Stepfamily Woes: Conflict between Your Spouse and Your Kids
- 2006 19 Jul
Dear Dr. David:
I have two children from a previous marriage, and two children from my current marriage. My problem is this: I feel like my husband treats his two natural children with preference over my children, even though he has raised my children like his own. When I confront my husband on his actions, he becomes defensive. He denies treating my children any different than his own. My children often come to me to complain about his actions, so I know how they feel and it is causing marriage problems. What can I do to solve this problem? It is beginning to tear us apart. ~ Rebecca
Family life is challenging, and perhaps even more so if it is a stepfamily. You are discovering that the blending of two families is more than a happy couple in love. It involves children, and often two different sets of parents.
Your first task is to develop a thorough understanding of stepfamilies. A little knowledge, on everyone’s part, can go a long ways. You don’t say whether you had premarital counseling, but this might be a time to seek family counseling for assistance on the blending of families. Here are a few additional guidelines.
First, expect conflicting loyalties, on everyone’s part. It is perfectly natural for your husband to feel differently about his children, and your children. While you might want him to treat the children exactly the same, this is not likely to happen.
Second, discuss your problem openly, objectively. The objective part is the biggest challenge. You undoubtedly want to rush in to protect your older children. And they rush to you for protection. If possible, your older children will need to learn to talk to your husband about their feelings, rather than "triangulate" you into taking sides against him. This is a scenario for problems.
Third, discuss matters of discipline together. Since you indicate your husband has been the primary parent for your children, you and he need to agree, if possible, on how to handle matters of discipline for the entire family. If this simply is not possible, you may have to arrange for you to take the lead in disciplining your children.
Fourth, make a concerted effort to keep family stresses from causing significant problems in your marriage. Make sure to continue doing things alone with your husband, keeping your marriage strong. You and he will be together long after the children are gone.
Fifth, create opportunities for you and he to talk about the children, all four of them. Make it clear to the children that you and your husband are united and will tackle problems as a team. Practicing this with your husband will help solidify your united efforts. Instead of one of you being "right," and the other "wrong," brainstorm win-win solutions.
Finally, remind yourselves that God is still blessing your family. It can be tempting to believe that a stepfamily is a second class family. A thorough reading of the Old Testament shows that none of the Old Testament families were perfect. They had all the problems we have today and yet God still blessed them. God still has a purpose to fulfill in your family.
Dear Dr. David:
I have a friend who wants to be my friend when it benefits her. Whenever she wants something she calls me and I am always quick to help, even though it sacrifices time for me and my family. However, when I need something, her life is always too chaotic to be of any help to me. I have given up asking any help for her, but find myself resenting her. The same thing seems to happen with my mother. When she is upset she calls me and I jump to her help. I often spend hours on the phone listening to her latest problems and then she doesn’t listen to me. When I want to talk about my problems, she is too busy for me. Any advice? ~ Always Helpful
Your story sounds familiar. Many people are quick to offer their assistance—perhaps too quick. While at first glance this sounds like an admirable trait, it can actually be a cover for feelings of low self-worth or insecurity, a need to always be available to others in spite of the detrimental impact it has on you. Consider the possibility that your boundaries are too porous, that you are too quick to help in spite of the negative impact on you and your family.
I am reminded of the parable of the vine and branches. Jesus says that He is the true vine, and the Father, the gardener, cuts off every branch that does not bear fruit, and prunes the branches that bear fruit so they will be more fruitful. (John 15: 1-2) Consider the possibility that you are giving too much of yourself away, and need to "prune" your activities so they will be more fruitful.
Finally, your note sounds like you are of questionable help to your friend and mother. While your motives are right—to be helpful—they don’t sound receptive to your help. They need to learn about balanced relationships, as do you. Consider these steps:
First, let them know how you feel. Being honest is risky business, but speaking the truth in love is our calling. Carefully share your hurt feelings, that you, too, want to talk about your life.
Second, seek balance in your sharing, being mindful to give and receive. If you are an overfunctioner, which sounds likely, you will give, and give, and then resent and resent. This does no one any good. Resentment is often a clue that we are living life out of balance. Ask for what you need—don’t expect anyone to read your mind.
Finally, be careful to determine if your advice-giving, or listening, is helpful or enabling to their problems. There are times when we listen to others problems and actually work harder on the problem than the other person does. If you feel called to listen, then by all means listen. We are called to "Carry each other’s burdens." (Galatians 6: 2) We are not called, however, to carry them for someone who should be carrying them themselves.
Developing healthy boundaries is a most difficult endeavor, especially for Christians who feel called to be helpful. We often go from one extreme—porous or absent boundaries—to the other extreme—rigid, distancing boundaries. It is very difficult to find the balance—caring without caretaking. Listening without carrying the problem for someone.
I talk about these issues at length in my book, When Pleasing Others is Hurting You. Blessings to you as you practice finding healthy boundaries with these two important people in your life.
Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David will address two questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to him at TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com
David Hawkins, Pd.D., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, Saying It So He'll Listen, and When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. His newest book is titled When the Man in Your Life Can’t Commit. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.