The Stepmom’s Marriage Manual

As a therapist, I meet frustrated women who feel they are failing as wives and stepmoms. They thought they met the man of their dreams and were looking forward to creating a wonderful life together. The only snag in the this picture perfect expectation is that he has children who refuse to embrace them as dad’s wife and as their stepmom. Stepmom is often too eager to please, and literally steps into the stepchildren lives too early in the relationship. Trying to fill the woman of the house role with baking cookies, driving the children to activities that they plan for them, and changing their routine produces the opposite results from what they hoped for. The children feel a stranger is invading their lives, taking over their dad and their relationship with him, and resenting her for that.

Biological mothers feel threatened by a potential mother figure entering their children lives. Memories of the good, the bad, and the ugly from their marriage to this man get reactivated. Anger, resentment and sadness overwhelm them and they resort to attack mode on the new wife.

“How I Left Your Mother”

Husband, at his wit's end, walks out on a marriage.

Violated expectations breed strife. Everyone has ideas about how things should be, and dreams about how they will. And then, well, things aren’t. The new wife, the old father, and the young children all have their own expectations; the thread that threatens to unravel your marriage is how everyone winds up wrong.

These are the most volatile expectations that get violated:

Father’s expectations

  • there will be an instantaneous love/getting-along between his wife and his children
  • that his new wife can immediately serve as a new mother
  • the children will welcome her with open arms
  • his ex wife will be out of the picture

Stepmom’s expectations

  • her husband will always be supportive
  • her husband will always take her side
  • the kids will respect and listen to her
  • she’ll become good friends with the ex-wife
  • step-kids will be welcoming or, at worst, indifferent, but not hostile

Bio-Mom’s expectations

  • she’ll be her children’s only mom
  • her mothering won’t be interfered with by her children’s new stepmother
  • her children will be loyal to her
  • she deserves to know everything about her children’s other household

Children’s expectations

  • the relationship with their parents won’t change
  • their new stepmom won’t discipline them
  • their routine won’t change
  • everything is about them

Damage Control for Stepmoms

How’s a stepmom to ensure her marriage endures the fallout? There are different measures you can take with your husband, your stepkids, and your stepkids’ mother.

Operate with your husband as a couple, not two people.

Couple working together as a team / single unit.
  • Schedule topic-driven discussions. Make time for addressing specific issues. Don’t sidetrack. Attack one problem at a time until you reach a joint decision. E.g., if you feel unsupported or that you need help in dealing with your children’s biological mother, bring it up during one of these discussions. These discussions don’t have to be done daily, but rather as things come up. 15-45 minutes is a good block of time to dedicate. (More info at Tips for Conflict Resolution.)
  • Nurture your relationship. Your husband has this responsibility too; make sure he knows it. The two of you should schedule time together as a couple, during which you don’t worry about your children, household, or anything but one another. Ideally, try for about:
    • 15 minutes of daily couple time.
    • a weekly date night (2-5 hours alone).
    • a weekend away, as a couple, every 3 months.
    • A note for these tough, economic times: Instead of hiring babysitters, if you’re friends with another couple with children, you can set up a sort of exchange program. Members of extended family (especially grandparents) can be a great help too!

Spare the Rod

Leave discplining to the father. This kid looks pretty sorry.
  • Don’t discipline your stepkids during your marriage’s first 18 months. Let their father do it.
  • Instead, focus on developing bonds with your stepchildren.
  • Acknowledge the relationship they have with their mother. You can tell them things like, “I’m happy that you have a good relationship with your mother. I’m not out to replace her. Your mother has a special place in your heart, and I accept that.”
  • Acknowledge their bio mom’s rules. Your husband’s rules take precedence in your household, but don’t disparage the children’s mother for rules you find frivolous. If there’s a rule conflict between the two households, let your husband deal with his ex.
  • Help your husband maintain the children’s routine as best possible. Children don’t like change; they like stability.
  • Establish clear boundaries with your stepchildren. Even though you’re not yet responsible for disciplining your stepchildren, it’s fine to make clear that, for example, your stepdaughters aren’t to go into your room and use your clothes and make-up as though it were theirs.

Tame the Wicked Witch of the Other Household

Don't burn the children's bio mom at the stake. Try talking to her, first...

Have a conversation. Meet in person, if possible, and if she’s not prone to sudden, violent outbursts. During it, make sure to address the following:

  • Reassure her that you’re not out to replace her (as a mother, not a wife).
  • Let her know that you’ll support her parenting decisions wherever possible.
  • You’re not out to turn her children against her.
  • Your husband will be the primary coordinator of information and planning between households. Unless she hates him. Just make sure she knows that you’re looking out for her children’s best interests.

Closing Thoughts

Curbing bad expectations keeps a lot of needless stress and conflict out of your life. Your relationship will be healthier, your marriage will be healthier, and everyone involved will be able to bench press the emotional equivalent of 300lbs without skipping a beat.

6 thoughts on “The Stepmom’s Marriage Manual”

  1. Great advise! Refreshing to see others trying to resolve these intense bitter relationships. Lowering expectations is a must I totally agree. So hard for people to do in these “I deserve it all” society.

  2. What do you do when the reassurance does not work and Bio mother will not change? When do you cut it off and take it for what it is?

  3. How do you do it :,( im going crazy my husband and I are compleatly diff people he raises his children compleatly oppoiset of how I want to raise our soon expected child…… I could really use the help im compleTly at my brakeing point…

    1. Sorry to hear that you and your husband don't share a parenting approach. Taking a parenting class together may help, reading a book about parenting may also help. I like the book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, written by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D. She is a clinical psychologist emphasizing the importance of teaching children values. I think that a consultation with an expert in integrating stepfamilies will be helpful as well. I am available for phone or Skype consultations. The sooner you start collaborating in your parenting efforts, the better it will be for your mutual child as well as for your stepchildren.

  4. In a perfect world, this fluff would be terrific. Everyone would be happy. Divorce and split families are not usually amicable or happy and step kids can play hell on a new relationship where a stepparent is involved. I don't find any reality in this 'method'.

  5. I’m hoping you have something for a step mom who feels threatened by the bio moms relationship with dad. Not because anything is going on but because baby is a newborn and visits are often just dad and mom at moms house or dads moms house without new wife there. Dad is trying to be sensitive to bio moms feelings about step mom being around this early but has to deal with backlash for days after visits from step mom.

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