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The Weakest Link: Second Marriage and Step-Parenting

In a stepfamily the couple is the most fragile bond. Keep your partnership strong for relationship that lasts.

By Jacquelyn B. Fletcher

There are so many things to do before you walk down the aisle to your beloved groom and the kids-his or yours or both. You have to figure out the wording of the invitations and decide if the children will participate. You must choose the location, music, flowers, caterer and fashions. As all brides know, there are plenty of magazines, books and websites out there to help guide you through the planning process. But rarely in bridal literature will you find the number one biggest thing you must do: You have to learn how to be married. Learning to do the dance of partnership is a lifelong endeavor. The good news is there are tools to help us.

Within the last decade, a marriage education movement has picked up steam in this country to combat divorce rates, which, though they have begun to decline in the last few years as more people choose to cohabitate instead of marry, still hover around 50 percent for first marriages and 60 to 70 percent for remarriages.

Every year thousands of relationship and family professionals gather in June at the Smart Marriages conference held in various cities by the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education, an organization based in Washington, D.C., which advocates healthy marriages through education. Marriage and relationship heavyweights such as John Gottman, Ph.D., (The Relationship Cure), Pat Love, M.D., (Hot Monogamy), and John Gray, Ph.D., (Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus), are only a sample of the pros who attend and speak at the conference to figure out how to help people make their marriages last. The many talks and classes put on during the weeklong event center around the fact that educating couples about married life leads to healthier relationships.

The idea is that if you learn the skills you need to make your marriage run more smoothly, such as making each other a priority, compassion, communication, and conflict resolution skills, you'll better weather the ups and downs of married life.

When there are children involved, the temptation is to put the kids before all else, including your marriage. But the trouble with that model is that the couple relationship, which is the most fragile bond of the entire stepfamily structure, is destroyed when it's sacrificed repeatedly for anyone else, kids, in-laws or colleagues. That man is the reason you're in this stepfamily and your relationship with him has to be strong. It cannot be the weakest link, or the entire family will disintegrate. Tell your husband I said that - and I can back it up with research by all the top stepfamily professionals.

Here's a common story. Sandy is a stepmom whose two stepsons spend a month at her house every summer. She was married once before, but didn't have any children of her own. When she married her second husband, Tim, he had two young sons. "If my stepsons and I were both drowning, my husband would save his kids and I would be shark food. That's really disturbing. You hate yourself for thinking that, because they're little kids. When I talked to my husband about it he said, 'Well, I would save my sons because I figure you could save yourself.' But that's not what I meant."

Sandy needed to feel like her relationship with Tim was as much a priority to him as it was to her. She wasn't confident in their commitment to each other at that point. Though some research does say that a strong marriage is difficult for stepchildren to watch in the early years, eventually it is your union with your partner that can provide the kids with some stability they may be sorely lacking.

In a partnership, each member has to feel equal. But in a stepfamily, the primary partnership has so many strings attached that sometimes, one partner gets pulled off to one side, leaving the other feeling vulnerable and betrayed.

So how can a couple stay on each other's side in an environment where that seems almost impossible? People who feel confident and accepted are far more able to face challenges. Couples who feel secure in their marriage are far more likely to be flexible when a child's needs have to come first, as they often do.

Allison remembers how challenging the first few years of her marriage were to a man with three teenaged kids, until she and her husband, Charles, refocused on making their relationship strong. "When it was Dad and the kids, the old family dynamics were online, and they didn't include me in any way," Allison says. "In the beginning, they made a point of not including me. They'd tell family jokes, have family discussions about family trips and holidays and presents they'd unwrapped. There were times at the dinner table when literally not one person would address me, not even my husband. Even though I was taking up a chair, I didn't exist."

The first year of her marriage was so tough that Allison and Charles nearly divorced. "I had to sit myself down and say that my primary focus had to be on my husband and our relationship. I knew I could become a twisted sister with all of the things going on with the kids, but if I focused on what I could do to create a solid relationship between him and me, then we would survive."

In a first marriage, a couple typically has several years to work on becoming a team before a baby comes along to test their bond. You get no such time to feel confident in your relationship with your mate before you're launched into the thick of things. Your bond is immediately tested, before you've had a chance to define what it is. So it's crucial that a new couple consciously decides to make time together.

"Marriage is very difficult and you have to work on it every day," says Eleanor, a former chef from New York City who moved to the Midwest to be with her husband, Marty, whom she originally met in college. Marty has two sons from a previous marriage, and he and Eleanor had one son together. "I try to make sure that we are still a couple and not just parents. That we have private jokes. Learning how to be married was harder than adjusting to the stepkids. I learned I had to work at our marriage every day or it wouldn't work."

Here are some little ways you can make sure you continue to develop your partnership.

  • Explore each other. Think of your husband as a new land you've never been to. Find out what makes him tick. Be interested. Be curious.
  • Stay connected. Every morning and evening check in with each other. Have coffee together on the front porch. Walk the dog around the block.
  • Plan things to look forward to. In bridal literature there's a time just after the wedding when the bride and groom both feel a sense of post-wedding depression. After the drama and intensity of the months leading up to the big day, settling down into the nitty-gritty chafing of living everyday life with other people in your space can be a bit of a downer. So plan something else to look forward to. Plan a trip for your one-year anniversary. Plan big trips for your fifth, tenth, and twentieth anniversaries.
  • Find things you love to do together, and do them. Go to the movies. Cook gourmet meals. Hike in the mountains. Go to a football game. Get involved in a charity you're both passionate about.
  • Learn something new together. Go to a class. Make or build something.
    Many books about marriage refer to the need for open and honest communication, and it's true, it's crucial to learn how to talk about difficult things. However, those hard-hitting discussions must be balanced with fun.

After my husband and I spent an entire day working on our household budget and having several heated exchanges, we went out to our favorite art-house movie theater for a movie we both wanted to see. Then we hit our new favorite wine bar for a glass of wine and dessert. The images I've retained from that day are not the time spent in our home office, but the time spent watching a great film with my love holding my hand. Plus, we actually worked through some financial discussions, so we felt like we'd accomplished something big as a team.

Adapted from A Career Girl's Guide to Becoming a Stepmom by Jacquelyn B. Fletcher. Visit her website at Becoming a Stepmom.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

Categories: Just for me, Relationships & Marriage,

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