She Said, He Said: Stepping into a blended family can be tough … for the kids as well as adults
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
I’ve recently gotten engaged to the love of my life and can’t wait to officially begin a new life with him. There is one issue that’s giving me cold feet — the two boys from his previous marriage. I’ve tried so hard to have them accept me, not as a replacement for their mother, but as someone who’s important to their dad. No matter what I do, they are rude and sarcastic to me and make me feel like I have no business being part of their family. I am kind, supportive, forgiving and understanding, but I get none of that in return. My fiancé understands what I’m going through but is reluctant to step in and defend me when it’s obvious they’ve crossed the line. Is this a big enough reason to put off the wedding or should I keep trying to integrate into their lives?
Lori and Jeff: The answer to both of your questions is a resounding “no.” Don’t put off the wedding and don’t try so hard to make them accept you.
Lori: Kids who have gone through a divorce are often experiencing grief, uncertainty and a lack of trust in the world. While the discord between you and them may stem from having personalities that just don’t gel, it’s more likely that they are testing you to see who you really are at the core. Are they going to let you in, only to be abandoned by you in the near future? Are you going to take their father even further out of their lives?
The key here is to stop seeing them as a threat, and hold space as the adult for them to be the hurting, confused kids that they are. Recognize that whatever they make you feel is likely a mirror of what they are experiencing inside. This doesn’t mean that you accept their inappropriate behaviors. But you have to separate out your reactions from the boundaries you set with them. You need to harness your ability to self-soothe and rely on appropriate supports (friends, family, a counselor) to process your feelings so that your interactions with his kids are coming from a consistently solid, grounded and mindful place.
Jeff: I can speak to this issue from two perspectives. The first is as a relationship expert and the second is as one of those boys. With my coaching hat on, I can tell you that your fiancé is in a tough position. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to support you while protecting his kids. Don’t ask him to choose sides — it would be a painful decision either way. Be patient and know that the foundation of your relationship will see you through these more challenging times. What you can ask of you fiancé is that he give his kids permission to direct their feelings toward him and remind them that he’s strong enough to handle whatever emotions might come up for them. This might take some of the pressure off of you, creating an opportunity for you to build connections with the boys.
When I take off my coaching hat and look back over 40 years ago, I see myself in the same situation as your fiancé’s boys. My parents divorced when I was in grade school and my dad remarried several years later. My brother and I had to learn to accept a new person in our lives (who would later become our amazing stepmother), but at the time, we were not exactly thrilled about having another parent who could tell us what to do and how to act. Back then, it was also much safer to project the anger, hurt, frustration we felt about our parents and their divorce onto our stepmother. It wasn’t necessarily a reflection of how we felt about her or how she treated us but it was a convenient outlet for our feelings. In this light, be understanding of what your fiancé’s boys are going through and that you are simply the recipient of misdirected feelings.
Lori and Jeff: Blending families is never easy. Each member is experiencing their own emotions, vulnerabilities and desire for acceptance. We know that adults can have hurt feelings, too, and kids can be really mean. But it is always the responsibility of the adults to create safety for everyone and to model how to manage feelings and fears in a healthy way.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.
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My name is Lee Mulcahy. As y’all know, I love and am devoted to this community. I’m grateful for so many things.