Question: "I constantly feel trapped between my partner and my child from a previous relationship. It appears they both want me to choose one over the other at times. How can I keep the peace?"
I hate to break it to you, but you probably feel trapped because you are. You are the bridge that links your child(ren) to your new partner and vice versa. When you signed up for this role I hope you prepared yourself for a lifetime of being the stabilizing force for both of them. If you had not quite thought about it this way, then let’s start here. If you are feeling pressure already, then it’s possible that your child and your partner need and want reassurance of their special place in your life. There is only one you to go around, so spreading yourself thin can be a potential issue.
Your new romantic relationship will usually represent change for your child. Even if you weren’t with the child’s other parent, a new important person in your life may signal that the routines you have previously established will be altered in some way. Is your child used to sleeping in your bed with you at night? Did you used to have regular date nights with your child? Are they used to having your undivided attention? If any or all of the above are true then take a moment to examine if the routines have changed since you solidified this new relationship. Are you less available? If so, don’t panic. All meaningful relationships take time and energy to cultivate. You can’t minimize the impact of your new relationship on your child either. Here are a few things to consider as you try to establish a peaceful existence in your household:
1. Prepare your child(ren) for potential changes to the routine or your schedule as best you can. Telling them in advance that you’re not going to be as available or that they won’t be able to sleep in your bed much longer may feel cruel, but it actually provides an opportunity for you and your child to have a private dialogue about your relationship. It’s important they feel comfortable with expressing any positive or negative feelings, concerns, or fears about how your relationship is going to change. Though as an adult you get to make the final decision, by avoiding this discussion it could send the message that their feelings are not important enough for you to consider. If they are old enough to speak full sentences then they are old enough to have fears or concerns. Starting with a solid foundation is a core component to becoming a sturdy bridge.
2. Establish or uphold some routines. Are there daily, weekly, or monthly rituals between you and your child(ren) that you can preserve? They may not be able to sleep with you at night any more but they can spend quality time in your bedroom with you on Saturday mornings while your spouse is at the gym or running errands. Was Friday night date night for the two of you? If so, then you can make an effort to continue that tradition twice per month. Is the budget tight now that the family has grown or you’ve moved into a new home? It’s time to think about creative ways to spend time with your child to ensure they know you are still there for them. Many people believe that the ideal situation is to incorporate their new partner into all activities to promote a cohesive family. I’d like to point out a few things about this idea; while encouraging cohesion between your partner and your child(ren) is a positive endeavor that has great benefits if it goes smoothly, all blended families don’t blend smoothly. After all, your new partner is your choice-not your child(ren)’s. The fact that your romantic relationship with their other parent didn’t work out is not their fault. If they still express needs and desires to have a bond with their biological parent, don’t be surprised. If you were a single parent and they express a lackluster attitude about having to share you with someone else, this is not uncommon either. Instead of forcing your child(ren) and your new partner to spend all of their time sharing you, take my advice and carve out some one-on-one time for both of them to have you to themselves in addition to the family time. Remind yourself that becoming a blended family takes more work than simply moving everyone in together or saying “I do”. They will both thank you.
3. Have a realistic discussion with your spouse about both of your needs. Is there room in the relationship to talk about the complexities of creating a blended family? This should be an ongoing dialogue throughout the relationship-not a one-time discussion. If it is already difficult to have a productive discussion about how you govern your time between your spouse and the child(ren) then there is work to be done. Acceptance may be a core theme. It’s safe to assume that you want your partner to fully accept your child(ren) unconditionally. In contrast, your partner may need to know that you won’t always side with your child(ren) regardless of the circumstances. Navigating this process may be tricky, since many divorced or single parents are vigilant about protecting their children from the influence of other adults. Learning how to share parenting responsibilities with your partner can only help create peace within the household.
This begins with developing an understanding of core beliefs and values around parenting, such as discipline, educating, dating, etc. If your plan is to be the sole parent responsible for raising your child(ren) from another relationship, then issues with establishing a real connection or developing respect between your partner and child(ren) may develop. What role does your partner want to have in your child(ren)’s life? What role would you like to play in your partner’s children’s lives? If you can reach an agreement about a comfortable level of interaction between step-parent and child then that’s a start. However, your child’ willingness to accept your partner is a major piece of the puzzle. Can everyone sit down and discuss their roles in the family? Can you assure your child(ren) that your new partner is not ever going to replace their other biological parent, but would like to have a positive relationship with them as they grow up? Some children respond to this in anger and may say or do things that feel disrespectful and hurtful to you and/or your partner.
Remember, change can be harder on children than adults. Also, hurt people hurt other people. It will be important to address any disrespectful behavior toward your partner in front of both of them. This sends a message to the child that you will not allow a pattern of rudeness to develop in your presence. It also sends a message to your partner that you will support their new role in the household and protect them from unfair treatment from the beginning. Keep in mind that your child may not know how to appropriately express any hurt feelings, fears, or frustrations during this type of discussion. Acknowledge that they may have negative feelings or even a difference of opinion about the changes and that there is room for discussion about them in a healthy format. Make it clear that you love each of them and will be active in advocating for both of their needs. If plans to transition your partner into a parental role don’t go smoothly at first, have private discussions with your child about what might be bothering them. It may not be related to your new partner at all. If it is, then your willingness to listen will make a huge impact on them.
Lastly, take a deep breath. Blending a family is a marathon; not a sprint. It can take years for an organic connection to develop between your kids and your significant other, if at all. When times get hard, remind yourself that they didn’t choose each other-you chose them. Move forward with this in mind and take things one day at a time.