SPECIAL GUEST POST BY MARTY BABITS, LCSW, Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy
“I feel like my husband is married to his kids, not to me.”
“When the kids are over he doesn’t even hold hands with me! I feel shut out.”
These are just a couple of things you told me when I asked for a list of Top Stepmother Concerns. Power imbalances are a fact of stepfamily life. Many of you experience first-hand your partner seeming to choose his kids over you–and you’re not happy about it. Why should you be? The partnership is usually, at least initially, the weakest link in the stepfamily system. If it stays that way, the stepparent will continue to feel like, and be, an outsider in the home. And the partnership will take on water…even fail.
Yes, you can create a family and marital culture where your bond is solid, and you feel like and are an insider in your own home. No, it doesn’t involve shoving your stepkids to the side. And that’s not what you’re about anyway. Though you do feel guilty that being upset about now having your husband’s attention when they’re around makes you a stepmonster. You’re not–you’re normal.
I asked my friend an colleague Marty Babits, LCSW, of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, to weigh in, and offer you some solutions. Here’s what he had to say:
As a couples therapist who has worked with many remarried and second marriage couples, I can tell you these sentiments are far from rare. Faced with the feeling of disconnection, let’s keep in mind that what we need are connection and re-connection strategies and tactics. These are based on creating mutual understandings, and facing these problems TOGETHER. That’s our goal.
There are two major aspects to this feeling of separation – the first involves being separated from your husband, and the other that comes from not having a place – or at least a place that you feel good about –with the kids. Let’s talk about the first aspect today.
Your husband’s kids come over and he refuses to hold your hand. In other words, he is shielding his children from having to face the reality of his connection with you. That he not only lives with you but that he is viscerally, bodily, connected to you. Presumably, he shields them from this sight of the two of you holding hands because it would signify to his children that your connection with him is alive – and they would be unable to experience it. This would leave them vulnerable to the realization that he no longer connects with their mother in this way; it brings this reality home, literally, in his new home. It lets them see that he has created a new home base and that they are invited into it, but cannot ever feel as familiar with it as YOU are. It symbolizes that his new life is with you. And lets the children see, allows them to experience, that home will never be what it was. This is what they need to come to terms with.
Does your husband understand that he is doing his children a disservice by reinforcing their sense of denial about the fact that you are his number one (and only) partner? He doesn’t have to flaunt this realization, but he needs to convey it! It is important for their own growth and development. Holding hands would not constitute flaunting this reality, in fact it would be a gentle expression of this truth. However, his inhibition about holding hands may have more to do with his own difficulty separating from the past than his concern for his children’s perspective.
Perhaps it is HIS denial of the finality of the transition that causes him to struggle when the kids are over. If so, this can feel like a betrayal, like a sign that he may still be emotionally connected to his ex. What is more likely to be true is that he feels guilty about moving on, and this is common. Perhaps he is intimidated about facing the fact that his life has moved forward. The more he becomes conscious and comfortable with the disconnection to his ex, the more it registers with him that he has taken control and opted to build a new life rather than sink down and become buried in the rotted foundation of the old. Part of what he is going through may be a form of survivor’s guilt. Only in this case he has survived his own former life!
Leaving it all behind, and any actions that represent his separation from the past, is still challenging. New moves, like holding hands with you in his children’s presence, may feel surreal to him. Each bit of transition brings particular issues with it and must be dealt with on its own terms. The past and its habits disappear slowly; what is most important — between you and your partner — is the creation of new neural patterns, new ways of understanding what makes sense NOW.
And understanding why holding hands with you (and all that represents) is good for him and the kids and not the violation of a rule but a clarification of what is true now. It is one of the ways in which he can anchor himself and his children in the present: with YOU. His having trouble with this does not mean he still loves, misses or even feels and undue connection to his ex.
Here are a few suggestions -
Talk about the situation with him. Be specific. Talk about the hand holding in particular. Aim at solving one aspect of the problem (transition) at a time. Some of these conversations may feel difficult. Remember: your purpose in communicating with him is not to accuse or berate, not to vent disappointment so much as to empathize with his difficulties with this change process. I’m not recommending you coddle him, I am saying you need to struggle with him on this; you are not adversaries. His difficulties with this change-process are normal and expectable. If the transition is prolonged, your anger level may be high but that doesn’t mean his ability to cope with the changes are higher than exactly what they are. In short: he needs your support in making these changes.
Let him know that you can help him to bridge his way into the present. You, yourself, need to hold on to the realization that YOU REPRESENT THE PRESENT. Your relationship is what is really happening. Connections to the past are just that: PAST. Let him understand that you get that he may not be betraying you, so much as himself and the children by not taking your hand in front of them. He is leaving them in the lurch to figure out, on their own, how and why you and he belong together rather than sending them clear and consistent messages and reminders! You can help him do better and he can use it – this step-family stuff is not easy!