An Interview with Susan Wisdom, author of Stepcoupling

Susan Wisdom’s book, Stepcoupling: Creating and Sustaining a Strong Marriage in Today’s Blended Family, guides couples along the tumultuous and wonderful road of creating a new stepfamily. In Donna Cook’s interview with the author, Susan reveals her reasons for writing the book, common unrealistic expectations going into a new marriage, and how to create new family traditions.

Donna Cook: What prompted you to write this book? How is it different from other books about stepfamilies?

Susan Wisdom: When David and I remarried, we took on raising his three children and my two in one small house.  We both had full time custody.  We thought it would be easy because we were so crazy in love.  It was anything but easy!  In fact, it was quite a shock. There were always problems we had to face with the kids, the ex-spouses, money drains, style differences in child rearing, and discipline.  Oh my, the list was endless.  While the problems were serious and painful, we always knew we could rely on each other for supporting our commitment to stay together and raise the kids. We never veered off that course.  Yes, we did argue and fight. Feelings were hurt and tears were shed.  But here we are many years later… two aging adults still crazy in love. The kids are all married with families of their own.  We have seven grandchildren!

We know that without that strong love and commitment as a stepcouple, we would have never made it.  It’s kept us together.

My writing partner, Jenni Green, and I wanted our book to be different, not focused on stepparenting or stepchildren.  We wanted to create a book that adult partners could use to strengthen their relationship enough to deal with the difficult stepfamily issues: kids and stepkids, exes, competition for attention, and shear frustration and exhaustion!  We wanted to provide information and tools specific to stepcoupling.

DC: Following the honeymoon phase of the relationship is the normal phase of feeling estranged from your partner. You warn against behaviors which can make this phase worse, possibly leading to another divorce. Can you explain what causes this estrangement phase and how to get past it in a positive way?

SW: Falling in love is the easy part!  It’s just the two of you.  There’s nothing like it… the romance, the attraction, fun, long conversations, good sex, hopes and dreams. After the blissful honeymoon phase wears thin, reality sinks in.  One or both partners bring their kids into the relationship.  It’s no longer just the romantic twosome.  That love affair suddenly becomes a group affair.  It changes from two emotionally exclusive adults to the tugs and pulls of kids, exes, jealousies and petty fights, complicated schedules, and competition all over the place!  There’s never quite enough to go around.  No one plans for the chaos when the love bug bites.  Soon each begins to wonder, “What did I get myself into?”

It’s a shocking adjustment for everyone.  Now that the adults are in love, the kids feel left out from all the parental attention they used to get.  It wasn’t their idea to have stepparents and stepsiblings in their lives! They hardly know these people.  While it’s fun sometimes to have a big new family around, the kids mostly feel needy, insecure and angry. Strangely enough, the adults feel the same way with the intrusion of stepkids in their lives.  Why is this happening to them? Everyone’s confused and powerless about all the changes.

The solution is called adjustment… and the stepcouple has to lead the way!  As a stepcouple, they have to ACCEPT THE NEWCOMERS AND THE NEW LIFE STYLE OF BEING IN A STEPFAMILY.  As the adults slowly adjust to and accept the challenges, the kids will follow suit over time.  Healthy adjustment trickles down from the top, the stepcouple relationship.

Adjusting to a new stepfamily is often a painful situation with legitimate grief and loss, therefore adjustment involves going through the grief process. They’ll experience most if not all of the grief stages: denial (“This will be easy. We love each other!”), anger (“What have I done to myself? His kids are driving me crazy!”), bargaining (“I’ve got to find a way to make this easier.  Maybe I can be away when the kids are here.”), and depression (“Sometimes I feel hopeless.  Nothing changes.  I don’t want another divorce, but this is horrible!”) until they finally come to acceptance (the “Oh, I Get It”  stage).  Rather than the tired old depression and anger, there’s a sudden and deep realization that stepkids are not going away because they BELONG in the family. “It’s a stepfamily, after all. They’ll be part of my family for as long as he and I are a stepcouple. It’s the way it is…and it’s finally OK!”

Even though two people have fallen in love, they have tremendous challenges to deal with before acceptance and resolution are reached as a stepcouple and stepfamily.

It’s a process.  It takes time. It also takes patience and forgiveness. I personally remember the day when I finally got it that his irritating daughter will be with me as long as we’re a stepcouple.  She’s his daughter, and she deserves to be here as much as I do…maybe more.  She preceded me. Not only did I get it… but I finally accepted it… and I accepted her.

My life changed from that point on.

 

DC: You discuss the importance of expanding boundaries to include stepchildren and avoiding the us/them splinter that can sometimes happen in stepfamilies. What advice would you give to individuals who are aware of this situation, but still having trouble fully embracing all members of their new family?

SW: Years ago, a man rang my doorbell. I asked my 3 year old son to answer the door.  He ran back to the kitchen to tell me, “Mommy, there’s a man at the door with a funny looking thing in his mouth”.  That was my husband David smoking a pipe. That was our first date, and that man has been Dan’s stepdad for well over 30 years now.

All of us in stepfamilies have to expand our boundaries to include people we are not “related” to and probably never knew before.  And some we don’t “choose” but we adjust and learn to put up with them.  It goes with the territory.

