Creating boundaries is important for self-care… oftentimes, our survival. They are a healthy way to protect ourselves from some tricky situations we may find ourselves in as a stepparent. Figuring out what we can control, and what we can’t, is a critical component of creating boundaries. This is a solid base to form our decisions and actions on.
Boundaries can also help us figure out where and how we want to expend our energy, as well as preserving our dignity and our hearts. It means understanding which issues are ours to deal with, but more importantly, giving our partners space and demonstrating we have faith in their ability to deal with issues. Let’s be honest, there are times it would be nice to be able to control some of the things happening in our stepfamily home, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy or appropriate!
Recently, I’ve heard about some distressing stories in regard to what I call Divorced Parent Guilt.
Divorced Parent Guilt is common after a divorce where children are involved. These guilt trips can be particularly irksome when we believe our partner is being manipulated and treated poorly by their own kids. Sometimes we suspect that behind the scenes, the ex is the puppet master in this grand scheme of emotional blackmail. It can appear as though it is the insecurities, jealousy, and agenda of the bitter ex transplanting doubt into the minds of the children.
The threats, the manipulative words, and the accusations can hit hard – especially if you have your own children together: “you love them more than you love me” or “if you REALLY love me you will do/ buy…” . These words can make even the most confident parent start to wobble in their beliefs that they are being fair to all of their children.
Several stepparents shared that they had plans to take the children from their current marriage on a trip and when the older children from the first marriage found out that they weren’t going along, the first-class trip to Guiltville was booked. Another parent was disparaged until they caved in and paid for expensive, yet optional, dance recitals and trips to international competitions. There are many examples of parents being emotionally manipulated into decisions by their Divorced Parent Guilt.
The complaints, insults and insinuations cut these parents to the core – they already doubted themselves and whether they were being fair to everyone. The fear of not being fair is common for parents who have started a new family unit post separation/divorce. It can feel like they can’t win because there are competing wants and needs, and no one thing or person can meet the needs of everyone. It can be extremely painful. All parents want their kids to be happy. They want their children to know they are there for them, and for the children to feel loved and supported. Sometimes, the guilt trip is engaged and our partner may do a 180-degree turn on how they said they would handle a situation. This can lead to our partner feeling even more conflicted because now we are upset, along with everyone else.
How do we deal with this when we see our partner disrespected and dragged along Guilt Trip Road?
First of all, it’s natural to want to jump in to protect our partner. They want to please and pacify because of the guilt. They go to great lengths not to hurt their kids because they are in overcompensation mode. They think that the divorce was painful enough and maybe they can ‘fix this’ by not hurting them anymore.
Sidestep it, take a time out, walk away, and get some fresh air and a different perspective. This lesson is not yours. What we believe is an issue that our partner needs to deal with, may not be a real problem for them at all.
If it is, then be supportive, but let your partner be in the driver’s seat. Let them come to you to share their frustration and hurts, rather than stepping in to try and ‘help’. Listen, but don’t try to fix this because you can’t and shouldn’t! By trying to fix it for them, you risk undermining your faith in them and disempowering them. If they are struggling, let them know they can ask you for help.
It’s a balancing act to find a way to honour our needs while allowing your partner to find their way through something that can negatively impact us. We’re not always going to get it right, but giving space is a key step towards empowering our partners to step out of the guilt trap. Sometimes our partner may not be the best person to share our fears and frustrations around this issue with. This is where friends and other stepparents can be very helpful.
In the same way, it’s our partner’s journey with their kids and they may not want or need our advocacy or input. Don’t take it personally if your partner does not want your help. It may be too close for us to be good listeners, so encourage them to talk to people who can give them another perspective. Encourage your partner to reach out to their support circle .
If your partner is open to suggestions from you, then you could highlight the potential long-term effects of Divorced Parent Guilt. If we don’t set limitations for our children, then we are not preparing them adequately for the grown-up world. We need to teach our children integrity, honesty, and accountability, giving in out of guilt gets in the way of these learning moments.
Rules, limitations, and consequences for choices and actions are part of the development of healthy self-discipline and self-regulation. Limitations and consequences teach children that they are safe, loved, and respected, equipping them with responsibility and accountability gives them self-esteem and confidence to handle disappointments. These are important building blocks towards being a happy adult.
Divorced Parent Guilt is real. It’s hard to navigate for both parents and stepparents. It can damage the family dynamics. If you’re struggling to find your way through the guilt maze, it might be worth reaching out to a professional who is experienced in step-family dynamics.