Blended family relationships naturally create loyalty conflicts—or maybe we could call them love conflicts.
“Am I still loved? Who do you love more—your spouse/kids or me? Your old life or our new one?” What results is a household of competing relationships, where everyone is fighting to matter … to someone, but not necessarily everyone.
Angela’s primary love language is quality time (learn all about the 5 Love Languages and stepfamilies in our book, “Building Love Together in Blended Families”). Two of her three children also have quality time as their love language. So, she naturally invested a lot of time and attention in her children, especially after the divorce. A simple nighttime ritual, lying in bed at night and talking about the day, took on great significance when she became a single parent. It served as a point of connection, grieving, and care for one another. Multiple nights a week, she and her kids would spend at least 30 minutes, and often an hour and a half, talking about their feelings, telling stories, and comforting one another.
What was a source of comfort for her and the children became a source of competition and conflict when she married Anthony.
A single father of a girl and boy, Anthony’s former wife abandoned him and their children with little notice. One day, she just up and left. For four years, Anthony took care of everything, as his kids rarely saw their mother.
Finding each other was a dream come true for Anthony and Angela. They had many similar interests and shared values, and both saw in each other what they thought their children needed in a stepparent. While dating, Angela got lots of Quality Time from Anthony, especially when visitation took her kids to their dad’s house for a few days. And Anthony, whose primary love language is Words of Affirmation, got lots of positive messages from Angela who respected him as a father, provider, and business manager.
Once marriage moved the two families in together, Anthony appreciated the nightly ritual between Angela and her kids initially. He kissed his kids goodnight and settled in to a TV show to relax while Angela spent quality time with her kids. He knew the ritual was important for her kids—and as an outsider, he knew not to infringe on their time—but soon, he grew weary of the length of time Angela spent with them. At the end of the day he wanted a little of her, too, and frankly was offended she didn’t save some of her time for him.
Frequently, by the time she left the kids’ bedrooms, she was tired and just wanted to go to bed herself. Anthony felt cheated and unimportant. (Feelings that because of his ex-wife were all too familiar to him.)
He tried to help her be more efficient with her time distribution. At work, he was a quality control efficiency expert, so he began coaching her with ways she could spend less time with them and more with him. “I’m not saying you can’t spend any time with them, I’m just hoping you could cut it down to forty-five minutes.”
But Angela believed the bedtime ritual provided stability for her children who needed it “more than ever” given the stress of their new family. Plus, their kids’ visitation schedule meant she spent more time with his kids during most weeks than hers which added guilt to her reasons for not shortening the time.
Anthony, also, tried getting the kids to give their mom “permission” to be with him. He would stand outside their bedroom and make vague remarks implying “it was his time” to be with her. Her kids got the message, all right, but looked to their mom to protect their time and asked why he would try to change it. “Mom, why is he rushing you? Doesn’t he care about us?” This, in turn, deepened Angela’s commitment to protecting her kids. It also frustrated her because she could see how Anthony was inadvertently causing her children not to trust him or want to be near him.
At this rate, their families would never fully blend. Every time she tried to explain this to him and ask him to back off, he accused her of loving her kids more than she loves him. Consequently, Angela had fewer respectful words for him.
What is happening here?
Everyone is fighting to be loved and feel safe.
There is a triangle of emotional attachments in this story that is typical of blended families. Each side is competing for love (and in this case, time) with at least one other side of the triangle. Angela’s relationship with her children is competing with Angela’s marriage to Anthony and vice versa. In addition, the conflict between those two sides is sabotaging the third side, that is, the relationship between Anthony and her children. There are trust issues between the insiders and the new outsider stepparent. Between children and adults, there are different motivations to love. And even though Anthony knows that Quality Time is the best language for his wife, for him to speak it to her is to pull her away from her children and cause her guilt (a classic loyalty or love conflict for biological parents).
Before Quality Time can be shared, each side of the attachment triangle must make adjustments to their expectations of one another and be willing to change how they distribute time. And most importantly, Angela and Anthony must protect their marriage from the conflict and stress or none of the triangle sides will improve.
And that’s where they started.
Guard Your Marriage. Angela and Anthony spent hours talking around and through this situation. They read books about stepfamily living and came to understand the many emotional dynamics involved for both them and their children. Being dedicated to this process and to listening openly to one another served a protective function for their marriage. It took months to see things improve, but their marital commitment and willingness to learn helped them endure the stress.
Consider Others: Empathy and Compassion. Eventually, both Angela and Anthony developed empathy and compassion for everyone involved. Angela understood how not making time for her husband tapped into his pain of not being important to his first wife and Anthony came to appreciate her parental guilt and need to protect her kids. And both of them developed shared compassion for the kids’ need for consistency.
Setting Boundaries and Blessing Connection. Anthony started valuing Angela’s time with her kids and gave his blessing to their connection rather than resenting it. And, Angela proactively began setting time limits on the nighttime ritual so she could save some of her Quality Time for her husband and offer more Words of Affirmation.
To make this happen, Angela first had to push through her own guilt. Even before entering a stepfamily, kids have been through a lot. No parent ever wants their children to feel insecure or feel more pain. But the relational changes of blended families almost ensures they will. Angela recognized that she was often paralyzed by her guilt, but found enough emotional resolve to push through and set appropriate boundaries anyway. We tell parents, in the short-term, doing this often results in more whining from children, but eventually provides the stable environment they need. What your kids need in these moments is your strong comforting leadership, not your pity. They need you to remain connected and close even as you disappoint them.
Find Balance in Moving Toward Others. Initially, the best way to help a child move toward a stepparent is for the biological parent to first move toward the child. A child who has already lost a parent to death or divorce does not want to now lose connection with their biological parent who has fallen in love with another person. If your child feels you slipping away they want more of you, not less. For you to demand indiscriminately that they move toward their stepparent (or future stepparent) is to ask them to “sleep with the enemy.” Much better for you to first move toward them by speaking their primary love language so they feel your continued presence while you also invest yourself in the new love relationship. Eventually, this makes loving a stepparent not a threat to the child’s relationship with you.
This is easier for biological parents to manage if the stepparent is patient with them. Stepparents need to acknowledge that they are, to a degree, taking the parent away from the children. Have compassion for this, and trust that blessing your spouse’s time with their kids apart from you will eventually bless your marriage.
Adapted from “Building Love Together in Blended Families: The 5 Love Languages and Becoming Stepfamily Smart” by Gary Chapman and Ron L. Deal, Northfield Publishers (2020). Used with permission. All rights to this material are reserved.
Gary Chapman, Ph.D. is the bestselling author of The 5 Love Languages series and director of Marriage and Family Life Consultants, Inc. Gary travels the world presenting seminars, and his radio program airs on more than 400 stations. For more information, visit his website at 5LoveLanguages.com
Ron Deal is the founder of Smart Stepfamilies, the author of stepfamily living videos and books, and the consulting editor for the Smart Stepfamily book series. Ron is a licensed marriage and family therapist, speaker, and host of the FamilyLife Blended podcast. Find events and resources at RonDeal.org