Relationships, whether a friendship, marriage, dating, or family, are often complex and confusing. Where are the lines and the boundaries? What is the other person thinking? So many questions arise when two people form emotional bonds. In the midst of all those questions, another type of relationship exists that can be far more confusing than the rest: stepfathers. A stepfather finds himself in the middle of a complex family relationship that existed way before he step foot in the house. His questions strike at the very being of a man: Who is in charge, their mother or me? How can the kids respect me if I cannot discipline them? How do I love my wife and my step-kids?
Stepfamily relationships are often ambiguous but there are several ways in which stepfathers can help in developing those bonds. First and foremost, it is most important to love your wife. Children (step or not) need to see a strong commitment from the husband and wife. You both need to present a unified front to the stepkids that states “We are in this together.” Find ways to spend time alone with your wife. Compare schedules, meet for lunch breaks or coffee, let the kids spend the night out. Use this time for honest, open conversation, especially if you are a bit daunted by the idea of stepfathering. New stepfathers have the tendency to fear failure and to feel pressure and guilt. Tell her that. She knows her kids better than anyone and she will probably have good advice on how to get to know them better and how to encourage you. It is so easy in stepfathering to forget your needs and role as a husband.
A huge way to prepare yourself for the role of a stepfather is to keep your expectations in check. Unrealistic expectations will only feed your frustration. Instead, keep your focus on patience and open communication. Don’t expect ‘love at first sight’ reactions from your new stepchildren. If it is hard for you to discern your new place in a family, imagine what it is like for the children! Loyalty conflicts arise within them between their biological parents and you so it is important to be careful in the way you address their biological father. Steer away from sarcasm and even be supportive of them. Make it your goal to create a new bond with your stepchildren, but don’t expect to replace the original father-child bond that existed.
A gray area that stepfathers face is the area of discipline. Men usually have the desire to be the one in control, to be the disciplinarian. Your biggest challenge as a stepfather might be forcing yourself to step back from the disciplinarian role and letting your wife, their biological mother, have control. As hard as that can be, it is important to a healthy relationship with your stepchildren. Keep your focus on building a friendship and mutual respect with them first. Until that foundational respect is present, let your wife discipline the kids. Relationships have the priority over rules and discipline. If discipline comes before the relationship, the child will only want to rebel. However, that does not mean be a pushover or be a distant father. The balance between a hard disciplinarian and a remote observer is found in being firm and supportive of your spouse’s decisions.
A great deal of time and patience are needed for stepfathers. Children learn to respect persistence over time and what an opportunity you have to step into a new family. Discouragement can become the thief of joy so, as stepfathers, take it one day at a time and focus on loving and supporting your wife. The challenge stepfathers face is great but with great challenge comes sweeter rewards. Don’t give up on your role!