Let’s face it. Stepfamilies are an absolute breeding ground for resentment. Where else do you find so many opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstandings, for feelings of disappointment and hurt.
If left unmanaged, those feelings can quickly compound into lingering frustrations, anger and bitterness leaving many stepmums living with a resentment that seems way too overwhelming to overcome. A resentment that many stepmums carry around like a secret. Scared of being judged. Ashamed to admit that they really are quite angry with the 6 year old they share a home with for what seems on the surface to be for no other reason than that the child exists.
Resentment is closely related to anger.
We can think of them as first cousins. Resentment is anger but deeper … and longer. Although there are times when anger and resentment are appropriate and justified, research by Enright & Fitzgibbons (2015) has shown resentments that occur over long periods of time can be unhealthy – leading to unhappiness, irritability and even depression. Although untested, resentment may be part of the reason that stepmums are prone to experience more depression than other adult members of stepfamilies.
It’s not uncommon for stepmums to struggle with feeling resentful.
Being a stepmum is hard. The stepfamily situation itself can set stepmothers up to be resentful in a number of ways. Managing rejecting stepkids, a high conflict birth parent and unaccepting in-laws is not an easy task. And to it a number of other factors below that impact on stepfamilies and it’s easy to see why feeling resentful as a stepmum is so common:
• Expectations of immediate love and intimacy.
Stepfamilies are the biggest growing family type in Australia, but we still expected to behave like a first-time family. Despite the fact that we know there are inherent differences in the family structures that means stepfamilies and first-time families will not, nor should they, function in the same ways.
Forced anything causes resistance from both sides. That resistance can lead stepmums to immense amounts of frustration and experiencing an anger that feels as if it just can’t be resolved.
Unrealistic expectations of stepmums come from all angles not just ourselves. They are placed on us by our partners, our friends, our families, our neighbours and even the Exes. Love takes years to develop and sometimes in stepfamilies love doesn’t ever develop between a stepparent and stepchild. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s normal. Stepparents should not feel, or be made to feel, guilty for not instantly (or ever) loving their stepkids. When they do, that guilt – if ongoing and unaddressed – can morph over time into deep-seated resentment.
• Categorising emotions in stepfamilies is not something we’ve done in Western society.
We don’t have language for stepparent-stepchild relationships so we talk about them in feelings – it feels like being a mother, like an auntie, maybe a sister or friend – but the relationship really is none of those. It’s unique and different. It’s not like any other relationship that occurs between an adult and a child who are not biologically related.
The lack of ability to accurately reflect the relationship in our language and societal norms adds to the pressure for kids and stepparents to conform to expectations and meanings that don’t fit. Wearing an ill-fitting outfit for any length of time is uncomfortable. Doing it day in and day out without any relief in sight Isco likely to result in feelings of resentment.
• Someone else that you don’t really know, and maybe don’t like, has control in your household.
Whether we like it or not, a stepchild’s relationship with their other parent and how that parent accepts or doesn’t accept you as a stepparent matters. In extreme cases, it can make or break your relationship with your stepchild. At a minimum, it can make everything just that more challenging.
Scheduling time, events and important occasions between two homes also provides the other parent some sway over what’s happening in your world. Having to get agreement (repeatedly) with someone who does not have your best interest at heart to be able to have your family all together for special occasions sucks. Depending on how you choose to respond, it’s easy for stepparents to spend a great deal of time being angry and resentful over something that just isn’t going to go away.
• There are constant reminders that you are an outsider.
Dr Patricia Papernow (leading stepfamily expert and academic) describes the ‘stuck insider’ and ‘stuck outsider’ roles that exist in stepfamilies, but not in first-time families. These roles are present in almost every new stepfamily and they hang around for years – or for as long as the family exists – depending on the age of stepchildren, personalities and co-parenting dynamics.
In first-time families, children will feel closer to either their mum or their dad at different times while they grow and develop. This closeness generally shifts back and forth from one parent to another and can cause some hurt for either biological parent when they aren’t the one who is ‘in’ at the moment. The toddler who will only let dad put her to sleep is a good example. This may happen for a few nights or weeks and mom may feel a bit put out. Especially if she’s a stay at home mom. In stepfamilies this same phenomenon occurs, but there generally isn’t any shifting back and forth between who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. The stepkids feel closer to their biological parent (rightly so) and the stepparent gets stuck in the outsider role.
Many times when stepkids aren’t present and it’s just the couple, stepparents go back to being just an ‘insider’ and feelings of resentment against the stepchild, whose existence places the stepparent in an ‘outsider’ role, may start to bubble up.
• Despite what the media or your Instagram feed is telling you, ‘blending’ isn’t the goal.
The bottom line is that forcing or expecting yourself, your partner and the kids to ‘blend’ is not going to get any of you anywhere but down the long road of resentment. In fact, Wednesday Martin, PhD and author of the book ‘Stepmonster’, believes ‘failing to blend’ is essential for developing positive stepfamily relationships. This is because in failing to blend you aren’t trying to change yourself, your partner or the kids into something new and perfect. Nor are you trying to replicate a first family.
• Co-parenting between you, your partner and the Ex isn’t always possible.
