Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Managing Today’s Step-Family, Part 2

In part 1, I shared some things that may help spouses in a stepfamily relationship. In part 2 of this series, I will discuss ways that spouses and children perceive what is going on in the family. Children have an especially difficult time resolving their grief when their parents are hostile with one another, when one or both of their parents remarry, and if they have trouble accepting their new stepparents.
            The following ideas are not new. But these ideas may help the parents to understand what their children are perceiving as well as good ideas to consider with one another as parents in the “new” family system of the integrated stepfamily.

1.         Watch out for mixed messages. As parents, remember to keep your statements clean, avoiding the temptation to mix compliments and complaints. For example, let’s say that you meet your friend at a cocktail party. You think she looks nice, but her dress seems a little too provocative.  This ideas is for both your children and your spouse.

Straight message: “You look very nice tonight.”

Mixed message: “You look so pretty. I would never have the nerve to wear that.”

2.         Pay attention to your body language. As parents, your words are only part of the message you communicate to your children. If you say “How nice to see you” while frowning, your message becomes unclear. Think about what message you want to convey and be sure that your body is in harmony with it. Watch out for things like these:
•           Rolling your eyes
•           Crossing your legs and arms
•           Tapping your foot
•           Clenching your teeth

3.         Pay attention to your emotions and keep from becoming overwhelmed. If you are calm, you are less likely to say things you’ll later regret, things that could be destructive to your relationships. You will be less likely to become defensive and shut your partner  or children out. Examples of ways to calm yourself and keep from getting carried away with emotion include the following:
•           Pay attention to your physical responses. Is your heart racing? Are you breathing faster? If you are, take a time-out.
•           Leave the room. Go for a drive. Do something relaxing. Listen to music or do relaxation exercises.
•           Make a conscious effort to calm yourself down. Say things to yourself like:

“I’m very upset right now, but it’ll be okay. I still love my stepchild/wife/child.”
“Even though we disagree, we still have a good relationship.”
“We can work this out. We’re partners/ a family.”

4.         Resolve negative feelings. If you have bad feelings about your partner, take steps to resolve them. Don’t let them grow into feelings of contempt. When you engage in behavior (verbal or nonverbal) that conveys a lack of respect, you are placing your relationship in serious danger. This includes obvious abuse, and also insults, making faces, and name-calling. Any relationship that is plagued by abusiveness and negativity will have a very difficult time surviving. Also be aware of how you talk about your children/step-children in public. Be sure to take the effort to honor them and show them the proper respect when in private and in public.

5.         Don’t be defensive. It is understandable to react defensively when you are in a conflict situation, but it can be dangerous to a relationship. Defensiveness tends to escalate the conflict and does nothing to resolve it. Some examples of defensive behavior include:
•           Denying responsibility (I did not!)
•           Making excuses (I couldn’t help it; traffic was awful)
•           Ignoring what your partner says and throwing a complaint back (Yeah, well, what about the mess YOU left yesterday?)
•           Saying Yes, but...
•           Whining
•           Rolling your eyes or making a face

Your children/stepchildren may do this to you as part of their immature behavior but do not do this to them or to your spouse. Be an intentional adult. Be honest, communicative, direct, and mature. Acting like your children just re-enforces their poor behavior.

6.         Don’t shut down. In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last (see Suggested Reading), author John Gottman describes the dangers of shutting out the other person. He calls this behavior stonewalling and says that it means refusing to communicate, storming out of the room, or any kind of withdrawing. When a person is stonewalling, communication is impossible because he or she is refusing to participate. When it becomes a regular pattern of communication, stonewalling is very damaging to a relationship.

I hope this short series has been helpful for you if you have been struggling in a new step family relationship. If you would like additional help or have someone to discuss these issues and more, Pathways Pastoral Counseling is here to help. Simply call 542-3019 for an appointment. Help is a phone call away!

Grace and Peace,

Dr. Trey Kuhne

Pathways Pastoral Counseling is a fee-for-service non-profit ministry offering counseling to individuals, couples, and families. Located at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, 400 Dupre Dr., Spartanburg, SC 29307. To call for a counseling appointment please call: 864-542-3019.

Suggested Reading

Gottman, John, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last. New York, NY: Fireside Books, 1994.

McKay, Matthew, Fanning, Patrick, and Paleg, Kim, Couple Skills: Making Your Relationship Work. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1994.

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