The Classic Problem:
Julie and Tony have been having many arguments concerning the children. Julie insists that Tony must spend more time with the children. Tony argues that he spends as much time with them as he is able, seeing as how he works all day and comes home tired. He argues that he makes time on weekends when it is possible. Julie accuses Tony of not loving the children enough to make a real effort. Tony feels that Julie is completely unfair.
What is really happening here?
(The “key words” are emphasized)
- Is Tony not spending any time with his children? Of course he spends some time with them (movies, meal times, watching TV, and so on).
- Have the children been complaining that Tony is not spending time with them?
- If they have, did they confronted Tony, or have they only complained to Julie?
- Does Julie feel her children are being neglected (as in, mistreated) by Tony’s lack of attention?
- Is Tony a bad father because he chooses to spend time with his children when he can, and is not worn out from work?
What are the arguments?
Julie argues that she is with them all day and that he must help her in the evenings. What is he really saying? Is she saying that:
- She spends all day with the children paying attention to them, playing and having fun with them, or,
- That she is with them all day long, feeding them, bathing them, teaching them, washing the clothes, cleaning the house, buying the groceries, tending to the children’s needs, like a job?
Is she is saying the first, that all she does all day is have fun with the children to keep them happy doing what they want to do? If this is true, then she would never have time for shopping, paying bills, washing clothes, and so on. Is this what she is arguing, that Tony spend all day playing and having fun with the children?
Is she saying the second, that she is busy working all day, and that she has to have the children with her at all times? Running a household without children is hard enough. Dealing with children while doing the household duties, such as washing clothes, makes the chore harder. Needing to go out of the house to handle an important matter (or just to buy the groceries), can become a major project. No wonder why many stay home parents feel worn out by the end of the day. Think about it, the parent who outside the home gets worn out and tired and wants to come home and rest, not keep on going and “spending time” with the children doing more activities. But, the parent who works in the home is not able to “leave” work and go somewhere and rest from a day’s work. Usually the “work outside the home” parent feels that they work hard, and that the “work in the home” parent has it easy, and should not complain about being tired.
The truth is that they both work hard, and that they both deserve time off from activities, to rest. The problem in Julie and Tony’s case is that they have not worked out a compromise of sorts which would allow both of them to have some times to themselves, on occasion. Each is convinced that the other should, must, or ought, to just understand and do the right thing: make life easier for me!
What about other circumstances?
Blended families are another source of conflict when it comes to children getting “attention.” The syndrome is usually obvious in the terms the parents use for the children. For example, If Julie had Bobby, her 12 year old son, from a previous marriage, she will usually refer to him as my son when arguing with Tony over whether Toby is spending “time” or “paying attention” to Bobby. At other times, she will use the “our” son term, because it will suit her better.
As an example, If Julie were to complain to Tony that:
- He was not treating Bobby the “same way” as the children who were born from both of them, or,
- That Tony was not treating Bobby, like he does his own daughter (from a previous marriage), who also lives with the couple.
The question here is that of fairness. Are the children being treated “fairly” by both adults? The answer is not as simple as saying “yes” or “no.” What is “fair” to one of them may not seem to be “fair” to the other. There are instances where the child involved is just not interested in establishing a “good” relationship with the step-parent. The efforts of the step parent may be ignored or reject, regardless of how much effort they exert in trying to make the relationship with the child better.
At the same time, no matter how “unfair” it may seem, emotions will play a big part in the relationship between children and step-parents. For example, let’s say that Bobby’s real father is the source of constant problem. Let’s say that Julie and Bobby’s father end up arguing over child support, or other similar complaints. Let’s also say that when Tony tries to defend or support Julie that Bobby sees this as Tony attacking his father, and resents Tony. Children will often ignore the wrong their parents do, just so they can keep the relationship. In this case Tony will also start to resent Bobby. He will, if at all, make only half-hearted attempts at establishing a “good” relationship with Bobby. The question, again, is how hard should a parent try to improve a relationship with a child who just does not want the relationship at all?
Do some people treat their own “blood related” children better than other children? Of course, that is just being a normal human. Treating other children “like as if they were yours” is when the human goes beyond fair expectations. The adults in these cases are being asked to do something that is contrary to the basic human nature which is to look out for what is ours. The step-parents who achieve this level of maturity are like heroes. Like “heroes” because they go above and beyond what is expected of them.
Let’s consider what is fair and unfair when it comes to a step-parent. Is it fair to expect a step-parent to:
- Love their step-child exactly like their own blood-related children?
