When it comes to stepfamily life, there’s often a glaring contrast between the reality of day-to day-life and your image of what it could be. Sometimes the gap between these is very wide, yet there’s usually no easy time, place, or way to share your expectations with your partner.
In many cases, most of your expectations about marriage will come from the family that raised you. Or, you might want your union to be like your friends’ parents’ marriages, or your next-door neighbor’s family because they always seemed so happy and conflict-free. That said, remarried couples also bring expectations from their first and second marriage.
Stepfamily Life: Discussing Expectations
If you endured a difficult first marriage, for instance, you might expect your new partner and his or her children to be the family you always dreamed of. While there’s nothing wrong with this perspective, it can lead to disappointment during times of turmoil in your stepfamily.
For instance, Caroline, 50, married Jack, 53, after only two years of dating and she found blending their two families more challenging than she expected. During our couples counseling sessions, Caroline often expressed discouragement about her stepdaughters giving her the cold shoulder. Since she was a middle school teacher and Jack had three teenagers, she expected they would hit it off and that things would move smoothly. She also felt disappointed because her stepdaughters didn’t make much of an effort to connect with her ten-year-old son from her first marriage.
Caroline put it like this: “I know you told me that there’s no such thing as instant love in a stepfamily, but I’m good with teens and have been blindsided by Jenny, Jack’s daughter, ignoring me or being rude to me when I try to talk to her about school or chores. I feel awful since I must be doing something wrong. Sadly, Jack and I are arguing more and I don’t know what to do about it.”
In fact, many stepparents blame themselves or the relationship itself once disillusionment sets in, rather than reevaluating their unrealistic expectations. When this occurs, partners can play the “blame game” and position themselves against each other, not beside each other.
However, if you and your partner can have an open dialogue about your expectations, the common concerns and disillusionments can become normalized and not seen as due to the flaws of either spouse. For instance, when Caroline was dating Jack, getting to know his three teenage daughters on weekends was enjoyable, so she never thought about considering her expectations of stepfamily life.
Since Caroline usually connects well with her own students, she envisioned a warm, close relationship with her three stepdaughters. It wasn’t until they were married for almost a year and Jenny had her thirteenth birthday party at their home that Caroline realized that she hadn’t entered her remarriage with her eyes wide open.
Caroline reflects: “Looking back, I should have seen it coming when Jenny pitched a fit because her dad and I wouldn’t let her invite fifteen kids for a sleepover for her birthday. Some of the kids are new to her group and we have a small home so we said “no.” When we told her that she could have a party but not a sleepover, Jenny became furious and said “You’re mean and my mom would let me do it.” Her words were very hurtful and I realized later that I took them much too personally. I told myself that I should’ve been okay with her requests and then felt guilty when I had to say no.”
Unfortunately, Caroline also struggled with guilt feelings because she could not warm up to Jenny (like her other two stepdaughters) and they have had an up and down relationship. Many stepparents, like Caroline, are well intended and yet their unrealistic expectations of themselves and their role as a stepparent can lead to feelings of guilt, emotional distress, and marital unhappiness.
The “Tyranny of the Shoulds”
The term “Tyranny of the Shoulds” was coined by psychologist Karen Horney in the early 1900s to explain a tendency that some people have to have a split between their ideal self and their real self, and the difficulty they have reconciling the two. In her case, Caroline told herself she “should” have felt closer to Jenny and so she fell short of her expectations of how a good stepmother should feel and behave. She also felt disappointed and upset with Jack because she thought that he should have been more assertive in disciplining his daughters and set more limits with them.
According to Michael Schreiner, “shoulds” are inflexible, authoritarian, and joyless rules for thinking, feeling, and behaving that people subject themselves to that are not always well formulated. And these rules can lead to high standards that are impossible to live up to.
When you believe that you must or should do something, the demands imply a set of expectations, and it’s common to set unrealistic standards. In contrast, it’s a lot more helpful to think that your stepchild (or your partner) will do as they choose, regardless of your expectations, and to express your expectations of him or her (and the children) in your family but understand that the outcomes may be very different than you desire.
IF you’re able to do this, you won’t be as disappointed, nor quite as upset at your partner and your stepchildren. As you review this list of stepfamily “shoulds” try to add some of your own to the list and discuss these with your partner over your favorite beverage.
List of Five Stepfamily Shoulds
- Stepfamily life should be smooth because my partner and I love each other.
- My stepchildren should love and respect me because I married their dad (or mom) and treat them respectfully.
- I dealt with old losses and baggage prior to getting remarried, so they shouldn’t affect my relationship with my new partner. Our stepfamily will heal the hurts of the previous divorce.
- Other people in my stepfamily should (or must) pitch in and share responsibilities and chores.
- If my love for my partner is strong enough, outside forces, such as ex-spouses and relatives, will never come between us.
Once Caroline and Jack started to calmly discuss their expectations, they were better able to deal with the stress and storms of raising their children in a blended family. After their “Shoulds” were explored, they actually came to the realization that they were a good enough dad and stepmom to Jenny, who tested their limits, in spite of their flaws. As a result, some of their tension and conflict decreased. They came to accept the reality that everyone makes errors in judgment, stumbles along the way, and that learning from their mistakes could help them all get along better in the long run.