I work with many fathers who are partnered with women, some who have children and some who don't.
Many of these men come to see me with their partners who are miserable and "fed up." Their wives, the dreaded "evil stepmother," sometimes drag them to my office based on a threat, and other men come willingly, anxious to learn. Some of them are married to the women who come to my monthly stepmom support group, affectionately called "Stepmonsters" (based on Wednesday Martin's must-read, "Stepmonster," a book about the plight of stepmothers and the unique challenges they face).
Some of the men walk into the office with hesitation, almost tip toeing as if they were stepping onto a minefield. They expect that, since I may know their wives, they may be blown to pieces at any moment. They are waiting for the confrontation, the blame, the guilt to be reinforced, the lines to be drawn, and the fingers of blame to be pointed at them.
They come in pain, as perplexed as their partners are about how difficult their stepfamily life has become. Neither one of them knew before they married the daunting statistic that 65-70% of remarriages that involve children end in divorce. Just like their partners, they exclaim, "I never knew it would be this hard!" They feel caught in the middle between their wives, their ex-wives and their children. Many of them believe they need to "co-parent" with the mother of their children, despite tenuous and bitter feelings that still exist between them, so they endure intrusive texts, calls and emails in order to try to accommodate everybody because isn't that what they are supposed to do?
Their wives are mad at them, their exes are hounding them and their children are demanding their loyalty and their money. Everyone wants a piece of them and if the truth be told, they'd love to run to the hills, the nearest cave or sports bar and hope that it would all just go away.
These men are brave yet tired and perplexed. They feel like nothing they do is good enough and they come to me desperate and looking for a road map, despite their reluctance to use anything that smacks of asking for directions.
Once these men hear the research and the clinical findings on what works in stepfamilies and what doesn't, their relief is palpable. They get it. They make adjustments, they start to expect less from their wives and take more care of their children, they go on date nights and they start setting more appropriate boundaries with their exes. They let go of the need to "blend" their families knowing that this could take years, if ever at all.
This is where the power of men comes in. They absorb what works quickly and they love the simple solutions that can be implemented immediately. They rise to the challenge of making their marriage and relationship their first priority because they realize that it's a gift to their children to model a loving and committed relationship. They make their children their first responsibility because they are good fathers and they have the wisdom to know the difference between the importance of their marriage and the importance of being a good father. They learn how to juggle.
About a year ago, I started a support group for stepcouples. Some of the men were brand new. They expressed the familiar complaints that so many men have who are partnered with women who aren't the mothers of their children. The more seasoned fathers stepped in. They educated, encouraged, instructed and shared their own struggles. They validated the newer men's feelings and encouraged them to be there for their wives who are often the targets of their confused and sometimes hostile children and ex-wives.
I was impressed when I watched these men supporting other men. It was touching to watch the instant friendships of these men as they exhorted one another to set better boundaries, love their wives more and be better fathers. They accepted the challenges and complexities of it all and they left feeling a little less like they'd failed, believing that there was hope and clear and concrete solutions to the problems that had been plaguing them.
Their partners were pretty happy too.
The pain of fathers in stepfamilies is real and palpable. But once they find out what is best for everyone in their family system, including themselves, the influence they possess is great.
At the end of one of the stepcouple meetings, the men stood huddled in the dining room, commiserating, laughing and nodding their heads in agreement. As they walked to their cars, they talked to one another about meeting for dinner or a drink in the future to continue to support one another.
The pain of men is real but the power they possess is transformative.
The New Year is soon to arrive and good resolutions go hand in hand with the change of the calendar. For all you women who are partnered with men who have children, with him, try to find the support you both need to experience joy in your relationship and with your family, as messy and complex as it may be.
Believe in the good heart of the man you've chosen to partner with. He wants it as badly as you.