Outsiders and Insiders

By Dan Blair Marriage Counselor and Family Therapist

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.

Blending Family Myths

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

The task of blending families is daunting. Adjustment to stepfamily is more stressful than adjustment to divorce. A stepfamily is not the same as a biological family. It can be one of the most difficult maneuvers, even for otherwise successful parents and productive members of society. Different personal and family histories create expectations that seem impossible to adjust. What makes a marriage work does not make a stepfamily work. Parents renew their dream of family life, which is often not shared by the children. And then, there are the other members of the family – the ex-spouses, or in other words, coparents.

Here are common step-family myths:

  • Love between family members will happen quickly.
  • We will do it better this time around.
  • Our children share our family dreams.
  • Our family and parenting styles will blend well.

E. Mavis Heatherington reveals in her research documented in her book For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, that is takes five to seven years to reduce the tension found in new step-families. Patricia Papernow agrees, saying that it takes a stepfamily an average of seven years to experience authenticity and intimacy. James Bray in his research found that a loving well-functioning stepfamily does not act or think like a family for two or three years. Some experts suggest that it may take as many years as the age of the child at the time of remarriage. Meanwhile, protecting time within the biological sub-units of the stepfamily affirms that the relationships with primary attachments are protected. That is not an indication of family division. Often stepparents can’t expect to have the same kind of bond as with their biological children. Knowing what to expect when blending families is a must.

The challenge is real, especially in view of a reported 60 to 65 percent divorce rate. The chance of divorce when stepchildren are involved is 50 percent higher than remarriages without stepchildren. Making the marriage work is top priority. Parents may feel guilty that their kids had to suffer through a divorce, and may undermine their second marriage to cater to the kids. Parents may expect the stepfamily to be better than biological family but there is more loss and loyalty binds than the original family. Normal parents and kids feel jealous and inadequate, and get resentful. The marriage, which may be one of the most vulnerable relationships in the stepfamily, needs to be protected and not in competition with the biological children. There is enough love and reassurance to go around for both relationships.

Coparents that keep their kids out of conflict greatly increase the chance of the children’s successful adjustment. Signs of cooperation between the parents are healing for the kids. Ron Deal, in his book The Smart Step-Family, compares the two homes of divorced parents to two countries with different customs and expectations. Imagine how hard it is for kids to adjust, and then imagine these two countries going to war. Every transition would be a move into enemy territory.

Giving the blended family time to develop is crucial. Most tension is the result of expectations that are unrealistic or premature. Guard the marriage, which is a fragile relationship in a blended family, and the relationship with the biological children, a bond that needs extra care in a stepfamily. Take time and build a new relationship with the stepkids. They are often still grieving the loss of their parent’s marriage. When you first starting dating your new spouse, you took your time before you started acting like a spouse with the expectations of a spouse. Even though you may be living with your stepkids, take your time before acting like a parent with the expectations of a parent. Biological parents and children have an attachment bond that is strong even before the kids can talk, and it has been strengthened over the years as the child has positive experiences with his or her mom and dad. After a bond is solid, the negativity from discipline is better tolerated. As trust develops, so will one’s influence.

For more information, see  What to Expect When Blending a Family and Redemption Story: Blending Families.