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Linda Lipshutz, MS, ACSW Headshot

Do Stepmothers Get a Bum Rap?

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Although Barbara* met Larry months after he'd moved out of the house, both his ex-wife and daughter Ashley blamed Barbara for causing the divorce. Barbara had tried everything she could think of to win Ashley's affection but nothing seemed to make a difference. Ashley had not only kept Barbara at arm's length but was often disdainful, and sometimes even down right hostile.

When Barbara tried to explain her disappointment to Larry, he just didn't seem to get it. He repeated over and over that Ashley only visited two weekends a month and he wasn't going to ruin their relationship with an argument. Barbara ended up feeling hurt and defensive, blaming Larry for not being more supportive.

Maligned and misunderstood, stepmothers often get a bum rap. These women often have the best of intentions. Their hope is to bond with their new families, so they are understandably hurt and dejected when their stepchildren are less than enthused at the prospect. They often blame themselves, rather than the realities of the situation, for the failures.

So many couples anticipate that their family will adjust seamlessly to the challenges of integrating into a cohesive new entity. They may verbalize that they understand there will be difficulties. But at the end of the day, they often assume that, if they only try hard enough, their case will be different.

Stepparents can't will themselves to love their partners' children any more than the children can be expected to readily bond with the parent's new spouse. On the contrary, there are powerful forces that often work against this happening.

The newly blended family is unfortunately compromised by the hurts, misunderstandings and resentments that preceded it during the breakup of the original family. Not only are the children reeling from their own reactions to the divorce, they are also greatly impacted by the way their biological parents are relating to each other. When these parents are hostile towards each other, their children may be inhibited from comfortably reaching out to their stepparents.

The unfortunate truth is that many stepmothers actually bend over backwards in their efforts to woo the affections of their new families, and are discouraged by the cool civility or blatant hostility. Acutely sensitive to slights, they're likely to respond emotionally to landmines along the way.

Their husbands and confidantes may reassure them that things should ultimately improve and urge them to not take it personally. But of course they'll take it personally! They may blame themselves for not trying hard enough or doing things all wrong, when, in fact, they did the best they knew how.

Newly formed families should remind themselves that it takes time for everyone to adjust to each other's personality quirks, habits and points of view. Sadly, parents must understand that, sometimes, no matter how many hoops they jump through to build close bonds, it just isn't going to happen. In those cases, a more realistic goal might be to remain cordial and respectful.

The children's age at the time of the remarriage may impact on their adjustments. When children are younger, new stepfamilies can anticipate some behavioral problems at first. But after a number of months, tensions should begin to ease somewhat, as family members become more comfortable.

Teenagers often have tremendous difficulty sorting out their familial loyalties and may act out their discomfort by showing hostility or sullenly retreating. Teens face the developmental task of taking steps to form their own identity apart from the family. It may feel overwhelming to integrate into the new family at this demanding time when they are navigating the ups and downs of peer relationships.

Warmly accepting a stepparent may feel like a violation of trust to their natural parent of the same sex. It stands to reason that daughters who are close to their mothers are likely to identify with them as they mature, and may perceive their mothers' new partners as direct competition, or their fathers' new wives as threats to their mothers.

When all the adults are able to clarify firm and consistent guidelines for parenting, the households will fare the best. It's usually the biological parent who sets the stage for eventual blended family adjustment. When a spouse reassures his partner with words and actions of his support, he takes a critical step to protect the marriage. Oftentimes, when the children sense they have the power to drive a wedge in this relationship, they might work it to their advantage.
It's not uncommon for tensions to escalate to a point where a parent feels trapped into choosing between his spouse and children. There may be a push to define who is more important when, in fact, we shouldn't attempt to compare a marital relationship with a parent-child relationship.

It's also important for the father to clearly state to his children that he loves his new partner and understands that it will take time for everyone to adjust. He must further emphasize that he is counting on respect and cooperation. It's not uncommon for a parent to send a more passive, ineffective message in a misguided attempt to ease the children's adjustment. It can also be tremendously reassuring to the children to know that the parents work as a team, in a loving way, and will not be undermined by disruptive behavior.

At the same time, it can be enormously helpful for the father to make sure he has sufficient one-on-one time with each of his children, so they each feel uniquely loved and appreciated. There is a delicate balance between encouraging one's children to meet and spend time with one's new partner and the young people feeling that this new, unasked for person has been shoved down their throats.

When the adults are able to maturely rise above the fray and co-parent collaboratively, they will be doing their children a tremendous service.

If stepfamilies can let go of the myth that they will become one big happy family right away, they may better be able to relax, have a sense of humor, and let go of the irritants that get in their way.

*Details have been changed

Linda Lipshutz, LCSW, ACSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. She holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and completed post-graduate training at the Ackerman Institute for Marital and Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached in her Palm Beach Gardens office at 561 630 2827, or online at www.palmbeachfamilytherapy.com