My area of expertise is working with couples in stepfamilies. There are lots of challenges—with multiple layers—to being a stepfamily. My focus is on supporting those couples as they try to overcome the challenges faced in their new relationships or marriages.
There is, however, an important aspect to creating a successful relationship that is not unique to couples in stepfamilies. It is something that often goes unacknowledged, and maybe even unnoticed. The conflict arises when one does not finish his/her old relationship before launching into the next one.
Let me explain. You may be saying to yourself, “Of course my previous relationship is over. Why else would I be in this one?” Unfortunately, I have seen it time and again in both my professional and personal life. Sometimes, people are unaware of how a previous relationship may eclipse the new one, due to unfinished, or unresolved, business; subsequently, this can have negative consequences with regard to moving forward and creating happiness.
Human nature is full of opportunities to dig both our head in the sand and our heels in the dirt.
It’s one thing to bring baggage into a relationship—we all have our share. It’s quite another to pretend we don’t have any baggage to carry, and that previous relationships have no bearing on the one we are currently in. This is especially true for those who experience a divorce.
Entering a marriage is a life-long commitment. When it’s over, that loss is significant.
Denial is a safety mechanism.
It’s a part of the grieving process, and is a necessary pit stop along the route to grief resolution. But it's just that—a pit stop. It should not be a permanent residence. Digging your heels in and refusing to address what may be spilling over into your new relationship will only set your new relationship foundation on unstable ground.
When you meet someone who gets your heart pumping, the juices flowing, and puts the stars in your eyes, it’s hard enough to see reality. Everyone has his/her best foot forward in the beginning. But denial about unfinished business is dangerous. It is a death knell for the next relationship.
So, what have you done to resolve whatever was your contribution to the demise of your previous relationship?
Yes, I asked for your contribution. In the vast majority of cases, it's not solely one person’s fault for the termination of a relationship. Typically, there exists a pattern of interaction; a choreography between the two of you that went from annoying, to troublesome, to destructive. It deteriorated over time. For some couples, this is a slow process; for others, quite fast.
Moving into a new relationship should take both time and discernment, especially with children involved. Discernment is about giving you some time to grieve the loss, gaining clarity and perspective, and growing, stretching and changing as a result of that loss. Yes, there were plenty of things you weren’t happy about, and plenty of things that went wrong—and you will have to grieve that. But you also need to grieve the loss of the good things. There were some nice times and positive memories; and your previous partner did have good qualities, otherwise you never would have been with him/her.
Retired therapist Susan Wisdom wrote the book Stepcoupling, a book about creating a strong relationship in spite of the challenges of stepfamily life. She stated that a successful remarriage begins with a successful divorce. A successful divorce starts with grief resolution. Ask yourself hard questions like: What have you learned about yourself as a result of the divorce? What changes do you need to make to be successful in the next relationship? What is your style of communication? How do you resolve conflict? What do you love about yourself?
You must then begin to negotiate a new relationship with your ex, your children, and even your former extended family. Family is different post-divorce, and you need to figure out ways to work together if you have children. There are new dynamics that will need to be recalibrated for. This is not always easy to negotiate and will likely take time; but it's also necessary for movement forward.
If you are carrying baggage from your previous relationships, it’s never to late to resolve the old—specially if you're already in a new relationship. Keep asking yourself the hard questions, keep an open mind—and, above all else—keep an open heart. It can be hard work, but the work you put into yourself is incredibly powerful and is very much worth it. I promise.