God may not always be seen, but we know from the Bible that he does not forget. Throughout Scripture we see the gradual unfolding of God’s plan, even though like any good movie there are times where hope is lost. Hanging on to your faith is sometimes all you got. God is in the business of redeeming all our pain and using it to change lives.