Although there are some families (that the media loves to love) where all parties are able to parent together (but separately) well, this is not the case for the majority of stepfamilies no matter how hard the stepparent tries. The prefix ‘co-‘ suggests ‘more than one’ and that is exactly what successful stepfamily co-parenting takes. If everyone isn’t able or willing to cooperate, co-parenting by the standard definition simply can’t happen. However, given all the hype of perfectly co-parenting stepfamilies where the Ex and the stepmum are best of friends, a stepmum can find herself relentlessly trying to build a cooperative parenting relationship with the Ex to no avail. Leaving a stepmum to blame herself, feel inadequate and live in a nightmare of rejection from the Ex (and possibly her stepkids) despite all of the goodwill. Overtime, significant feelings of resentment can develop and fester.
• Additional children cause additional financial strain.
Finances, particularly child support, can be a significant issue of contention for stepfamilies. This becomes all the more apparent with an ‘additional mouth to feed’. Your biological child missing out on things that your stepchild had been provided at his or her age due to financial pressures can be very difficult. Thoughts about what would be possible for your child if your partner was not paying child and/or spousal support are likely to make an appearance in the minds of most stepparents at one time or another. And, when they don’t leave resentment isn’t far behind.
• For many stepparents the lack of acknowledgement from your partner, stepchildren and/or the Ex around all the parenting you do, can feel like a punch in the guts.
More so, if you have been in the picture for a long time, significantly contribute to their care and upbringing and/or do not have children of your own.
• There are quite a few stepmums who made a decision not to have children of their own.
When the reality of living with a partner with kids means that you aren’t able to be the ‘hands-off’ stepmum you desire, it can lead to feelings of resentment towards your partner and, at times, misplaced resentment towards your stepchildren. Single parents will rightly use all of the help they can get. Your partner is no exception. You residing in the home with the kids present means that your partner may start taking advantage of your assisting with or helping care for the children – even when you were entirely clear that you made a conscious choice not to be a parent. You may also find you are financially contributing to your household expenses that includes the child part or most of the time despite this never being your intention. Trying to speak to your partner about these issues can be challenging. It’s a touchy and emotive subject. If your partner sounds or seems defensive, it can’t lead you to clam up, bottle the frustration and have you feeling like one very resentful stepmum indeed.
The best way to deal with resentment is not to set yourself up for it Wherever possible.
As Brene Brown says ‘expectations are resentments waiting to happen’. There are very few places where you find more unrealistic expectations than in the life of a newly forming stepfamily.
Understanding the differences between first time families and stepfamilies is an essential step to minimising and overcoming stepparent resentment.
We have a wealth of this type of information on the blog to increase your knowledge base. These posts are a good place to start:
When it comes to prevention it’s also important to remember that no is a complete sentence.
And, one that resentful stepmums may need to be using on a more regular basis.
Want to overcome those feelings of resentment you already hold?
The research says it’s time to start working on forgiveness.
Many of us, stepparent or not, struggle to forgive. Letting go of hurt, helplessness and anger is good for our health. It’s good for our wellbeing. It’s good for our relationships. But not always easy to do. And the deeper your hurt the longer it can take to move past.
Dr Fred Luskin at the Standford University Forgiveness Project has found 9 steps needed to move on from a grudge and to let go of resentments:
1. Awareness – You need to be aware and be able to name your feelings of resentment. To begin to forgive, you have to know what the root cause of your resentment is and be able to articulate how you feel about what happened – angry, sad, ashamed, conflicted, etc.
2. Forgiveness is about you, not anyone else. You can’t forgive just because somebody else wants you to do it or tells you that you should. You must make a commitment that you will do what you need to do to feel better for your own sake.
3. Peace not reconciliation– don’t expect to make up with the person you feel hurt by. You are looking for peace and closure. Nothing more. Nothing less.
4. Stay in the present. Heal the hurt feelings you are feeling now – not the offended or hurt feelings that happened 10 mins or even 10 years ago.
5. Do a calming excercise. At the moment you get upset, do some deep breathing or other stress management excercise to bring your mind back to a calm state. This is particularly important to do if seeing your stepchild or knowing that he or she will be coming home soon brings up feelings of resentment for you.
6. Concentrate on what you can control. We have to stop expecting things from other people, that they don’t choose to provide. An apology is likely to be one of those things.
7. Consciously move on. Instead of replaying the situation over and over in your head. Leave it. Fill that space with an activity that brings you joy. Force yourself if you have to. It will get easier the more you make it happen. Practice makes perfect.
8. Be the change you want. The best revenge is living a life well lived. Focussing on the hurt gives the person (or things) who hurt you the power. Take it back by finding the joy and kindness in and around you.
9. Change your story. You might not have been able to create the beginning of your grievance story, but you do get to write the ending. Make it one of heroic forgiveness.
While you are working on exchanging your resentments for forgiveness, remember you and your partner are a team.
Don’t shut out the person who introduced you to stepfamily life and who loves you the most. Leaning towards your partner will help – especially if you find or she is contributing to your feelings of resentment in your stepfamily.
We’d love you to share how you are overcoming resentment in your stepfamily in the comments below.