Step-parenting and the role of lineage
More and more these days families are blended and the intra family relationships are becoming more complex and it is not always easy for the step-parent to stay out of the dynamic between their partner and their ex-spouse.
The reason why the divorce happened in the first place is because there was some conflict and disagreement and these issues do not end with the divorce. Habits or character traits that were a source of conflict during the marriage and contributed to the break-up can remain so even when the living situation changes, and it is natural for the new partner, the step-parent, to take the side of their spouse in the new version of the old dynamic.
It can be that the step-parent becomes critical of the ex spouse, but the trick is to know when that gets projected onto the children, particularly the child who is the same sex as the step-parent. My experience is that this is often to do with archetypal lineages.
In a traditional family there are two family lineages, the mother and the father’s lines, and generally the kids are a continuation of that. Generally boys perpetuate their father’s line, girls their mother’s. In a blended family this complicates things. In the same way as another man or woman living under the same roof as husband and wife can complicate things (such as, and this is a very general, stereotypical point, a woman may have different standards re cleanliness or cooking quality, and a man may have different standards with regards physical or intellectual activity, and this can cause conflict) so representatives of different lineages under the same roof cause conflict.
If as a stepfather, I disrespect the stepson’s father, either from personal experience or because he mistreated my new partner who is still upset with him, or he behaved like a jerk, or simply had some unsavoury habits, then I will also disrespect the son as I will see the same qualities in him as his father shows. Indeed, he may actually exaggerate these qualities to show his identification with his father. I will then feel the need to assert myself over that aspect of the child: ie, assert that I am the man of the house, that the habits of his that reflect his father are not welcome under my roof. The same applies to stepmothers of girls – through the girl the other woman, the mother, enters the metaphoric kitchen.
Different standards of dress and behaviour are particularly relevant as kids hit the teen years, and this can easily become a place of conflict unless step-parents understand exactly who it is they are fighting with when conflict appears. For example, the father may be a factory worker who likes to spend the weekend in the pub watching rugby on TV and the stepfather may not think that is a worthwhile activity, so when the son wants to imitate and identify with his dad and idolises rugby players and watches lots of games every weekend the stepfather can feel like he is battling with father and son.
How to deal with these issues when they arise?
It is not easy, particularly when there remains conflict between the real parents. Best for step-parents to try and stay out of any old conflict that remains between the ‘ex’s. Easier said than done, and next step is to feel how it is blame the child for the parent’s attitude/actions. This may help to separate the child from the father (in the eyes of the step-parent), and give the child a bit more freedom to observe and make his own choices about how he wants to live his life.
Probably the first thing to do is to see, as the step-parent, if the conflicts that are there with the same sex step-child are related to any conflicts with the father/mother. Awareness can change things, so just notice what is happening with this in mind and how it feels – how fair does it feel to make the child responsible for the parent’s dysfunction. And go from there. Good luck.
Ultimately, as step parents or parents, all we can do is to clean up as much of our own childhood and its woundings as we can. After having done all kinds of workshops and seminars designed to do just that, I wholeheartedly recommend the Hoffman Process. Visit
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By Mark O'Brien