The Phantom Ex: An ever-present, non-present biological parent

The Phantom Ex (1)

It is a fact that some children’s mothers or fathers are absent from their children’s lives by choice or bereavement.

It is also a fact that some stepparents choose to be a daily presence in these same children’s lives by choice. Despite what others may think, an absent biological parent does not make a stepparent’s role easier. As with all things stepfamily, this type of circumstance comes with its own immense rewards and its own unique challenges.

Google and 95% of stepparent support forums may lead you to believe that an absent Ex is the stepparent jackpot. No co-parenting issues or having to manage a relationship with an Ex, can seem like a dream to many stepparents who are experiencing high conflict co-parenting between their partner and his or her Ex. But that just isn’t the case.

In being nowhere, it can feel as if the absent parent is almost everywhere.

Many times, the children’s non-present, biological parent is an ever-present feature in their minds and their home. Wherever a stepparent walks, especially if they are taking a step towards their stepchildren, they may find themselves bumping right up against the phantom Ex. Stepparents in this situation can feel particularly helpless and at the mercy of something they have no opportunity to confront as if the missing parent is an obstacle that will never be overpassed.

When a parent isn’t present children who are grieving or are too young to comprehend the situation tend to fantasise or idolise him or her.

Creating a fantasy world can help a child avoid the harsh truth – that their parent has left them. Children’s coping mechanisms vary and many may not be able to grasp this harsh reality all at one time. To compensate, they develop an alternative story. One where the absent biological parent is not only perfect, but misses them terribly.

In the child’s imagination the absent parent takes on super-human traits of awesomeness leaving the same-gendered stepparent who is there for the child day-in-and-day-out looking rather…well, mundane. Reality is hardly ever as good as one’s imagination. As the child never actually sees the absent parent, an active imagination can take the place of memories that have never been made. The child never sees the phantom ex without their make-up, after a bad day at work, or grumpy from a bad night’s sleep. The sad fact is they never see him or her at all.

If the child isn’t aware of the reasons his or her biological parents separated, the fantasy they create may also include that separation being at the hands of a wicked stepparent who stole one of his or her parents away from the other. An absent can play havoc on the relationship between a stepparent and their stepchildren. The child’s belief about the absent parent is out of kilter with reality. It’s over-magnified and no matter how hard a stepparent tries, in the mind of the child, the idolised absent parent does all things much better.

As a stepparent, there are two really important things to keep in mind.

It is sad that your stepchild has a parent who chooses not to know or spend time with them and your stepchild is grieving that loss. Even if you and your partner belief your stepchild is better off without the other biological parent in their life, this is not likely to be the way your child views or understands the situation. Acknowledging your stepchild’s sadness, loss and disappointment will eventually allow the child to come to a place of understanding that their parent’s actions are not about or caused by them.

As a stepparent there are some other things you can do to assist your stepchildren in managing the very difficult reality of their situation:

  1. Respect your stepchild’s emotional ties to both of their biological parents. A child’s curiosity about their absent biological parent does not diminish their relationship with you.
  2. Help your partner talk about the absent parent with your stepchild providing age appropriate information and messages. Depending on the child’s age, your partner may say things like ‘I am sad that your mother/father has chosen not to be here, but there is nothing that you or I can do to change that. It is not your responsibility or your fault that your mum/dad has chosen/is unable to be here.’
  3. Show the child that it is not because they are not good enough or loveable enough that their other parent is absent. The best way to do this is by making time for the child and showing an interest in them and the things they are interested in. If you need help in building a better relationship with your stepchild our BBR challenge may be just the thing you are looking for.
  4. If your stepchild ever directly asks you about their absent parent, focus on the parent’s behaviours rather than making it about him or her being a good or bad person. That parent is a part of your stepchild and saying he or she is a bad person is saying that part of your stepchild is bad too. Focussing on the behaviour also allows for the possibility of the absent parent demonstrating change in future and many do.
  5. Resist the urge to over compensate, you are not a replacement mother or father for your stepchildren. You are you – the child’s residential stepparent – and that is in and of itself a wonderful thing.
  6. Don’t lie or make excuses. It is important that your partner allows his or her children to understand at an age appropriate level that the other parent is simply not giving them the kind of good enough attention that children need. It is better for your partner to acknowledge that the other parent is not acting in ways that the child needs or deserves than to make excuses that eventually will sound hollow and defensive of the other parent.

Stepparents play a significant role in the world of their stepchildren. This means you can play an important part in helping the children to overcome the grief, loss and sadness that comes from growing up with an absent parent.