For years, I’ve wanted to create my own mosaic table. Plates, tea cups, mugs, glasses are constantly getting broken in a house with several kids, and the idea of creating something lovely and useful out of broken things really appeals to me.
My husband and I are both in our second marriages, and we have his, hers and our kids. When we wed, I brought 4 kids from a previous union, he brought 1, and we’ve since had 3.
Many bloggers, around their anniversary, would write about their mate, or about what they’ve learned about marriage since their wedding day.
I’ll take a different tack.
Stepfamilies are a completely different animal than first families, and second marriages are very different from first marriages. There are a million books and blogs written for first marriages and families, their advice not particularly useful for America’s most common alternative family arrangement: the stepfamily.
Here’s what I’ve learned about stepfamilies in these past six years.
Stepfamilies won’t act or feel like first families. And that’s ok.
I think the number one problem remarried couples face is thinking that their stepfamily can act and feel like a first family. They won’t. Having realistic expectations is a must. The best you can hope for is a relationship based on mutual respect, common goals, and eventually, warmth and affection.
My husband is much more of a romantic and idealist than I. That, coupled with the fact that I grew up in a stepfamily and therefore was more aware of some of the issues involved, means I had far more realistic expectations.
One of the painful things a stepcouple has to grieve is feeling “less than” the first-married families around them (this is especially a factor in a faith community that believes divorce should be reserved for only cases of adultery, as is the case with my belief system).
I didn’t even articulate this emotion in myself until I read about it. When I did, I burst into tears because I immediately recognized this feeling. Especially if you don’t believe in divorce and you didn’t initiate it or the actions that led to it, you may feel second-best in comparison to the first-married families around you. You have stresses they’re completely unfamiliar with and are afraid to talk about those struggles.
Another way this shows up is in sadness about the second mate not being the first. My husband has often communicated to me that he wishes his first wedding/home/child/sexual experience was with me. But it wasn’t, and that’s not something either of us can change. Grieve, and move on.
Make boundaries and rules for dealing with “outer circle” problems, stat
Outer circle are the people outside the home that are nonetheless brought into the marriage (the ex-spouses, ex-in-laws, etc). In a first marriage, it’s probably true that almost every topic should be up for discussion between husband and wife. In a second marriage, this is probably not wise.
My husband and I learned that we needed to handle our exes and keep 99% of the content of communication with the ex out of our conversation. You might want to develop a code word or signal that means “the ex is giving me hell, I need your love and support, but you know for the sake of our marriage I’m not saying anything more“. You can also remind each other that every time your exes act up, it just makes you grow closer. It helps keep their behavior in perspective.
I believe that it’s very important for the individuals in a remarried couple to have a safe person to talk to about these problems. A therapist, a trusted person in the faith community, a good friend (ideally someone who does not know the ex). If you’re uncomfortable with that, then talk to God and/or a journal. Your mate just can’t be your only source of support in a stepcouple.
Don’t take anything personally
The children in a stepfamily are hurting, and they’ll do what people do when they hurt: they’ll act up. A rude stepchild may not hate you, she’s just grieving. Or maybe she does hate you. My stepdaughter wrote an award-winning essay at school proclaiming that I ruined her life. I wasn’t surprised by that, but I also know it has nothing to do with me. She is simply making me the scapegoat. It’s recruitment by proxy, and it’s textbook. I feel nothing but compassion for my stepdaughter.
Stepmom/stepdaughter relationships are the most complicated according to experts, often because of the sabotaging behavior of the ex-wife. This, of course, causes the child even more emotional harm, but the new stepmom has no control over her husband’s first wife’s behavior. Which brings me to the next point.
Make peace with what you can’t control
You can’t control the exes or the ex in-laws. So draw firm boundaries around yourself and your marriage and get on with it. You can’t control parenting and divorce plans, and you can’t control child support (or the lack of it, sometimes even if the law is on your side). You can’t control the lies told about you by people whose life narrative states that they are a victim. I can’t control that my children experience the sadness of the loss of their stepsister.
Focus on what you can control: your tongue, your head space, your treatment of your spouse, what you say in front of the children, the goals and dreams you create for your family.
Think you’ve healed from your divorce before your remarriage? You haven’t.
Most experts on divorce will tell you that you need to heal before you consider remarriage. But I don’t believe that’s possible. No matter how much “inner work”, therapy or whatever you do to heal from your divorce and the painful circumstances that led up to it, you can’t fully heal until you remarry. That’s because you don’t even understand fully how and where you hurt until you get back into the marriage relationship and ghosts of marriages past resurrect themselves.
God created us for relationship, and it’s in and through relationship that we become better people. It isn’t that a mate “completes” us or some other Hollywood hogwash. But the intimacy required from marriage pushes all the buttons our exes installed in us, and it’s the self-sacrifice, the death of self required to be happily married that heals it.
A sense of humor is essential to success
I am not naturally a funny person, but in recent years I’ve worked on learning to make light of potentially stressful situations by cracking a joke. Laugh to keep from crying. It works!
Forgive all the people
Forgive yourself for mistakes you made in your first marriage. Forgive your mate for making a cuckold out of you (or whatever). Forgive your current mate for choosing an idiot the first go-round (trust me, you’ll be thinking this. often.). Forgive your mate’s ex for attempting to sabotage your new family, whether consciously or not. They’re in pain. Forgive them. Forgive everyone who calls you by the wrong name (my husband has been called by my ex-name several times. people get confused!). Forgive your ex for triangulating and becoming friends with your current mate’s ex even though it’s pathetic and weird. Forgive him for making your kids uncomfortable with such. Forgive outer circle people for making up stories and spreading lies about you. Forgive them for accusing your kids of being lice-infested perverts. Forgive your husband’s ex-wife’s second husband, now also divorced from her, for showing up on your doorstep with a baseball bat. Forgive him again (especially since he asked!) when he calls you and tells you all about how manipulative and crazy his now-ex wife is. Forgive your ex for threatening to kill your husband when the other ex told him you had sex in front of the kids (and for believing her). Forgive your daughter for lying to you for years. Forgive her again for breaking her daddy’s heart. Forgive people who blow up your phone over and over with disgusting, abusive language.
Forgive, forgive, forgive.
And ask for forgiveness. I wrote an email to my ex several years ago in which I asked him for forgiveness for any pain I had ever caused him. It was incredibly freeing.
There’s a scene in the movie Stitch, one of our family’s favorites, in which Stitch explains to the Grand Councilwoman why he should stay on Earth with Lilo and Nonni. This line gets me every time.
“This is my family. I found it, all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good. Ya. Still good.”
Like a mosaic table, something useful and lovely can come from broken things. There is much to be proud of in a stepfamily, one in which love is a choice, not a matter of genetic roulette. My family is happy, my marriage is a solid one that brings my husband and I much contentment, and that gives the children a more solid emotional, spiritual and financial foundation than they would have in single-parent households. They also have a chance to see a happy marriage at work and that is invaluable.
We feel incredibly blessed by God in recent years in so many ways. And my husband derives comfort from meditating on the fact that Jesus himself had a stepfather.
And he turned out all right.
What have you experienced in a stepfamily? How would you add to my list here?