Although I would like to give you a nice and neat legal response outlining a common law or statutory remedy to your concerns, the bad news is that there isn’t one. (1) The challenges facing stepfamilies are too great and too many to discuss here in this brief response to your question. However, the good news is that your emotions are not unusual, and they are certainly not unfounded.
The last U.S. Census estimates based on 1988-90 data suggest that 52% to 62% of all first marriages will eventually end in divorce. The same estimates, although based on a 13-year-old data, also tell us that about 75% of the divorced parents eventually remarry; that about 43% of all marriages involve children from prior marriages; and that about 60% of all remarriages eventually end in legal divorce.
As you can see, as a stepparent, you are plenty of company. However, throughout my researches on the subject, I have found no statistics to clearly and neatly outline for us the emotional toll on all the parties to a stepfamily.
Although you have not detailed for us the reasons why you dread your stepchildren’s visits, I will presume that you feel rejected and unimportant; that you feel betrayed by your spouse when it comes to decisions concerning your stepchildren; and that you feel you are not in control of your life when your stepchildren are around. If my presumptions mirror your case, your emotions are valid and common among stepparents.
When you fell in love with your spouse, you felt there wasn’t any obstacle out there big enough for you not to be able to overcome. Reality is that a marriage certificate does not miraculously empower you to deal with your spouse’s past. The ex-spouse and the children are in no way explicitly mentioned in your vow to love and to cherish “’til death do you part.” What a marriage certificate may do, however, is bestow upon you the unofficial title of an in loco parentis or a person who may have to act and assume the duties and responsibilities of a natural parent.
But under the common law, a stepparent or an in loco parentis has no duty to financial support the stepchild. Grubb v. Sterrett, 315 F. Supp. 990 (N.D. Ind.), aff’d, 400 U.S. 922 (1970). As an in loco parentis, you have a duty to provide and care for your stepchildren while in your care and custody. Depending on their age, that means that you have a duty to feed them, clothe them, and care for them to ascertain that their health and well being aren’t being jeopardized. However, as in loco parentis, you are not required to tell them that you love them or to try to hug them. That is something that you may try to do if you feel it may help your relationship with them.
Unless you have expressly committed to care for your stepchildren, either you or your stepchildren may terminate your in loco parentis function at will. Generally, however, this may also mean the termination of your relationship with your spouse and the natural parent of your stepchildren.
There are no legal alternatives through which you as the new spouse can control your spouse’s approach on how to raise his/her natural children. But the neither the common law nor any statute in the world will purport to control your emotions and your commitment to your spouse.
Stepfamily relationships are riddled with issues: stepchildren may be angry at one of their biological parents for leaving the other parent; ex-spouses may be jealous of new spouses and still angry and hurt over the breakup of the marriage; the natural parent who remarried may try to protect the children from the effects of the divorce by temporarily and periodically attending children’s activities with the ex-spouse, thereby alienating the new spouse from the children and their lives; and last but not least, the stepchildren may openly resent what they may perceive to be a ‘barging in’ of the new spouse and taking the place of their natural parent thereby potentially slicing the parent’s affection toward them into half.
If you wish to save your marriage and are dedicated to your relationship with your spouse, your best approach to your stepchildren’s visits is one of patience and tolerance. Reading about the intricate emotional waving in stepfamilies may also give you some insight into the complex web of the stepfamily issues. Last but not least, organizations such as the Stepfamily Association of America may help you obtain support from other people involved in stepfamilies. Obtaining support from individuals who are faced with similar dilemmas may make you feel less alone and may help you learn from other stepparents’ experiences.
Marcela Halmagean is a family-law attorney and Certified Fraud Examiner in Houston and the principal of Halmagean Law Firm.
(1) This article does not presuppose the existence of domestic violence issues in the question. If the reader dreads the stepchildren’s visits because battery or any other act of domestic violence is involved, the reader is advised to immediately contact local authorities and local counsel to seek protection and learn his/her rights under the state law of his/her residence. Domestic violence should not be condoned or taken lightly and it should never be excused by emotions of love or affection for or by the other spouse.
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