Stepfamilies are strange places in that while you’re raising your own children, your own flesh and blood, you’re asked to help raise someone else’s, your stepkids.  It’s tricky because it’s not natural or easy, as one would think.  The hardest part is the unrealistic expectations most people have going into it.

 

DC: What’s the biggest (or most common) unrealistic expectation that gets in the way of successful stepcoupling?

SW: It’s hard to be realistic when you fall blindly in love!  The hardest part is trying to figure out what role/position you play with your new stepchildren.  You’re always wondering “How am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to do?”  Everyone is clueless.

Three problematical expectations people have going into stepcoupling are:

1. You will quickly and naturally adjust to your spouses’ children after you get partnered.  Reality: There’s nothing natural or easy about this process.  They’re not your kids!

2. You will instantly love your stepchildren as you love your own children.    Reality: How can you? Your stepkids are unique and again they’re not your kids.  They have different genes, brains, and temperaments.  They were born to different parents and they have different relationships with their parents.

3. You will attach and bond equally with all the children in your stepfamily.  Reality: Impossible!  You don’t even attach and bond equally with all the kids in your own family. Every child is different. All relationships are different whether it’s between bio parents and children or stepparents and stepkids.

The first step in being a stepparent is getting to know your stepkids and allowing them to get to know you. It’s a good idea to take it slowly.  I believe it’s up to the adults to bridge the gap between stepparents and stepkids in creative and comfortable ways.  Use your sense of humor and know how your stepkids like to play.  Be open and curious.  Get to know who these kids are.  They may be very different from your own kids.  Don’t force your will on them too early.

Be patient. It takes time.  You will make mistakes and get stuck sometimes.  That’s a good time to reach out to your partner and TALK ABOUT IT.  Face the differences gently but together.  Use healthy and sensitive communication skills when there’s tension over kids and stepkids.  It can be a hot button.

 

DC: I appreciated your approach to blending styles in a new couple relationship, and your explanation that our style or way of dealing with things is learned and can be changed for the better. What new style did you learn in your relationship?

SW: David and I had very different styles of parenting.  He was from the South, very proper and polite.  Children there were raised to respect the adults and their rules.  I, on the other hand, was raised in the California Bay Area which was more informal and casual. He was strict and I was permissive.  On one of our first dates we took all the kids out to dinner.  His kids were perfect, sat at the table, and interacted with the adults.  My kids had to be excused to go play outside because they couldn’t sit still.  I was sure he’d never call me back!

It was rough in the beginning dealing with our differences.  We watched each other and learned from each other.  We sort of blended our styles.  I learned to be firmer, and he learned to lighten up some.  I’m still the more touchy feely type, and he’s the teacher type.  I guess the lesson we learned was respect for each other in light of our differences.  We are different in many ways.  That’s a good thing about us. I sure would hate to be married to someone just like me.

 

DC: Your book provides several proactive strategies to building a successful stepfamily, such as enjoying creating new family traditions. What were some of the traditions your family created and what do you think made them effective? Any tips to keep in mind as families create their own traditions?

SW: What worked for us was to blend the traditions we both brought into the family and add more along the way.  It should be as natural a process as possible.  Take it slowly.  Try to understand and respect the wishes of everybody.  (Good luck! with that!)  Listen, compromise, and negotiate along the way.  Take turns in everyone getting their way.  It’s only fair.

For more tips about blending styles for the holidays, see Susan’s article: Tis The Season: Creating Peaceful Holidays As A Stepfamily.

 

DC: If your stepchildren have lost their other parent to death (or that parent is out of the picture for other reasons), does that change how those children need to be stepparented? What tips and cautions do you have for couples in that situation?

SW: If a child’s biological parent is deceased, in jail or otherwise out of the picture, that doesn’t mean that parent didn’t exist.  Children are two things: curious about and loyal to parents who brought them into the world.  I knew a young man whose mother died when he was a baby. When he went off to college for the first time, he took a picture of his young mother to put on his desk as a way to honor her. Eventually as time passes and as they grow, this power lessens. They move on to what is their current reality.

I wouldn’t advise telling gruesome details or all the bad things about the absent or deceased parent, as that’s very hurtful and sad for a child to take on. Some information can be good, for example, your dad was a great singer and guitar player, or very good looking, or whatever the child can feel good about.  Facts like “Your Dad and I were very young when you were born” might be helpful.

As for stepparenting, over time, the stepparent can be a wonderful replacement/surrogate for a child who lost a parent. It depends on the age of the child, and of course the situation. It takes sensitivity, respect, and caring for what’s right for the youngster and what’s right for the stepparent and bio parent.

 

DC: If there were one thing readers could take from your book, what would you want it to be?

SW: I believe that a strong stepcouple is the glue and foundation for a successful stepfamily.  For me, it was the hardest challenge I’ve ever taken on…and also the most rewarding!

 

Donna Cook is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys writing about family issues. She moderates a large online forum for mid-life singles, many of whom are divorcees, and is known for her calm temperament, encouragement, optimism, and reasonable approach to life’s challenges. When she’s not busy writing and raising her three active boys, she enjoys ballroom dancing, hiking, quilting, and traveling.

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