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In February, we are bombarded with messages of love. There is romantic love, parental love, filial love, altruistic love and so on. In the many different ways we love; we create many different relationships. One of those relationships is a step-family. A step-family is created when one or both of the spouses have been previously married and have children.

Sometimes a step-parent may feel threatened by the love between their partner and the partner’s biological children. Conflicts with stepchildren are frequently cited as the reason for the demise of so many second marriages. In fact the divorce rate is higher in second marriages than in first ones.

It seems counterintuitive. After all, if you have been married before (and then either divorced or widowed) you have hands on experience of what works and what doesn’t. So, why is it that these second (and sometimes third) marriages experience so much difficulty?

Simply put, our expectations that a second marriage is simply a “better version” of the first often leads to conflict. Much of what we experience in a first marriage is different in a second.  Let’s look at some of those differences.

Created after Loss-A stepfamily is a family created after a divorce or death of a spouse. All members of the family experience the pain of loss. It is easier to believe in “happily ever after” in a first marriage.  In a second marriage the fantasy is often blunted; those who have experienced divorce know that even with all the hard work, love sometimes, does not keep you together.

Children precede the Marriage– In a first marriage the couple’s history precedes that of the children. They have time to bond as a couple before having children. In a step-family, shared loss by death or divorce creates a unique bond between a parent and their children. The spouse entering into this family often feels isolated, excluded and on the outs. In some ways that is undeniably true. They do not share the history of the biological family, which is rich in memories, experiences and traditions. They also don’t share their loss.

Legally and biologically- The biological parent also shares a legal connection to the children: the step parent does not. Even if your children are adopted, that unique relationship is not shared with your new spouse. Legally, the new spouse has no rights to the children and the children have no legal responsibility to that parent.

Financially -The biological parent has a responsibility to support the minor biological children, no matter where they live. For step-moms this is difficult especially if she sees monies going to the first household. That prior connection and commitment might limit resources and opportunities for the newly formed family. For step dads, who in many situations take on much of the day-to-day parenting of the children, they may resent doing “all the work” and not having a voice in the major decisions that affect the children’s lives.

Structurally- A step family formed by divorce often results in the children living in to homes. This is a source of sadness for both the children and the parent. While the biological parent often feels a deep need to spend more quality time with the children, the new parent may see that time spent as an inconvenience or intrusion with the new spouse.

Add together all these differences and the result may be a step-parent feeling they aren’t loved “enough”. This feeling of being threatened does not only occur when the children are young. Many step-parents continue to feel insecure even when the children are grown and on their own. The self-help books will tell you that the couple’s relationship is the foundation of a strong marriage. And while this is true in a second marriage as well, because of the prior history and relationships formed, that foundation will feel different. However, that doesn’t have to mean the connection cannot be a very strong one.

The stepparent who allows his/her insecurity to put him/her in competition with the step children, will most likely lose that battle. This attitude will create drama or worse, fracture relationships that may not be repairable.  Rather than pursuing a desire to be loved the “best” why not consider that we can love many people at once? Spousal love and a parental love are not the same thing. You aren’t in competition. Love is not a pizza with only so many slices to go around. You don’t need to fight for your share. Self-confidence, faith in your partner and the times you create together, go a long way in building a strong relationship, whereas demanding your spouse “choose” will probably end in heartache. Rather than resent the time your spouse spends with his/her children, consider that loyalty and connection is a testimony to his/her character.

The goal of a step family is not to be like a biological family, it is to evolve into a blended family. Just like a biological family, blended families use “we” instead of “I” and “our” children instead on “my” or “your” children. However, blended families understand that everything is not always “equal.” Blended families understand that competition between the stepchildren is expected (most siblings compete at some point) but competition between a parent and stepchildren is detrimental to the basic foundation of the marital relationship. Keep the foundation of your marriage strong by embracing your relationship with compassion not competition and respect not resentment.

 

© 2014 Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Farmington, CT since 1986. She is the author of the award winning From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce now available in Kindle format for $9.99 as well as in paperback.

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