- To develop and have good feelings about a step-child who does not want the relationship, and will make no effort to reciprocate the feelings?
- To want to spend time with a step-child who does not care?
- To keep on trying, over and over, no matter how much the step-child rebuts the step-parents efforts?
- To not let the rejections of the step-child hurt the step-parents feelings?
- And so forth.
The parent, which is related to the child by blood, will struggle understanding why the step-parent is having so much trouble loving the child. Except for those “hero” type step-parents, the all others are normal people who may make real effort to “love” another person’s child, but will fall short.
What Might Be The Real Problem?
I cannot say that I have covered every exiting problematic circumstance above, regarding step-parents and step children, and parents and their blood related children, in reference to parents spending time with their children. We still need to consider other factors. We have to wonder what may be the real problem. Sometimes people do not find the right answers because they do not ask the right questions.
Let’s ask a few questions which may have some bearing on this issue:
- What are the real motivations of the blood-related parent for admonishing the step-parent in regards to spending time, or getting along with, the step-child?
- Is the blood-related parent being fair in his or her expectation of what should be happening between the step-parent and the child?
- Is it possible that the blood-related parent is struggling with past childhood traumas which are influencing his or her present day concerns regarding the child and the step-parent?
The idea of past childhood traumas interfering with present day concerns is a real probability which needs to be considered. Often-times a mother who was a victim of childhood mistreatment, or even abuse, will tend to relate her own unhealthy childhood circumstances with the present day events regarding her child and the step-parent, her husband. She may be associating the circumstances to the point that she starts believing that her child is being “abused,” because the step-parent is not “loving” the child in exactly the same manner as she, and that it seems to be on purpose.
In this case the mother may be regressing to an earlier emotional state and reliving some of the past trauma vicariously through her child. Abuse is wrong, it is always wrong, and if we decide that someone is being abusive we tend to become angry. And, if abuse is actually occurring, the abusive parent must be confronted and corrected, to the point of imposing serious consequences on that person. But, too often in these cases, abuse is not the issue, it is often that the step-parent is a normal human being who, selfishly, has trouble “loving” the child of another. Selfishness is not abuse, it is better equated with immaturity. More often the step-parent who has trouble relating to a step-child is plainly immature.
Immaturity cannot be resolved through confronting the person and insisting that they “love” someone even if the other person does not want to “love” them back. The wife who becomes angry and badgers her husband to “love,” or “spend time with,” her blood-related child will continue to be frustrated because the relationship depends on several factors. Let’s look at some here:
- Most important of all, the child has to want the relationship as well. Keep in mind that the children’s opinion rarely helps their parent decide who they will choose to marry. Many times the parent will marry the step-parent while the children are very young. As the children grow, they can become bitter and unhappy as they learn that one of their natural parents is not in the picture. They can resent that the parent left, or died, and they may start to focus their anger on the step-parent.
- The step-parent did not seriously consider the responsibilities which come with marrying a person with children. Immaturity will lead a person to believe lies. Everyone knows that child grow up, but the immature person will fantasize living with their new spouse, who has children, and thinking that things will always be the way they are at the present. They will not consider that when these kids grow up things may take a bad turn. They will fantasize that they will win the hearts of the children, and just “love” them the way they would their own children. The truth is that if you have never had your own child, you do not have the capacity to compare how you would treat other children, as compared to how you would treat your own. It is those people who have had their own children who then can, as it were, possibly transfer their “love” to another. And, even then, that is no guaranty that they actually will be able.
- The step-parent really is giving the relationship with the step-child as much effort as they know how. The blood-related parent may be judging the step-parent’s efforts based on how they (the blood-related parent) believe they would be behaving under the same circumstances. They may be thinking, “If I can love my own child, and if I believe that I could love the child of another, then my spouse must do the same with my child.” Notice that the word chosen was “my” instead of “our.”
- Many times the child do not grow to “love” the step-parent. They don’t have to, and if they are pressured into doing so they will likely rebel. There are times when even blood related parents and children do not turn out to like each other, and sometimes they even choose not to love each other. To expect children to have to “love” their step-parent is wrong. It must remain their own choice. The step-parent should either make an effort to establish a good and healthy relationship with their step-children, but they should not impose themselves on the parent.
- Sometimes, the step-child and the step-parent are just comfortable with the way things are, and it is the blood-related parent who is all bent out of shape over the circumstances. People need to be able to develop personal relationship on their own accord. This means that step parents and children should be allowed to handle their own relationship, without the blood-related parent interfering and causing problems for them.
