When you choose to date or marry a person with kids it is crucial to recognize that you inherit a third party in the relationship—the former spouse.
“My husband’s ex-wife is much more involved in our lives than I thought she would be,” the new stepmom stated. “I just never dreamed co-parenting with her would be so complex.”
Stepparents are often ambushed by the multifaceted issues associated with remarriage and kids. Once the reality hits that the new “I Do” is accompanied by an in-law that wasn’t anticipated, the situation can become confusing.
Reality is that in a stepfamily your spouse has children from a previous marriage. And that means the other parent is a part of your home whether you want him/her to be or not.
There are ways to tame the tension. These tips can help.
Tip #1 Stepfamilies are Birthed Out of Loss
A death or divorce has occurred. That means fear, rage, insecurity, and grief might still be residing in the spouse, former spouse and kids. When these emotions are not properly addressed or grieved, they often surface in an attack towards the new spouse.
A smart stepparent recognizes that the arrows from the stepkids or a former spouse often have nothing to do with him/her. A stepparent is merely the target for unresolved pain. And hurt people—hurt people.
Tip #2 You Cannot Control the Parent’s Choices
Many stepparents have a passionate heart for their stepkids. And its infuriating when the other parent sabotages their relationship with lies, threats, withholding visitation or other destructive actions. Accepting that a stepparent cannot force a parent to do what is in the best interest of the child is paramount for sanity.
After a divorce if one parent’s goal is to make life as miserable as possible for ex and who they marry everyone suffers, especially the children. The stepparent’s only role is to learn the things he/she can control and how to become a bridge towards peace. And then let go of the things he/she cannot control.
Tip #3 Don’t Throw Gasoline on the Fire
Well intentioned stepparents often do innocent things which infuriate the other parent. This exacerbates the battle. One example is posting pictures on social media of stepparent and child with a caption that reads, “Throwing a party for my son, Jeremy,” or “We are so proud of our daughter, Jessica.”
The stepparent believes he/she is showing an acceptance of the child, and that the picture communicates a bond. What the other parent sees is radically different, especially a mother. She’s enraged that another woman, let alone her ex husband’s wife, is claiming her child. The Mama bear fangs come out clawing, “Jeremy is NOT your son, he is MY son.” And the fur begins to fly.
A smarter way, that allows the stepparent to share the joy but not antagonize the mom would be to say, “Jeremy had a great time at his birthday party,” or “Jessica has worked hard this year, her entire family is so proud of her”.
Tip #4 Let Your Spouse Deal With the Ex
After a remarriage some parents prefer to delegate all communication with the ex-spouse to their new spouse. This is particularly true if interactions between the two homes have been tense in the past. This might include the visitation schedule, holidays, school activities, summer vacation, etc.
If there is tension between the two homes, and it’s due to the stepparent, it’s advisable for the stepparent to step back and hand that job back to the parent explaining that he/she will need to be the communicator. It’s not uncommon for divorced parents to struggle with setting boundaries. Life coaching, resources or counseling with a therapist who specializes in stepfamilies can help.
Tip #5 Change the View
It’s really hard to hate someone when you pray for them. Christ knows that if we ask, prayer will give us the ability to see the former spouse through His lens of grace, compassion and understanding instead of our painful perspective.
Jesus was hated, insulted, lied about, unlawfully arrested, assaulted and humiliated. He offers this paraphrased advice (Romans 12:9-20)
• bless and do not curse;
• do everything you can to live in harmony;
• do not be proud, arrogant, or condescending
• do what is right, earn the respect of others
• do not take revenge; remain a lady
This does not imply that a stepparent should tolerate abuse from the former spouse. The goal for a stepparent is to discover the things that build a bridge, and refrain from words and actions that create tension, more stress and thick walls.
Tips for the first meeting
Ideally the parent should introduce his/her love interest or fiancé to the former spouse in a neutral setting.
Explain who he/she is, give a little background, share his/her family dynamics such as children.
Share how often this person will be around your children, and how it may or may not change the home.
Assure the parent that he/she is NOT replacing them. That this new relationship does not minimize the fact that he/she is still the only other parent.
Allow the former spouse to ask questions and share any concerns or fears. Be forthright and respect that a parent has the right to know about the safety, security, details, and lifestyle of his/her children.