Sunday, January 22, 2017

Guilt - A Common Emotion In Stepfamilies!

Guilt - A Common Emotion In Stepfamilies! 

We've only just had Christmas - a time that's difficult enough for a stepmum and now, of course, it's school holidays - a time that more often than not sends shivers down 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; 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 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, this post is one that you will benefit from reading together and from making a topic of discussion. Yes, you SHOULD DEFINITELY talk about this!!!!

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.

Let’s take a closer look at these:


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, obsessed 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.


3. Not being as available to your children as you were way back when.....:

This can be extremely painful for you and induce enormous guilt, especially if the separation was caused or instigated by you. Your guilt is likely to be increased even further if your children are upset when they have to leave to go “home”… if you feel that they aren’t well cared for at their other home…if their behaviour towards you (and/or your new partner) indicates that your ex-partner is influencing them against you (and/or your new partner)…if they are unhappy.


Remember that you cannot undo what’s already been done. Pouring energy into regrets, into “if only’s” or into attempting to control what goes on in your ex-partner’s household, their mind and emotions is counterproductive. Don’t focus on what you cannot do, instead put your focus and energy into what you can do!

YOU CAN explain the benefits of having two homes to your children – ensure you do this in an age-appropriate way that is meaningful to them.
YOU CAN confront your ‘ex’ if you feel that your children aren’t receiving appropriate care. It’s best if you do this after making every effort to establish whether your feelings have a factual basis. If you confront, be sure to do this in the least threatening way possible. Only pull out the “big guns” if absolutely necessary.
YOU CAN explain to your ex-partner what damaging effects it has on the children you both love if either of you malign the other. If he/she is not receptive to YOUR explanations, you may be able to enlist the help of relatives (or a professional) for this purpose.
YOU CAN refrain from playing power games with your ‘ex’ and ensure that you do not malign him/her in retribution.
YOU CAN tell your children at every opportunity how much you love them and care for them.
YOU CAN create healthy boundaries that ensure you don’t allow your children or your ‘ex’ to manipulate you.

4. Feeling as though the new partner isn’t doing the right thing by your children.

Be assured that this is very common amongst re-partnered biological parents and can be caused by:

* A sense of over protectiveness.
* Feeling that their new partner isn't welcoming or understanding enough.
* Being aware that their new partner does not share the feelings they have for their children and a fear that this might be harmful to their kids.
* Feeling as though they don’t understand or appreciate your children’s pain.
* Being concerned they impose too many and unreasonable limitations on your children
* Thinking that they are too strict.
* Fearing that their kids are missing out.


Discuss this issue with your partner. Ensure that you let them know beyond any doubt that you love them just as much as you love your children. Listen to your partner’s grievances and concerns which could be such as: “When your kids are around, you completely ignore me.” “When I exert my authority, I feel like you really resent it”. “When the kids don’t listen to me and you don’t back me up, I feel undermined and invisible” etc……Discuss these issues (and any others) and don’t stop talking until you’ve come to some sensible and workable agreements. Your partner will be much more likely to embrace your children if he/she is assured of your understanding, love and support.

In summary, I’d like to really encourage you to get rid of any and all guilt you may be feeling because guilt leaves you wide open to manipulation. It makes you vulnerable to criticism and to being controlled. As a result of guilt you may fall victim to your ex-partner's emotional blackmail, may be tempted to give in to unreasonable and (sometimes even outrageous) demands. You may become blind to your children’s bad behaviour which will only enrage your partner and put your current relationship at risk. You may feel unable to create healthy and useful boundaries around you and your current family and…ultimately, you may feel so trapped and unhappy that you’re driven to actions you will regret later on.

Shedding guilt can be one of the most difficult tasks you will face on your stepfamily journey. However, as it is vital to the success of your second marriage, it is of critical importance. Once you’ve learned how to effectively deal with your guilt feelings you will be in a much better position to make healthy choices for yourself, your children and your new family. Your life will seem so much better and all concerned will benefit. As this can be such a difficult task I would encourage all of you who find this issue too hard to tackle without expert, to seek out professional assistance. Keep your eye on the website for my forthcoming article on the topic of Manipulation.

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