The Ties That Bind: Loyalties in stepfamilies

The Ties That Bind2


Like mother, like daughter. Like father, like son.

We’ve all heard these proverbs. Some of us may have even reiterated them once or twice about our nieces or nephews, our close friends’ children, our own kids or our stepchildren. The sayings reflect what we know. Children tend to identify with their same-sex parent and that holds true whether their parents are residing together and madly in love or living separately and barely able to stand the sight of each other.

Loyalty is present in all family relationships

Loyalty supports the emotional building blocks of family life. It pulls family members together allowing us to ‘own’ our connection and relationship with our children, our parents and our spouses. Loyalty ties between family members are human nature. We are hard-wired to develop them and they come enmeshed with moral expectations for how we behave. For example, parental loyalty to a biological children is one of society’s most accepted norms. Society – and religion for that matter – tells us that we must love our child above all else no matter what they do or how they behave. We are required and expected to demonstrate our loyalty and our commitment to our children, to our parents and to our partners through our behaviours and our choices.

With loyalty comes commitment

Loyalty and commitment are two separate things and both are required when it comes to family relationships. Having a parent’s commitment without their loyalty just isn’t enough for a child and this is particularly true for children living in stepfamilies. Attending every one of your daughter’s netball games isn’t enough to stop her from feeling betrayed if you don’t ‘stand up’ for her with your new partner when it’s warranted. Children need to see their parents not only ‘show up’, but also ‘step up’ to feel safe and secure about their relationship


Committed adult relationships bring their own obligations around loyalty, love, commitment and time spent together. In stepfamilies, the couple relationship forms after the children are born bringing a unique set of dynamics to the family’s loyalty binds. When working out loyalties in stepfamilies, Dr William Doherty, Professor and Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the Department of Family Social Science, College of Education and Human Development, at the University of Minnesota points out in his work on ‘Smart Marriages’ that ‘Children first is a starting point for exploring stepfamily responsibilities, not an end point”.

When loyalty is lacking

Different from other family types, loyalty binds between the adults and children in stepfamilies are not equal. There is a normal and expected lack of loyalty and commitment between children and stepparents when a stepfamily is first forming. The only tie between them at the start of their relationship is the love they feel for their partner or parent. Although this is exactly how it is supposed to be in the early months and years of a new stepfamily, this inequality in loyalty binds can cause a great deal of conflict.

Divided loyalties

Divided loyalties between parents, partners and children are everywhere in stepfamilies. The couple wants to get married, but the children want their parent to remain single or their biological parents to reconcile. The couple wants to move into a new home where no previous partner has lived, but the children want to remain in their same home, school and community. The couple wants to create a new, loving family, but the children don’t want intruders disrupting the family dynamics they have finally or just adjusted to. The biological parent believes they are riding out those first rocky years to develop an integrated, nurturing stepfamily. While at the same time, their teenager is counting down the months until he or she can move out and their partner is dreaming of the time they can have the house to themselves.

Striving every day to resolve divided loyalties that can never really be fully be resolved is the task of stepfamilies. Parents in new relationships face the challenge of balancing responsibilities to their children versus commitment to their partners. Stepparents must try their best to nurture and care for stepchildren whose wants and needs differ from their own. Ex-partner’s must choose between supporting or undermining the relationship between their child and the child’s stepparent. And, children must learn how to respect their stepparents without disrespecting their parents.

Tightening of binds

In times of stress and sadness, we tend to tighten our biological loyalties binds. Often times we, and especially children, aren’t even consciously aware that we are doing this. But, this tightening is the reason that your partner gets so defensive when you raise a complaint about his or her children. It’s the reason that a child who lost a parent through death fights to keep the memory of their mum or dad alive by idealising that parent and letting their stepparent know at every opportunity they will never match up. Loving and feeling loyal to more than one person isn’t the problem. Feeling you must or being made to choose between the people you love is. Loyalty conflicts simply can’t be reasoned away.

The goal isn’t to rid the child or ourselves of our loyalty binds. It’s to respect them, loosen the ones that are doing harm and develop or strengthen new ones.There are a number of ways stepfamilies can do this and we’ve listed some of those below:


  • Say it out loud and repeat

Kids, of all ages, need to hear their parents and stepparents say out loud that the special bond they have to their biological parents won’t go away. They need to hear directly and indirectly, regularly and often that the bond with their mum and dad is a permanent one that can’t be broken. No matter how far apart they may be from that parent and no matter how often or not so often they may see them. Just like talking to your children about sex or drugs, the conversation around loyalty bonds should be age appropriate and continue as your children grow.

