This was first published on KSL.COM
I absolutely love your KSL articles. They are so real, helpful and interesting. I am married to an amazing man who is divorced, and I was widowed. We are very happy together. We each have three children. They are all married, some with children of their own. We get together probably once a month, but here's where I need help.
My husband gets lots of love, attention and affection from my kids, whose dad passed away when they were young. We were alone for 12 years, so my husband is a godsend in many ways. However, I feel poorly treated, unappreciated and mostly would rather not spend time with his kids. They ignore me, treat me like a second-class citizen, and at the end of the activity I get a hug and a very fake "love you" (at least it feels fake to me).
I feel like I try so hard but still feel rejected every time we are together. Even after all these years as their stepparent, they don't really know me or like me. I would love some insights on this subject and how to shift this so I can feel better. Can you help?
Blending families is complicated business because there are complex emotions in play for all involved. If you understand these dynamics, it can help you to take things less personally and have more compassion for each member of the family. I can't possibly explain every possible dynamic for every parent, stepparent and stepchild in this one article, but see if you can identify the dynamics in play with your blended family.
Here are a few common blended family dynamics.
Dynamics of stepchildren
Stepchildren dynamic 1
Some stepchildren view their stepparent as a wonderful person who is making their family whole again. When they lost their natural parent (to divorce or death), they were left with a gaping hole in their lives, which the stepparent has stepped in to fill. The stepparent won't ever really replace the loss, but he or she has made it less painful. Stepchildren who are experiencing this dynamic are easy to bond with and they make the stepparent feel safe and accepted.
Stepchildren dynamic 2
Some stepchildren see their stepparent as the symbol of all they have lost. The stepparent literally represents all the pain that has come from having their family ripped apart. Every time they see the stepparent, they are reminded that their family isn't whole and the way it "should be." The stepparent represents all that is wrong with their world. These stepchildren struggle to see their stepparent as a person with feelings. They feel resentful toward him or her, as he or she is standing where their real parent should be. They try to accept and appreciate the stepparent, but their subconscious mind is always screaming that he or she shouldn't be there.
It is important that you not take this personally. It really isn't about you at all; it is about the child's feelings of pain and loss. It isn't that they don't like you as a person, and you are right: they probably don't even know you, and that doesn't feel fair. Many of the dynamics in stepfamilies aren't fair, but they are what they are. These are real people processing painful emotions. The bad news is it can take them decades to work through these feelings and they have the right to be experiencing them for as long as it takes.
If your stepchildren are this dynamic, it's best to allow them to be here. You can choose to honor and respect their right to be triggered and experience pain and loss around you being in their lives. It's OK for them to feel that way. They lost the family they wanted. It's just what it is.
The more you resist this dynamic, wish it wasn't here, and push the children toward accepting and loving you, the more they will resist doing so. The best thing you can do is allow them to be where they are. Decide to treat them with love and respect anyway, and do it for you and your spouse — not because you are getting anything back.
If you consistently show up with love and compassion, allowing your stepchildren to be wherever they are, they will soften over time as their pain dissipates. But the older they were when you joined the family, the longer it takes to get here. Be patient and trust that the way things are is creating a perfect classroom experience for all involved.
Stepchildren dynamic 3
Some stepchildren are in such acute pain over the divorce, it causes them to act out, lash out and misbehave, even trying to destroy the relationship between their parent and new stepparent. They often get encouragement to do this from the other natural parent who is also vengeful about the new marriage. These kids are in a horrible position because if they like the stepparent at all, they are betraying their natural parent. They are forced to hate the stepparent, and all these emotions of unfairness, betrayal, conflict and confusion can create difficult situations for all involved.
These kids also deserve compassion and understanding for the difficult situation they are in. If you are the stepparent here, you have to get really thick skin and understand, again, this isn't about you. All the advice above applies here, but you may have to accept that they will never accept you and that's OK, too. You must know that your value isn't tied to what they think of you.
As long as your marriage is good, you can weather the storm and raise these kids, even with them not liking you for much of the time. Let go of your expectations and allow this situation to be what it is. This will make it less painful for you.
Dynamics of stepparents
Stepparent dynamic 1
Some stepparents are impatient in wanting their new family to look and feel like heaven on earth. They expect everyone involved to see how great this new family is and be excited about it. When this doesn't happen, they are disappointed and frustrated. They even feel mistreated, which means they can start resenting the family members who are resisting this union.
These stepparents can behave immaturely, get dramatic, emotional or upset whenever they aren't treated the way they think they should be. This makes it harder and harder for the natural parent, who feels stuck between wanting to support their children and their new spouse but can't do both and is often forced to choose, which never goes well. Most of these relationships don't make it.
Stepparent dynamic 2
Some stepparents understand that blending families takes time and patience. Everyone involved is processing a deep sense of loss and mourning the family they wanted to have. This means complex emotions are in play that require more understanding, allowance, compassion and maturity. These stepparents know it takes years, if not decades for some members of the family to work through their feelings of loss and accept this new situation.
This means the stepparent must have thick skin, not take mistreatment personally, and be extra patient and understanding when they are treated unfairly. This is not easy to do, but they keep trying. They know they must allow each member of the family to be where they are and not push or rush them.
These stepparents work hard to show up with kindness, respect, love and patience at every family gathering — no matter what they are getting back — and constantly remind themselves that their value isn't tied to being accepted. They are safe and fine even if their stepchildren can't love them yet. Of course, they can't maintain this perfectly all the time, but they keep reminding themselves that their sense of safety comes from knowing their value can't change and this family dynamic is providing perfect lessons for all involved. You can be this kind of stepparent by just deciding to be and working at it.
There are many wonderful books on stepparenting and blended families, and I honestly recommend you read them all. The divorce rate for second families is 66%, and 75% for third, according to The Stepfamily Foundation. So, the odds are basically against you. I only mention this to motivate you toward reading and learning every skill and tool you can for making it work.
I have found couples who are committed to this work, read books together, get outside help and keep learning and growing can thrive and create blended families that thrive. You can do this.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.