There is no magic bullet to maintaining and raising children within a blended family (a family with children from multiple relationships), and I am no expert in the finer points of day-to-day interactions in a blended family. But while working with couples who have blended families, I have observed that they do better when they follow one basic principle: they hold each other as primary in the relationship — or we could say, as the king and queen of the household.
This may sound straightforward enough, but it is not always easy to put into practice, especially because overt and covert allegiances and alliances are often formed among each one partner’s own children within the blended family. In therapy, parents often justify these allegiances and alliances by recounting the numerous difficulties they have been through with their own children. For example, one partner may feel guilty about how his or her children had to experience several years of a difficult marriage (and ultimately divorce) with their children’s other parent (now the ex). Parents may be overly protective and give preferential treatment and resources to their own children, while neglecting their partner and stepchildren. I have heard one partner say in front of the other, “My child is the most important person to me.”
Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with this sentiment. Your children should be very, very, very important to you. However, how you become a better parent — and thus better able to serve your own children and stepchildren — is by making the relationship with your adult partner primary.
The primary partner (the person you married, or are cohabitating with) is the one who is best able to regulate your emotions and best able to take care of you. Children should not be put into a position to take care of their parents, and they are not very good at the job. Partners put themselves in the best position to receive care by demonstrating and expressing to the other partner that the relationship is primary. If one partner feels demoted, or that he or she is losing to the children, that part will be less likely to provide support to the other, and consequently, problems are more likely to ensue.
Tom and Jenn came to therapy with the goal of learning communication techniques to deal with their teenage daughter. Tom had a 16-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, and Tom and Jenn have a 4-year-old son together. Tom felt guilt about what his daughter had to endure during his first marriage and what she faces now: a rotating weekend schedule, as well as Jenn’s frustration because she thinks his daughter is wildly disrespectful and entitled.
On the surface this may seem complicated, but it soon became clear that what they needed wasn’t specific communication skills per se, but rather just to hold each other as primary. They had stopped taking care of and supporting each other in favor of becoming entrenched in what they perceived as the best course for parenting within these circumstances. They had grown apart and shut out their most powerful ally for their predicament: each other.
In PACT, there is an exercise called the king and queen pose that is effective with affairs, but I also found it effective for Tom and Jenn. During a therapy session, I had Tom move to his knees, hold Jenn’s hands, and look up into her eyes and say, “You are my queen…” It was as if Jenn had been waiting a very long to hear something like that. Her demeanor softened, and her eyes became teary. When it was Jenn’s turn, I had her say to Tom, “You are my king…” Hearing this Tom softened, as well. It was as if he had been waiting a long time to put down his heavy shield.
Thus, the cornerstone of their therapy was to remind each other of their royalty (i.e., to each other as king and queen). Their reactions to the pose signaled what was missing and what they yearned for. Tom and Jane needed to learn to take the armor off and allow themselves to be positively influenced by each other — to allow space for their royalty to come through. This involved learning ways to take care of and soothe each other, being the first to know about important matters, as well as understanding that all important family decisions are decided together — including the best way to handle their daughter.
Because they had more appreciation and intimacy in their relationship, they had more resources to work with their daughter. They reported feeling better with their daughter and started to observe improvements in her behavior. Tom and Jenn discovered they were most powerful and effective operating together and making their relationship primary. That was the best thing they could do for their kids.
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