All relationships are complicated, and step-relationships even more so. In particular, there can be so much pressure on step-relationships, especially between children and parents. Using my experience practicing family therapy with stepfamilies, I recently addressed the complexity of stepfamily relationships by answering a reader’s question for INSIDER from a stepmother whose adult stepson is still living with her after her husband’s death.
In the article, the reader wanted help with some strategies to set limits and eventually encourage her stepson to move out. Recommending she give her stepson concrete check-ins about his move-out status, as well as set boundaries about cohabiting, I told INSIDER, “As long as that doesn’t come from a place of anger and punishment, as long as that comes purely…from a place of her advocating for her own needs, it’s within her rights.”
Answering this reader’s question made me think about the pressure both parents and children can experience in stepfamilies. While the article specifically referenced an adult stepchild, it’s worth discussing how the pressure on step-relationships can impact both parents and children (including adult children).
Parents who split up often carry a lot of guilt attached to fear of harming their children. It’s a big reason people stay in relationships that are otherwise unhealthy or not meeting their needs. When a parent finds a new partner, there is an understandable longing to recreate a family system or unit. And that puts pressure on everyone. There are also less complicated reasons pressure can be created. Sometimes it’s as simple as a parent loving their new partner and wanting their child(ren) to have a similarly close relationship with that person.
This pressure can be hard for everyone. Kids, especially teens, can feel resentful about being pushed to do something at someone else’s pace and can feel invalidated or deprioritized by their parent. Biological parents often want those relationships to form quickly and solidly. That desire can turn into impatience and anger when and if that doesn’t happen, which can come out as resentment that their kids are “giving them a hard time” or “not giving a chance” to the new partner. All of this serves to further divide relationships that have already been tested by divorce or splitting up.
These relationships can need a lot of space and air to develop at their own healthy pace and it can be hard to tolerate the slowness that is sometimes needed. Kids especially need a lot of leadership from parents in these situations even though the speed and pressure are often coming from the parents (more so than the kids). Going slowly can be hard, but parents need to be able to notice when they are being driven by something other than a desire to make space. A therapist–either individual or family–can be really useful in pointing out ways a parent is being organized by their fear or guilt. The key here is to practice tolerating slowness and acknowledge along the way when that doesn’t go well. Then everyone has the opportunity to be together in the difficulty and complication of the situation.
However, there are also times when boundaries or limits have to be set, as seen in the INSIDER article. When relationships are formed under pressure as stepfamilies can be, sometimes there are fault lines that exist below the surface–sensitivities or vulnerabilities that can get activated when conflict arises. When this happens, it has to be named to create accountability and maintain reasonable boundaries (it’s not ok to weaponize), but it’s also equally important to extend grace.