I have identified nine steps or issues to think about with your partner (preferably before the blood pressure rises to unbearable limits):
- Understand your situation.
- Establish your relationship priorities.
- Resolve old feelings.
- Plan ahead financially and logistically.
- Understand your vulnerabilities and blind spots.
- Improve your communication skills.
- Be flexible.
- Look toward the future.
- Take care of yourself.
What's the reality here? I don't mean the “we love each other and want to build a life together” reality. I mean the other realities, the financial and logistical ones. It's vital to have a clear picture of both partner's lives before you link your wagons together—and to the stars.
Step 1 entails learning the history, history, history of your partner's life. That means all the ugliness and all the glory. It means knowing the financial figures—you have a right to full disclosure (more details in Money Concerns and the Ex). It means understanding where the kids are coming from (emotionally and developmentally) and, unfortunately, as much as you can about the divorce(s) or death of the previous spouse(s). You don't want any little surprises down the road, do you?
Sound overwhelming? Sound glum, grim, grimy, and gross? Worried that some of this might make for some pretty uncomfortable conversations? Don't stress: As we continue along, we'll talk a lot about ways to improve your communication skills, and ways to feel easier about communication in general. (Practice your communication skills with Learning to Communicate with Stepchildren, and Communicating with Stepchildren.)
“Stepping in” is a big step, and another important part of Step 1 is understanding the depth of the commitment you've made. You've agreed to more than a relationship with your new love; you're beginning a relationship with a family. It's one thing to get together with somebody and hang with them, and then if it doesn't work out, well, that's that. But living together or getting married is another matter. Now that there are other people involved in this relationship (namely the kids), you shouldn't have such a casual attitude. Being a stepparent is way heavier than going steady. And because the odds are against it working out, you'll have to work harder to see that it does.
The foundation of the stepfamily is the couple. If the couple falls apart, the family falls apart. The couple must have a commitment to the couple and to the family.
Now you've got to look at and establish your relationship's priorities. Who comes first, the chicken or the egg? The oak or the acorn? The couple or the kids? Many people say that the way you achieve unity is by putting the couple first. To me, that doesn't sound very family-friendly, and it sounds as though the interests of the couple come instead of the interests of the kids. Others say that the interests of the children absolutely take precedence. Then what about the couple? No, no, no. This is all wrong.
Let's look at it slightly differently. This is not a race with winners and losers. Nobody should be first, nobody should be last, and nobody should be in the middle.
So, what does that mean? Well, in interviews and studies, stepfamily after stepfamily asserts that unity is what is most vital. Everybody (and each combination of people) in a stepfamily has needs that must be met, and the immediate priorities change depending upon the situation. The family cannot be united if anybody's needs come before everybody else's.
Yet it's also pretty clear that the couple is the foundation of the stepfamily. You guys chose each other, right? Without you, no stepfamily. You're also the adults and therefore the leaders.
The couple's unity is what allows the stepfamily to function, but that unity cannot come at the expense of the children involved.
The Family's Needs
Jeanne Elium and Don Elium, authors of Raising a Family: Living On Planet Parenthood, have developed a fascinating and very helpful concept called FamilyMind. FamilyMind is a way of thinking about the family that puts the family's needs first, not the couple, not the individual, not the kids. Everybody is important in FamilyMind. You can generate FamilyMind by asking yourself, “What does this family need now, including me?” Hey, note the “including me” part. That's really important. Putting the needs of the family first does not include leaving yourself out.
FamilyMind is a concept developed by Jeanne Elium and Don Elium that puts the needs of the family—all members—before the needs of any one individual.
Sound like group-think? Not really. Try it—it's an approach that helps conflict. In any troubling situation, you'll find it very helpful to stop a moment, close your eyes, and ask yourself, “What does this family need now, including me?”
As you form a stepfamily, remember that all people within the family should have their needs considered. Sometimes it's especially hard for the partner who didn't bring children into the stepfamily to remember to take time for her own needs. You aren't just punishing yourself, Honey. In order for the family to work, everyone's needs must be considered—including yours. To put the family first, you need to put each of you, both alone and together, first. For every situation, strive for a solution that satisfies everybody.
Don't Forget the Couple
That said, you—as the couple—are the adults. It is necessary and appropriate that you take leadership roles in the family. You are in charge. How is your household going to be run? You are going to be co-parenting. What kind of parenting style do you each have? With all the leading, your coupledom will need nourishment, so you must find time alone for romance as well.
Keeping Time for Romance and Sex
Children, work, school, home maintenance, more work, faxes, email, phone calls, beepers, traffic jams, children, yet more work—you don't have time for yourself. You don't have time for anything. You don't have time for romance. WRONG!!!
You have got to make time for romance. This is not optional, especially in a stepfamily. A stepfamily is filled with stress points and stretch marks. It is usually not calm living. The only way you, as a stepfamily (and you as a stepparent and perhaps a parent), are going to survive is by paying close attention to your relationship with your lover or spouse.
That means time alone together. It means time spent doing whatever things you, the couple, like to do and find romantic, whether that means attending cat shows or the opera, or walking on the beach at dawn, or simply spending time together making love. If you give too much energy to the family and foster too much guilt around stepkid issues (and we'll get into guilt in a big way later on), your sex life will suffer. Sex is not all there is to romance, but hey, it's important.
As partners and co-parents, you need to decide how the household should be run: like a ship-shape ship, a laid-back lair, or something in between. Who's gonna do the actual work? Household organization is an area where the couple makes the major decisions and the kids follow along. Before you decide how you are going to run things, you need to know what each of you needs and likes. In A Smooth-Sailing Household we'll look at the household issues in depth.