Depending on where you live, this time of year can be… a little grey. In Quebec City (our home right now), the sky is grey, the ground is grey, and the snowbanks are grey with grit. This is perfect if you want to “Netflix and chill”, but doesn’t necessarily evoke images of romantic hand-held walks or date night drinks on a patio at sunset. But even in this pre-Spring slump, it is still important to devote some time and energy to nurturing your relationship. Take advantage of these short days and stormy nights to focus on each other.
If one or both individuals in a relationship have children from a previous partnership, as so often happens after a divorce, they are a step-couple. These relationships face unique challenges and stresses, and nurturing them is key. From my experience as a stepfamily coach and living in a stepfamily myself, here is some advice on keeping your step-couple relationship strong – all through the year.
Challenges for Stepcouple
First, we need to consider the stepfamily context. Whether you are a parent dating post-divorce, or a previous singleton now dating someone with children, step-couples often face challenges unique to that situation. Divided finances (where child support and/or alimony are applicable), shared time with children, role confusion and outsider feelings for stepparents, blending parenting styles, and dealing with ex-spouses are just a few of those most common challenges for step-couples. Feeling tired already? Well… being aware of these experiences is the first step to not being overwhelmed by them.
It takes time for step-couples or stepfamilies to find their groove (some experts say between four and seven years!), so don’t rush things. A divorced parent should be careful about expecting their new partner to “fill a gap” that may be missing in their family, and a stepparent must refrain from charging into their stepfamily head first with lots of ideas for “change”, regardless of how good their intentions are. Over time, they will find their groove. It might be a little hectic and messy at times, but it will come.
Focus on Your Marriage First
If you look back through that list of challenges mentioned above, you might notice that most factors impacting your relationship come from outside the relationship itself (i.e. children, exes, finances, etc.). While these factors are all important and must be discussed and addressed, trust me that the number one key to a successful step-couple relationship is putting that relationship first. If you have a strong foundation to work from, those challenges do not disappear, but they become more manageable and may even appear less detrimental. This is not easy, especially when children are involved, but consider that you are providing them with a model for how a strong, healthy partnership is supposed to look.
A note here, before the angry letters start flooding my Inbox: I am certainly not suggesting that parents or stepparents ignore the children! Of course, responsible adulting means taking care of children fully. What I am saying, is that you can be an amazing, loving, responsible parent, and also put deliberate time and attention into your relationship. And that to do so means that you (hopefully) won’t end up two empty-nesters staring at each other, wondering who the heck this other person is that lives in your home.
So how do you put your relationship first despite those stepfamily challenges?
Tips for Stepcouples
Awareness – be aware of those challenges that may arise. Stepmoms and/or stepdads, if your partner has shared custody of her/his children, understand that they will likely have to communicate with their co-parent. Understand that as a parent, your partner may have feelings of guilt about their divorce or separation, and how that impacts their children. For parents who are dating post-divorce, be aware that any new partner will likely struggle with feeling like an outsider around you and your children – particularly early on – and will need your support in fostering a relationship with their stepchildren. Understand that they may struggle with you being in communication with your ex, and try to be as clear and upfront about this as you can.
Boundaries – some see boundaries as a negative thing – some kind of wall or blockade. On the contrary, boundaries can protect you from negative or unwanted behavior. Boundaries are intended to be revisited and revised if appropriate and truly can have a significant impact on a step-couple relationship. If an ex-partner is displaying manipulative or aggressive behavior, you may decide to engage in parallel parenting as opposed to co-parenting, unless and until the behavior changes. Perhaps your teenage stepdaughter expects you to drive her to and from school each day but refuses to help out with minimal chores around the house. You may decide that unless and until her behavior changes, she can get the bus each day. This is not a punishment, it is a way of protecting yourself from being used and from her negative attitude.
Communication – when you start a relationship where there are such unique challenges and experiences, good communication is essential. Well, communication is important for any and all relationship, but particularly when exes, children, and support payments are part of daily life. Be clear about your expectations and your needs. Be clear about your parenting goals and vision. Be clear about what you envision as your role in this new relationship – new family. And be open to hearing one another in a supportive, loving way.
So while you wait for that burst of spring and summer heat, nurture your life and love, starting at home.
Erin Careless is a certified Stepfamily Coach and works one-on-one and in group, settings to support stepfamilies as they navigate the challenges of step life. She contributes regularly to Stepparent Magazine and has been published in The Divorce Magazine and Huffington Post. Erin is a Ph.D. candidate at Mount Saint Vincent University, and her research focuses on the ways stepmothers learn to navigate their role. See her website at www.steplife.ca and her blog at http://blog.steplife.ca .