No matter how amicable your divorce and co-parenting relationship, children also need to hear that the special bond with their mum and dad can’t be replaced and that no one, including their stepparent, wants to do so. What works best for loosening children’s loyalty bonds is for both you and your ex to give your children permission to like their stepparents. An ex explaining to their child that he or she does not have to love or like the stepparent at their other home, but can AND does have their permission to do so if they want can do wonders for children. Unfortunately, not all parents are ready or capable of taking this step.

  • Permission denied

You can’t force your ex to give permission to your child to like and have a positive relationship with your new partner. However, you can understand and empathise with how not having this permission impacts your child and his or her behaviour towards your partner. You can help your partner to understand and cope with what can be a very, bumpy journey in these circumstances. And, you are in control of your own actions so can choose differently than your ex by providing your permission if and when your child gains a stepparent in their other home.

  • Acknowledge and respect

Children having their primary loyalties tied to their biological parents is not only expected and appropriate, but also important for them. You don’t need to have the Christmas photo of you, your ex and your children hanging in the lounge room, but it is helpful to acknowledge your children’s feelings by allowing and helping them to display photos of all the significant people in their lives, including their other parent, in their bedrooms.

Wherever possible, letting your child include both their parents will help loosens loyalty ties. For example, letting your child show their other parent their new bedroom in your home, sharing the trophy or ribbon they won at sport between their houses, being civil and/or sitting next to the ex at your child’s events can all go a long way towards your child not feeling he or she must choose between the people they love. If your co-parenting relationship with your ex is not at a place where any of these things are possible, you may want to read our recent article, 8 Ways To Push The Reset Button On Your Co-Parenting Relationship. In the short-term, you can also focus on things that you, your partner and extended family can do in your home to acknowledge and respect your children’s connection to all the significant people in their lives.


  • Connect

Finding ways to connect with your partner when your children put their loyalty conflicts on display helps maintain your couple relationship. Your son repeatedly talking about what a great cook his mother is while eating the dinner prepared by his stepmum is a great time for you and your partner to play a little footsie under the table. A secret bum squeeze when the drama about how the kids don’t have a bedtime at their father’s house begins unfolding, taking a moment to hug your partner before heading off to battle it out with your teenager about the blaring volume of her music when she’s repeatedly been asked by your partner to turn it down, or catching your partner’s eye over your son’s shoulder when he is giving you a hug good night knowing that he will only begrudgingly mumble a goodnight to his stepparent on his way to bed because you force him to are little but important ways you and your partner can stay connected. From those little things big love grows.

  • Shut up and save it

Criticising an important adult in your child’s life does nothing but tighten your child’s loyalty binds to that person. This is definitely one of those times that if you and your partner can’t say anything nice, you don’t say anything at all. Otherwise, keep the focus of your communication on your child and their feelings rather than the adults. If you must vent, save it for when the children are at their other home.

The same goes for you complaining to your partner about your stepchildren. Being able to communicate concerns is an important part of any couple relationship and key for success in the world of stepfamilies. How you choose to raise those concerns will either loosen or strengthen your partner’s loyalty binds to their children. Starting a conversation with ‘Your daughter is so lazy, she won’t even pick up a bag of groceries’ is only going to intensify your partner’s loyalty ties to their daughter. Saying ‘It is difficult for me when Katie doesn’t offer to help me carry in the groceries’ places the focus on the behaviour you would like to see changed rather than the child. It allows your partner to meet you half way in the conversation by loosening loyalty binds that might otherwise get in the way.

  • Dump the cowardice

Is your partner really not ‘stepping up’ for you because he or she is unable to stand up to their kids? Are your kids’ right about you lacking courage when it comes to standing up to your partner for them? Being part of a stepfamily takes courage. Courage to communicate what you feel, courage to accept the realities of the situation, courage to support your child against your spouse and your spouse against your child and the courage to compromise. Loyalty conflicts in stepfamilies can unfortunately make a coward out of the best of us. When being asked by your partner or your children to stand up for them against the other, it’s important to weigh the moral ground. If there is a moral obligation involved for you, your partner or your children, then it’s time to dump the cowardice and step up. If not, then it’s best to ‘show up’ and explain with empathy why you won’t be ‘stepping up’ this time around.


  • Love is not finite

Pretty self-explanatory really, but also critical for loosening loyalty binds. When loyalty conflicts are at their most difficult, love really can be the answer.

That any stepfamily successfully manages loyalty binds of these kinds and develops a nurturing and caring family environment is a truly, amazing feat. And, many, many stepfamilies do. In fact, it’s happening right now, right here and every day, in lots of different locations across the globe. As Dr Doherty also says ‘Stepfamilies are the moral pioneers of contemporary family life, showing us all how to love and persevere in the face of loyalties that multiply and divide, but never fully converge.’

We’d love for you to let us and the SteppingThrough community know how your stepfamily is successfully managing any loyalty conflicts in your household in the comments below.