Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Guilt - a common emotion in stepfamilies

It’s school holidays - a time that often sends shivers down a step-parent’s (and particularly a stepmother’s) spine. At these times of the year one can find them scurrying around the children’s rooms, tidying, dusting and making their beds; shopping for things that would not ordinarily be found in their pantries; scouring video shops and generally preparing their homes, their nerves and their emotions for the imminent onslaught. THE STEP-KIDS ARE IN TOWN…AND THEY ARE HERE TO STAY FOR A WHILE!!!

It’s often at these times that stepparents feel as though they are on an emotional roller coaster. Some will look forward to the time they can spend with the children, others will dread every moment of it. Nearly all will (or have in the past) experience a sense of guilt which could be focused on: “I should be happier for the kids that they can spend time with their mum/dad”. “I shouldn’t be feeling such a sense of dread.” “I shouldn’t be so angry at having to share my partner or be so jealous of them.”

The re-partnered biological parent doesn’t get off scott-free either. He or she might be plagued by thoughts such as: “I am so looking forward to having my kids around for longer than a day or two, but sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it. My partner might be cranky for days; will probably hound me to be stricter; send them to bed earlier; not let them do what they want…and just spoil everything. ALL I WANT IS FOR THE KIDS TO BE HAPPY (I hardly every see them anyway) AND MY PARTNER TO BE HAPPY TOO. But no matter how hard I try, it just doesn’t work. The kids are unhappy and my partner is miserable too. I just can’t win.” So, as we can see, the re-partnered biological parent also experiences a sense of guilt that frequently is hidden under a mask of frustration, anger or resignation.

Throughout the years I have been working with people in step situations, I’ve found that guilt is the most faithful (albeit destructive) companion on their stepfamily journey. Guilt can promote healthy and helpful change, but often will do little more than load a burden on its carrier’s shoulder that can be so heavy it immobilises him/her. Unfortunately once immobilised, the carrier of guilt is unable to move in any direction - neither backwards to change the original causes of guilt, nor forward to make the needed changes to ensure a happier and successful future.

Because the issue of guilt affects both the stepparent as well as the re-partnered biological parent, you will benefit from reading this short article series together and making it a topic of discussion

Whilst there are multitudes of reasons why stepparents and re-partnered bio parents feel guilt, I’d like to focus an a few that are raised time and again in therapy.

For the stepparent these are:

1. Not living up to expectations - their partner’s and/or their own.
2. Jealousy - Feeling unwanted, displaced and often negative about their stepchildren.

For re-partnered biological parents whose children remain in their original household these are:

3. Not being available to their children as they once were – being restricted in their input, time, attention and nurturing ability.
4. Feeling as though their new partner isn’t doing the right thing by their children.


1. Not living up to expectations:

As a stepparent you can be heavily burdened by you partner’s expectations. They usually want you to be just as happy as they are when their kids arrive for the weekend or an extended stay. As they dearly love their offspring, they may find it rather difficult to understand that you don’t share their feelings. They may be disappointed and distressed if you show or express your lack of enthusiasm. As you probably have a genuine desire to please your partner, this may cause you to think ……”I really should feel differently about his/her kids” and may well cause you to experience a painful sense of guilt.

The guilt can even intensify if you have an expectation of yourself to be “super dad/mum” to your stepchildren and find that you can’t…if you don’t really like them….if you don’t know how to handle them when they are around… if they don’t show any signs of liking you despite huge efforts on your part… if you don’t treat them as kindly as you know you could or feel you should, etc………..thus you might consider yourself to be a bad/wicked/nasty stepparent – a true failure!!


Know and accept your limitations. It is not likely that you will love your stepchildren (certainly not straight away). It is equally unlikely that they will love you. If your partner has unrealistic expectations of you in that arena, these are vital to discuss and dispel. Do what you can to connect with your stepchildren; make every effort to see them in a positive light; and do all you can to make them feel at home - but don’t expect miracles. You don’t have to love them in order to make room for them in your life. What you will have to do is make some sacrifices, learn to deal with your feelings if they are overwhelming and negative and to make the times when your step kids are around as easy on yourself as possible. If you take the pressure off yourself, you’ll find that these times will pass more peacefully and are much less likely to leave all of you in emotional tatters.

2. Jealousy - Feeling unwanted, displaced and often negative about the stepchildren:

When the stepchildren are around, stepparents often feel like the fifth wheel on a car. Whilst this is not unusual, it is painful just the same. This feeling can be intensified by an overenthusiastic and insensitive partner, who may be blissfully unaware that you have neither been spoken to nor have you spoken for the last 20 minutes. In such a scenario it would not be surprising if you were wondering whether anyone would even notice if you just snuck out… disappeared for the duration of the holiday, or….simply died. Whilst not wanting to be overly dramatic, that’s what step folk sometimes share with me. They seriously question their place in their partner’s lives. They wonder whether they are truly loved and wanted for themselves or are merely there to fill the hole his or her children have left in their partner’s heart. Needless to say, this does nothing to warm the stepparent’s feelings towards their step kids. On the contrary, they may become consumed with bitter jealousy, obsess ed with their partner’s behaviour when the children are around and rejecting of the kids – not a recipe for a happy home/holiday/relationship, but a nice mixture to cook up a large dose of guilt.


Remember that it’s quite natural for your partner to go overboard with the children, especially initially and if he/she doesn’t see them all that often. They may not be aware what’s going on for you. In fact, they may be oblivious to your feelings of being displaced and unwanted as soon as the kids arrive. So, the onus is on you to tell them. When you do, be sure to use non-shaming and non-blaming language and to choose your timing wisely. Don’t raise the issue halfway through a special birthday dinner for one of the kids. Don’t raise it when you are overflowing with painful emotions…but be sure to raise it! Your partner needs to know how you feel. Explain your perspective and TOGETHER be as creative as necessary to find some helpful strategies and solutions that suit all concerned.
Stay tuned for part 2!

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