Did you ever play the game Lock Out on your school playground? The game begins when kids form a circle by interlocking arms. Then one person on the outside attempts to infiltrate the circle anyway he can. But the more the outsider attempts to push, poke, or pry his way in, the more the circle bands together to keep him out.
This is how stepparents sometimes feel when they enter a new family. The biological family has already formed interlocking blood bonds. So the stepparent works hard to step into the circle, attempting to push, poke, and pry his way into the good graces of the children. He may even be aided by the biological parent, who also wants the children and stepparent to get along. But despite the couple’s efforts to influence the children to comply, the stepparent can still feel pushed out.
The biological parents reading this may be a little confused right now. Maybe you’re thinking, What do you mean my spouse is an outsider? He’s not an outsider in my book. Biological parents may find it hard to understand the stepparent’s perspective of being an outsider, simply because a natural parent is always an included part of the family.
I’ll never forgot a stepmom with three stepdaughters and no children of her own sharing with me her realization that, as she put it, “I live in a stepfamily, but my husband doesn’t.” She insightfully figured out that her husband never felt left out or like a third wheel even though she did quite frequently. They had very different experiences in the same family.
There’s nothing wrong with a couple trying to help the stepparent become an insider. The two obviously want the family to combine. That was the whole point of getting married in the first place. But knowing how to go about it and what to expect from the family is very important.
Keys to unity
When one of the two partners feels like an outsider, it doesn’t just affect the family dynamics. It also creates a feeling of isolation in the marriage. You certainly can’t be joined in unity when you are isolated. So how can you and your spouse feel connected and celebrate your marriage when one of you is still “locked out”? I have a couple of suggestions that will help.
The first key is to celebrate your marriage even if you can’t celebrate everything about your family. Stepparents must learn to compartmentalize the marital relationship as distinct from the stepparenting relationships. Consider them as separate entities so the failings of one don’t bleed over into the other.
I do realize that trying to distinguish the two types of relationships is a bit arbitrary; all of the relationships in your home impact the others, so acting as if they’re separated takes intentional effort. However, the capacity to allow yourself to feel good about one relationship—in this case your marriage—even when you don’t feel great about others is helpful.
Consider the alternative. If you only rejoice when everything in the family puzzle is fitting well, you won’t have much to celebrate. That just brings angst and anxiety to everyone in the home. So do your best to make the marriage strong and connected, even when the children make that difficult.
Biological parents, realize that you are an insider with your spouse (marriage) and an insider with your kids (family), so you may not feel the tension that your spouse feels. In order to bridge this gap, you must listen and consider the view point of your spouse or you’ll continually fight isolation in the marriage. Compassion is a strong connector, and the more you listen and affirm your spouse’s feelings, the closer you will become to each other, despite what is happening in the rest of the family.
The second key is to be patient, not forceful in relationships. Forming relationships takes time. That’s the reality. And it may be years before you all really feel like family. You must realize that in some cases the more the stepparent and parent work to orchestrate the acceptance of the stepparent, the more resistant the children become. Just as in the game Lock Out, pressure from the outside sometimes makes insiders—the biological children—pull closer together and refuse entry of the outsider, the stepparent.
Being strategic about how a stepparent joins the family is critical to being accepted. Let the children set the pace. Reach out in love, but never overreach. (That boundary is different for every child.) That means you must be sensitive to the needs and the responses of each of your stepchildren, and that’s a difficult task for anyone. But with the grace of God, prayer, and patience, you can have a healthy relationship with your stepchildren in the long run.
Something to rejoice about
This week, be intentional to celebrate your marriage. Find something in your relationship to rejoice about. Even if your family isn’t as smooth as you wish, you can celebrate what God is doing within your marriage. There is always something good to be thankful for: knowing looks, fun new memories, pleasant surprises … anything that you treasure with your spouse.
In addition to finding the good, reassure your spouse of your lasting commitment and remind yourself of the promises you made. And then pray for the strength to keep them. All the work that you’re putting into your marriage and family won’t be wasted. Remember, it may take some time to get there, but with God’s grace, your family will be better for it in the end. The best is yet to come.