One rarely discussed issue with being a stepparent is how lonely you can feel in your new family. When you become a stepparent, you join your bonus family’s story halfway through. They already have a shared history, with customs and stories and family jokes that you do not (and cannot) share. Their bonds as long-standing family members can leave you on the outside, whether unintentionally or not, and that emotional loneliness is hard. It can be even harder to admit that you need more emotional support. Fortunately, there are some tried and true techniques that will help you deal with that loneliness while still taking care of your family in this new relationship.
• Admit that the Loneliness Problem Exists. I love The Sound of Music, but the movie certainly set up some unrealistic expectations for stepmothers. Even if I could sing like Julie Andrews, I could never display her character’s cheerfulness and patience. Real life never can match the movies, but it’s very easy to buy into expectations (ours and other people’s) that we will be the perfect stepparents. The first step to dealing with the reality is to admit that we are not movie characters and that being a stepparent is incredibly challenging.
Several studies indicate that stepparents are at higher risk for mental health challenges than parents in a first marriage. Feelings of loneliness can be a risk factor for depression, as is feeling overwhelmed by the situation in which we find ourselves. The effects of divorce or bad previous relationships can compound the stress of being a new stepparent. All of these factors create the perfect storm for miscommunication, hurt feelings, and emotional isolation.
Admitting that you are lonely doesn’t mean that you are blaming your family. The risk of loneliness is simply built into the stepfamily dynamic. Some level of standing on the outside looking in is inevitable when you join a family's story in progress. It’s not anyone’s fault; it’s just the way the world works. Of course, being on the outside still hurts and you still need to deal with the loneliness. But it helps if you realize that, as difficult as the situation is, it's not unusual. Try to not take the situation personally and to see it as simply one of those unavoidable realities like gravity or tooth decay. It exists, in spite of everyone’s best efforts, but you can lessen its effects. Even better, you can work within the bounds of that reality to fashion unique and strong family bonds.
• Build A Strong Foundation. Once you recognize that loneliness is a common problem, recognize that dealing with it requires a solid foundation for the family. Building that foundation requires that, first, you have a way to renew your own emotional and physical resources. Then, concentrate on making your marriage as strong as possible. Last (but not least), do what’s within your control to build up your relationships with the rest of the family.
º Renew Your Resources. The first step, taking care of yourself, can feel like you’re being selfish. Certainly, concentrating on yourself can tip into self-centeredness, but I’m not talking about getting a manicure instead of going to your stepchild’s music recital. I’m advocating that you carve out enough space for the essential things that renew your emotional and physical resources. Self-care at its heart is making sure that you have what you need to take care of the important people in your life. Paying attention to your physical health is an obvious example, since good health enables you to care for the rest of your family. Physical exercise also has the benefit of elevating your mood and supporting your emotional health. Emotional health tends to work the same way. If you are an introvert like me, be sure that you build into your schedule some alone time to spend with your books or crafts or garden or whatever you need to fill up your emotional gas tank. If you are an extrovert, build in time to visit with friends and family who can help replenish your resources. And maybe throw in a manicure once in a while. Taking care of yourself is an essential part of taking care of your family.
º Prioritize Your Marriage. The next step is to concentrate on your marriage. As I’ve written before, the adult relationships are the foundation of a healthy and functioning family. Perhaps the most important thing you can show your children is how to keep those adult relationships together. Of course, if the marriage is physically or emotionally abusive, then what you need to show your children may be how to leave unsafe relationships. But assuming that yours is like the vast majority of marriages, you need to model for your children how healthy adult relationships work. If you are in their life, it's because they lost their intact biological family to death or divorce. They need to see how adults can make marriages last for the long run.
You also need to hang on to the reason that you are in this new family in the first place. You fell in love with a person whom you hope will be in your life long after the children are gone. After all, if we do our jobs right as parents, our kids eventually will not need us. They will be our adult children with lives and responsibilities of their own. We want our marriages or relationships to last into the empty nest phase.
You and your spouse have to work together on building this foundation. Each partner has to feel that the other is making the marriage a priority. You also have to understand that each of you comes to this situation with your own unique expectations. Your spouse may have been doing fine as a single parent or may have unrealistic expectations about how easily your stepchildren will accept you. If you have trouble discussing these problem areas, then find a mutual friend or good counselor (by good, I mean one experienced with blended families) to help you work through them.
There are many different ways to communicate and be sure that you are staying on the same page. The best way for most couples is to carve aside quality time for just the two of you. Whether that’s a date night or a weekend away once in a while, you need to be able to concentrate on each other. Other couples find some alone time every day or touch base by telephone or text. There are any number of good ways to ensure a good relationship. The important thing is to make that relationship a priority and find ways that work for you.
º Put Your Kids in Third Place. I’m not saying that kids are not important, but we simply won’t have the resources to have a relationship with them if we don’t take care of ourselves and our marriages first. Of course, being a stepparent involves sacrifice, but it doesn’t require emotional suicide. If you put a solid foundation in place, you will have a better shot at creating a good relationship with your stepchildren.
Putting the other two steps in place also will help you keep the parent-child relationship in perspective. You can’t replace their biological parents, but you can create your own special relationship with them. Also, relationships with children always take time. Your adult stepchildren will have a much different (and usually far more positive) view of your place in the family than their younger selves ever could have. Give them time to grow up and the space to determine what sort of relationship they want with you. In the meantime, work on the foundation that they will appreciate eventually.
• Find Your People. A final way to deal with loneliness is to find a support system. This task is more challenging than it sounds because you need not only people who care about you, but people who understand the challenges of being a stepparent. Friends in their first marriage raising a biological family may care about you, but they simply cannot understand what it’s like to step into another family’s story. They don’t get the challenges of building your schedule around custody orders and balancing your parenting style with that of a biological parent. They have never had to figure out how to create new stepfamilies from both your own children and your spouse’s children. Their advice is always well-meant, often not helpful, and sometimes actively bad.
Of course, these friends may be able to help with pieces of being a parent. An experienced parent of teens, for example, can remind you that rejecting a parent’s advice is part of the job description for teenagers. Or friends whose biological children have rejected them may be in a similar situation to those with antagonistic stepchildren. But they likely will not understand the entire context of being lonely in the middle of a busy blended family.
Certainly, hang on to those friends, but at the same time, find a support network that understands all of the challenges that you face. I mentioned earlier that, if you decide on counseling, find someone who has experience with blended families. Cultivate friendships with other stepparents. Find a counseling group where you can share challenges and solutions. The Internet and social media offer any number of online groups, many of which will allow you to post anonymously. Of course, the advice you get often will be anonymous as well, and you will have to be wary of accepting everything that you hear. But just seeing fact situations similar to yours can be a reassuring reminder that your situation is not unique and that you are not alone.
Joining someone else’s journey is always a challenge. There is no magic formula for making it easy or staving off the unavoidable bouts of loneliness. The good news is that you can shorten those lonely times or limit their effects. Concentrate on what you need to maintain your resources to take care of your family. Prioritize your marriage, work on communication, and find time alone to concentrate on each other. Give your stepchildren enough time and space to figure out what relationship they want. Finally, build your support group of experienced stepparents who can help you navigate the blended family dynamic. Being a stepparent will be challenging, but if you can put a solid foundation in place, these relationships also can be the most wonderful that you ever will experience.