When you choose to date or marry a person with kids, it’s crucial to recognize that you also inherit a third party in the relationship—the former spouse.
I once spoke with a fellow stepmom who was shocked by just how difficult this merging was. “My husband’s ex-wife is much more involved in our lives than I thought she would be,” the new stepmom stated. “I just never dreamed co-parenting with her would be so complex.”
Stepmoms are often ambushed by the multifaceted issues associated with remarriage and kids. Once the reality hits that the new “I Do” is accompanied by an in-law that wasn’t anticipated, the situation can become confusing.
The reality is that in a stepfamily, your spouse has children from a previous marriage. And that means the other parent is a part of your home – whether you want her to be or not.
But there are some ways to tame the tension. These tips can help.
Tip #1: Remember Stepfamilies are Birthed Out of Loss
At some point, a death or divorce has occurred. That means that fear, rage, insecurity, and grief might still be residing in the spouse, former spouse or kids. When these emotions aren’t properly addressed or grieved, they can often surface in an attack towards the new spouse.
A smart stepmom recognizes that the arrows from the stepkids or a former spouse often have nothing to do with her. A stepparent is merely the target for unresolved pain. And hurt people—hurt people.
Tip #2: You Cannot Control the Other Parent’s Choices
Many stepparents have a passionate heart for their stepkids. And its infuriating when the other parent sabotages their relationship with lies, threats, withholding visitation or other destructive actions. Accepting that a stepmom can’t force a parent to do what is in the best interest of the stepchild is paramount for your sanity.
After a divorce, if one parent’s goal is to make life as miserable as possible for their ex and who they marry, then everyone suffers… especially the children.
As a stepparent, your role is to learn the things you can control and how to become a bridge towards peace.
Tip #3 Don’t Throw Gasoline on the Fire
Well intentioned stepmoms often do innocent things that infuriate the other parent. This exacerbates the battle. One example is posting pictures on social media of stepparent and child with a caption that reads, “Throwing a party for my son, Jeremy,” or “We are so proud of our daughter, Jessica.”
The stepparent may believe she’s showing an acceptance of the child, and that the picture communicates a bond. But what the other parent sees is radically different – especially a mother. She’s enraged that another woman, let alone her ex-husband’s wife, is claiming her child. The Mama bear fangs may come out clawing, “Jeremy is NOT your son, he is MY son.” And the fur begins to fly.
A smarter way that lets the stepparent share the joy but not antagonize the mom would be saying, “Jeremy had a great time at his birthday party,” or “Jessica has worked hard this year, her entire family is so proud of her.”
Tip #4 Let Your Spouse Deal With His Ex
After a remarriage, some dads prefer to delegate all communication with the ex-spouse to their new spouse. This is particularly true if interactions between the two homes have been tense in the past. This might include the visitation schedule, holidays, school activities, summer vacation, etc.
But if there’s tension between the two homes due to the stepparent, as a stepmom you may want to step back and hand that job back to the parent. Explain that for the health of your family, he will need to be the communicator. It’s not uncommon for divorced parents to struggle with setting boundaries. Remember that Christian resources or counseling with a therapist who specializes in stepfamilies can help.
Tip #5 Change the View
It’s really hard to hate someone when you pray for them. Christ knows that if we ask, prayer will give us the ability to see the former spouse through His lens of grace, compassion and understanding instead of our painful perspective.
In scripture we see that even Jesus was hated, insulted, lied about, unlawfully arrested, assaulted and humiliated. He offers this paraphrased advice (Romans 12:9-20):
• bless and do not curse;
• do everything you can to live in harmony;
• do not be proud, arrogant, or condescending
• do what is right, earn the respect of others
• do not take revenge
This doesn’t imply that as a stepparent you should tolerate abuse from the former spouse. But you can show the love of Jesus to them even through the tension.
The goal for a stepmom is to discover the things that build a bridge, and refrain from words and actions that create tension, more stress and thick walls. Let me encourage you that with God’s help, it is possible!
Laura Petherbridge is an international speaker and author of, When ‘I Do’ Becomes ‘I Don’t’, The Smart Stepmom, 101 Tips for The Smart Stepmom, Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul. She has appeared at/on the Billy Graham Center, Family Talk (Dobson), Focus on the Family, Today’s Christian Woman, FamilyLife, Lifeway, and Moody Broadcasting. Laura has been a featured expert on the DivorceCare DVD series implemented in over 60,000 churches worldwide. In addition to the US, she has spoken in South Africa, Australia, and Canada. Laura and Steve live in Atlanta, Ga, and have been married for 35 years. She has two stepsons, daughters-in-law, and grandkids. She may be reached at www.TheSmartStepmom.com