These are just some examples of circumstances which the blood-related parent must consider in determining her role in trying to get the step-father and the child to have a “better” relationship.
What Was The Expectation?
When the couple got married they made certain promises before the minister:
“To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my faith [or] pledge myself to you.”
Notice that nowhere in those vows does it say or even imply that the person promises, acknowledges, or even understands, that they will have to make a concerted effort to “get along with,” “love,” or “spend time with” the children of the spouse. The person who argues that this is just understood when you marry someone with children is just fooling him or herself. They are forgetting the main culprit here, maturity. It takes maturity to consider things that are not, at the moment, apparent. It takes maturity to consider how I will feel about someone else’s children five years from now, if things turn out bad, if the children hate me, and so on.
So What Is The Answer?
Unfortunately, there is no easy and quick answer. But there are things which must be understood which may, at the very least, not make things worse. Let’s explore them here:
- Give both your child and your spouse the time and opportunity to either try or not try to establish a relationship. It must be something that comes forth from them, not you. If things work out okay, they will give the credit to their efforts, but if things turn out bad, and you were the catalyst, you will be blamed by both sides.
- Understand that your spouse may still be immature in this area of their lives. While this is not an excuse for not trying, you cannot force maturity on anyone. The harder you try to impose maturity on someone, the harder they will fight it. You will only succeed in damaging your relationship with the immature person (spouse or child) and may damage it to the point which will be beyond repair.
- Take your spouse (and maybe child) to parenting seminars. Let someone else say all those things which you want to tell your loved ones. This way if the spouse or child gets angry at the words, they won’t associate those words with you. On top of that, the speakers at these events won’t be personally involved and get all emotional about the circumstances. Your spouse or child may even listen and agree with them.
- Invite your spouse to consider going to counseling to examine why they might be having trouble with developing a relationship with their step-children. In marriage, many times the “me” issues interfere with the “we’ issues of the marriage. The same can be true of the relationship between a child and the step-parent. Counseling may help the step-parent understand some of the trouble or reluctance in working out a healthy relationship with the child of another person.
- Never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never argue with your spouse in front of the children (or where they can hear your arguing). This will only serve to earn their disrespect for you as well. Take him or her into a private room and share your feelings about how you believe that he or she might handle the relationship with the child. But, once you have giving them your opinion, leave it alone. They do not have to agree with you. Their relationship with the children is their business, not yours. While is it appropriate for a husband or wife to confront their spouse in an adult manner over any subject, it is not okay for a spouse to start attempting to parent their spouse. This will only serve to produce a wedge between you both, which will also widen as the arguments continue. You will come out of that situation bitter, frustrated, and angry, and nowhere nearer accomplishing the goal you intended. Your goal is not to work out their relationship for them, your goal must be available for either of them should they ask for help.
The relationship between your children and their mom or dad is none of your business!
Ouch, that hurt, right? But, it is true. Whether they work it out or not is their business alone. Your job is not to interfere with the success or failure. This is not to be interpreted as meaning that you do not step in when something is going wrong. Neither the parent nor the child have the right to harm each other physically over their disagreements, but whether they have arguments should be their business. Along with this, neither of them must be allowed to violate the rules (or expected decorum of the home). For example, is the child disrespects the step-parent, this must not be allowed by the blood-related parent. As well, mistreatment by the step parent must be confronted and stopped. The blood-related parent must be careful in these circumstances not to cross the line from protecting both the child and spouse to the point of trying to control them and their relationship. This “control” may seem appropriate to the blood-related parent, but it could, at the same time, become the main source of division between the child and the step-parent. Protecting them is a good thing, but attempting to eliminate all conflict is bad.
Conflict is the tool of change. People make changes, compromises, and adaptations based on the outcome of conflict. Without conflict, things will remain the same forever. Stale relationships are just not interesting, nor do they prompt the person to improve the circumstances. Conflict will bring change, sometimes what we want, and sometimes what we do not want. The conflict between your child and spouse will produce a change. What the change will be will be dependent on some of the factors described in this article.
Finally, I will end this discourse with a simple but powerful Word from our Lord. “Trust the Lord (by obeying His Word) with all your heart (that He will work in the lives of your spouse and children), do not lean to your own understanding (and try to force things to happen a certain way, because you feel that they must), in all your ways (especially in how you behave toward your spouse and child) acknowledge Him (know that He is there), and He will make your path (your life) straight (easier to handle)” – Proverbs 3:5-6.