The middle is not typically a place where any of us chooses to be. Think about flying, most of us prefer and are even willing to pay extra for the aisle or window seat on a plane. Depending on what we are queuing for, we tend to push to be at the front of the line or hang back at the end. Even our language, with phrases like ‘caught in the middle’ and ‘middle- of- the- road’, seem to describe the middle as a less than optimal place to be, teaching us to try to avoid being in the middle of, well, anything. But that is exactly where biological fathers in stepfamilies often reside. Smack, bang, dab, in the middle.
In a position between two or more sides in an argument or contentious issues, often leaving one without a clear course of action to satisfy either side.
To experience the influence of opposing groups in a disagreement. Caught in the cross fire.
Within stepfamilies, fathers can habitually feel like they are always ‘it’ in a continuous game of “Tag”. Moving closer to your partner may result in your children feeling as if you are pulling away from them and vice versa. It’s also likely that fathers spend at least part, if not the majority, of time wedged ‘in the middle’ between their children and partner, between their partner and the ex, between their children and the ex, between their mates and their family and even at times between their ex-in-laws and their partner or their new in-laws and the children. Being stuck in the middle of two people (or groups of people) who are arguing or who have competing needs, and feeling as though they are expected to somehow support both/all of them sounds absolutely terrifying and exhausting, even for the most competent, confident, of fathers. This constant balancing act can leave fathers’ feeling paralysed and as if every move they make will be the wrong one. Unsure of what to do, they may end up doing nothing or engage in a bit of, what Dr John Gottman labels stonewalling.
Being in the middle however, doesn’t have to be a place of inaction or constant chasing or feeling overwhelmed and underprepared. In fact, being in the middle can allow you (the father) to act as a trailblazer rather than a hapless bystander. Although it might not feel like it, it’s completely possible to lead from the middle, and lead well, bringing your family together in a way that fits and feels comfortable for all.
The first part of taking the lead is all about being (and remaining) aware of the two things:
Structural differences between nuclear families and stepfamilies
In first marriages, both adults are likely at a similar place in terms of life experiences and life cycles. Their couple relationship precedes the adding of children to the family. The reality is that it’s just not the same for re-partnered couples in a stepfamily situation.
Your relationship with your partner begins and has to strengthen, in the context of you (and possibly your partner) also being a parent. Having kids means that you and your partner have to balance, and at times compete, for time together as a couple. Finding this time together can be exceptionally difficult when you have to also find time to work, to spend with family and to parent and care for your kids. It is however, no less important.
Within stepfamilies loyalties between adults and children in a stepfamily aren’t aligned as they typically are in nuclear families. This is primarily due to the simple fact that in stepfamilies, the children were their first. And as anyone who has raised a child knows, calling ‘dibs’ is a sacred convention to claiming ownership in the world of the young. This tends to make stepfamilies a very complex family system and creates tensions that perhaps aren’t experienced in other family types.
It is also helpful to remain mindful that the complexity of stepfamilies can lead you to experience many loyalty conflicts. Think about it. You and your partner may be madly in love and want to get move in together and even get married. Your children, however, may want you to stay single or to reconcile with their other parent (your ex). You want to move forward. Your kids want things to go back to the way they were prior to separation. You want everyone you love to enjoy ‘family time’ together. Your partner and your kids want your undivided attention and time with you alone, without the other present. You want your new partner included in the co-parenting of your children. You want their needs and views to be considered. Your ex however, doesn’t want to co-parent with someone they don’t know and didn’t choose.
Ultimately if you model your stepfamily after a tight-knit, cohesive nuclear family, you are failing to take into account the particular structural characteristics that distinguish stepfamily from nuclear/intact family households. It is not that one type of family is better than any other – they are just different, and these differences need to be acknowledged and understood so that growth and development are given the best chance of occurring.
The nature of relationship between your child and your partner
You have to remember that your children didn’t have a choice about who you fell in love with and re- partnered to and stepparents can really struggle caring and nurturing for children with whom they share no history. In the beginning, the only connection between a stepparent and their stepchild is the love they each feel for you – their partner/parent. In other words, you are the glue that sticks (and keeps) the whole thing together.
Although you love both your children and your partner dearly as already mentioned, their relationship isn’t based on them choosing one another, and rushing them towards closeness is not going to help either of them begin to experience gains instead of losses in their lives. In order words, feelings of love and warmth between your child and your partner do not suddenly materialise just because you want them too and because that is the way family members sought to feel about one another.
The reality is that your partner and your children may never develop a close relationship. And, that really is okay. Stepparents and stepchildren do not have to love each other for stepfamilies to be, and feel, successful. In fact, they don’t even have to like each other. They just need to be civil and respectful and demonstrate a level of tolerance and empathy for one another.
So, what next?
The good news is that there are a number of things you, as a father, can do to lead from the middle to help both your partner and children adjust to being a part of new family unit and increase everyone’s changes of successfully bonding.
Sound promising? Read on.
Both your partner and your children need to know your love for them is not conditional on their developing loving feelings for each other. This involves you actually telling each of them that your love is unconditional and giving them permission to not love, or even like, each other (unless they want to). You might feel that they do know this or they should know this already but, in these types of situations, indirect messages or subtle clues just aren’t enough. They each need to hear you say it out loud and repeatedly and in words that they can understand. ‘I love you’ has more power than you might think!
In a similar vein, remember that no matter what their age, your children need your assistance and repeated reassurances to understand that they remain just as important to you now, as they did prior to separation and to your re-partnering. They need to hear you say it out loud that your love for them has not diminished because you have fallen in love with someone else. This is particularly important for your kids if your partner has also brought children into the relationship or if the two of you decide to have a child together.
