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Getting Past the Fantasy: Six Ideas to Help the Step-parent without Children Find Happily Ever After

Recently I saw a funny video of two women eyeballing a good-looking dude. The gals in the video laugh and talk about his attractiveness as the camera cuts between them and a hunky man lifting weights. But then the ladies ask the hunk to move, and the camera reveals that they’ve been swooning over a guy with a dad bod taking care of two little children.

There’s definitely something hot about watching a man take care of his kids. We stuff our romantic fantasies with images like that. We picture a good-looking, high-earning, nurturing and loving knight in shining armor arriving to sweep us off our feet, carrying us away to a happily ever after. No one dreams of their soul mates showing up in the battle-worn fatigues of a recent divorce with traumatized children in tow. But when we open our hearts to a romantic partner who has children, that’s probably a more realistic metaphor.

Yet, millions of people find their lifelong match to someone with children. As someone happily married for 17 years to a man with two daughters from a previous relationship, I’m not warning anyone away. On the contrary, I’d marry my husband (and his daughters) again in a heartbeat. But when you start a life partnership with someone with children, there are some complex realities to be faced, including the following:

  • For good or bad, your partner’s ex isn’t going away. Your partner will have to interact with the ex constantly as they co-parent their children.

  • You will be expected to share parenting responsibilities such as fixing the kids' meals, playing chauffeur, attending events, and many more. And while you’re performing the work of a parent, it may not be appreciated or valued.

  • The kids may resent what they see as an “intrusion” into their family unit. And this doesn’t just go away. Research shows that it takes four to seven years for a blended family to feel like a family unit.

That’s the reality. But, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed. It just means that you need to move past the fantasy and do some work to make the reality of your home together a happy and healthy environment. Regardless of whether you’re just starting a relationship with someone who has kids or your years into it, here are six ideas to help the step-parent without children find their happily ever after.

Identify Unrealistic Expectations

Start by closely examining what you wish your relationship with your partner’s children to be. Remember that as a person without biological children of your own, you may be projecting your desires about children onto your step-kids. For example, if you’re someone who has wanted children but hasn’t had them, you may see this as an opportunity to become a parent. On the other hand, if you’re not sure you want children but are in a relationship with someone who has them, you may imagine that somehow you’ll escape the rigors of parenting since they’re not “your” kids. These are all normal attitudes. But they’re also not realistic. Look back at that list of three “facts” of step-parenting. Ask yourself if your hopes line up with those facts. If they don’t, then take some time to be reflective about what is possible. Make the possible your goal, rather than the fantasy.

Work With Your Partner to Set Realistic Expectations

After you’ve figured out possible relationship goals with your step-children, have a series of conversations with your partner about how you see yourselves working together to create a happy and healthy home environment.

As you map out your vision for how you’ll work together to care for the children (and yourselves), remember that it’s vital that as the step-parent you try not to take on too much “parenting” responsibility. Unless one of the natural parents is absent, it’s really up to the kids’ natural parents to make decisions about doctors, parenting time, schools, and rules. Yours is a supporting role in raising the kids, not the lead. Respect that boundary and you’ll find yourself much happier in your relationship with your partner and your step-children.

It’s Not Personal

Creating a positive relationship with your step-kids can be challenging. Your relationship with their natural parent is a vivid reminder to the kids that their parents aren’t getting back together. And just like you may have parenting fantasies, the “divorced parent reunion” (think Parent Trap) is the prevailing fantasy of divorced children.

It’s hard not to take it personally when kids misbehave or disrespect you, but remind yourself that this has very little to do with you as the person and everything to do with the kids’ anger, fear, and powerlessness in the situation. They didn’t choose to get divorced, but they have to deal with the hardships of having two homes. Do your best in those moments of conflict to remember it’s not personal. It helps.

Create Family Rules & Stick to Them

Just because you’re trying to empathize with the emotional place your step-kids are in, doesn’t mean that they get to misbehave or disrespect you. As part of your work to set realistic expectations, you and your significant other should be coming up with standards for how people treat one another in your home. Even though you’re not the mom or dad, you are still the adult. The kids need to do what you say. Similarly, you shouldn’t tolerate rudeness. Make sure that your rules reflect those two standards and establish a clear, immediate, and enforceable consequence for when someone messes up.

Grant Your SO One-On-One Time with His Kids

It’s natural to want your life partner to prioritize his relationship with you. Putting your relationship first is a must in creating a healthy home environment. But you should also ensure that your significant other has one-on-one time with his/her kids. At first, you may find yourself feeling excluded or resenting the time away. Work hard to overcome these emotions by recognizing the two huge benefits of this one-on-one time. First, it allows the kids to feel important, seen, and loved by their natural parent. But it also gives you downtime from the emotional pressure of step-parenting. Embrace and encourage your SO to take the kids on outings or just spend time with them without you regularly.

Give Yourself Some Grace

Finally, please remember that step-parenting someone else’s children is not easy. At times it’s ridiculously hard. Navigating this rocky terrain is going to result in some trips and falls. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll get things wrong. But you’ll also have great moments where you can see the positive influence you’ve had in creating a stable, happy home for you, your life partner, and your step-kids. Be gentle with yourself, and remember to keep trying. You got this!

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