Just by putting one foot in front of the other, you can create interactions of connection with both your partner and your children that lead to relationships shaped by love, respect and affirmation. This goes a long way to achieving and maintaining balance in your stepfamily.
With regard to your children, connections can be as simple as keeping some of the routines that you and your kids developed following your separation, when it was just you and them. If you and your daughter cooked pancakes together for breakfast every Sunday morning prior to you meeting your partner, do your best to maintain this ritual. If you drove your son to soccer practice every Thursday after school, make sure this continues even if it would be more convenient for your partner to help out with the carpooling. If you’ve already let these things go, it’s never too late to pick them back up or to even create some new routines involving just you and your kids.
When it comes to your partner, making little connections at times when she may be feeling like an outsider in her own home can do big things for your relationship. Taking a few seconds to greet your partner when you walk in the door (or she arrives home) with a warm smile and asking about her day is a good way to send the message that, after a long day at work, you really want to see her. Alternatively, try giving her shoulder a little squeeze as you walk past or initiate a subtle game of footsie under the dinner table when your kids start to rave on about the awesome time they had with their mum (you never know, if you’re lucky the game may just continue under the covers later that night!). Making sure to give your partner a quick hug and telling her how much you love her or that she’s beautiful (or both!) when you see your ex come up the driveway at handover to drop the kids back home goes a long way to helping ward off unnecessary insecurities developing in your relationship.
You shouldn’t ever have to choose between your children and partner. But often in the course of everyday disagreements, conflict and competing needs, you might be asked by your children to stand-up against your partner or vice versa. This is the type of scenario every father dreads, believing it to be no-win situation.
Whilst you might feel that you are in an impossible situation, it is not helpful for the sake of “peace,” to walk away, pretend to not hear or to not otherwise get involved. By remaining in the middle, conflict and uncomfortable feelings may be temporarily avoided, but ultimately not resolved. What is more helpful, is if you courageously step out of the peacemaker position and (where appropriate) work through any conflict and disagreement between your partner and children.
This involves having a discussion with your partner, in private, about how you both want to handle any conflict in your household. Establish guidelines you both agree to follow. Do not accept harsh or childish behaviour from your partner, especially if directed towards the children. On the other side, back your partner up when you children get out of line and are rude or disrespectful.
Courage is also required if your stepfamily is being verbally attacked or infringed upon by the in-laws or other extended family or close friends. In this scenario, you need to mediate any concerns of your partner and children, to your own flesh-blood family and well-meaning friends. And when we say mediate, we mean defend the legitimate concerns and the best interests of your partner and (step)family. It is not easy or comfortable to speak up against your own family, friends or in-laws. But it doesn’t do your relationships with either your partner or your children any good if the behaviour of others (especially extended family) is coming between them and you or making them feel unwanted, unworthy or disliked or that your stepfamily is somehow lesser than any other type of family!
Just remember courage doesn’t have to be all fire and brimstone and you don’t have weigh into any conflict by throwing a few insults of your own. It might just be pulling those making the hurtful comments to the side and telling them that you love your partner and your kids, that these relationships are important to you and firmly asking them to refrain from making such unwanted, unhelpful and possibly even hurtful remarks in the future.
This won’t be the first or the last time you’ll read that communication is the key to healthy relationships. And, that’s because it’s true. If you are feeling like the meat in the sandwich, then it’s appropriate to let your partner and/or your kids (depending on their age) know.
Actually, saying out loud (in a calm and neutral tone of voice) that you’re feeling a little bit caught in the middle and are taking some time to think about what to do to make sure that everyone feels heard and important, at least lets everyone know that you are not, not doing anything. It also gives those that love you the opportunity to help come up with workable solutions. Talking about the challenges and uncomfortableness of feeling caught between a rock and hard place, isn’t going to get you out of the middle. But it will help your partner and kids understand and also hopefully empathize, with your position in the family.
Love is a word that can mean any different things. We use the same word to express our affection for casual things like our favorite flavor of ice-cream “I love cookie dough ice cream”; but we also use it to signify our level of affection towards our partner “I love you”.
Just saying the phrase “I love you” (whilst important and also very nice to hear) can have very little bearing on whether or not your partner feels loved. In this way, showing love is vastly different than saying love. Learning you partner’s love language and teaching them about yours, is a good way to ensure your relationship remains healthy. Talk to your partner and find out about the things you do or can do that that make her feel incredibly loved and important. What also are the things that devastate her. Educate her about what works for you. Even with all the pressures of life and work and parenting, make time to spend together as a couple. Don’t avoid date nights or special couple celebrations such as anniversaries because of the kids.
The bonus side of all this is that you and your partner can model to your children what a healthy, adult relationship looks like – something that you and your ex most likely couldn’t or didn’t do.
This one is as simple as making sure you don’t forget about you. Being in the middle can take a whole lot of patience, energy and hard work. You aren’t going to be your best for your family if you aren’t taking care of yourself. Keep up with your gym sessions, your golf game or whatever activity or hobby you have that helps you recharge and find a bit of inner peace and quiet.
In the end,
Stepfamilies, by their very nature and the sheer number of persons involves, can be the perfect set up for getting caught in the middle. By offering reassurance, being courageous, trying your best to communicate your needs, learning about love languages, standing up for your partner and your children and taking care of yourself, you can make the middle into a place you actually want to be. A place of strength and love rather than frustration and inaction. A place where, rather than getting caught or stuck, you and your (step)family can connect and move forward. A place that feels like family. A place that feels like home.