Almost one year ago I met the man for me. It seems an unlikely story. Neither of us are the type to go to the bars to meet someone, but we actually met at a hip local bar. We had two beers and two hours of deep discussion. On the way out of the bar, he turned to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “You are a full-on weirdo.” Hallelujah! Finally, a man who sees me! And that was it; I fell in love at that moment. We connected on many levels despite some of the larger differences, like our age. For a little perspective, his first son is just a few years younger than me. The second child is 8 years old, so he is still living at home, and there is a co-parenting situation with the boy’s mother.
I love both of these boys not only because they are my partner’s sons, but because they are both really cool individuals as well. They are smart and kind and have unique personalities that I can appreciate. However, sometimes difficult feelings and situations arise in relationships where one or both partners already has children. For this reason, I have compiled a list of 10 tips for dealing with some of these trickier aspects.
1. Stay Focused On What Matters Most
Make a point of writing down jointly and separately what’s most important for you and for your partner when it comes to your relationship. Keep the list where you both can easily find it in a dresser drawer or on the bedside table. When you have disagreements about parenting issues, make sure you go back to what your main focus is for being in a relationship with that person. Keep this larger perspective in the back of your mind at all times.
2. Give Your Partner and the Children Space
You don’t want to be cold or distant, but the main point here is not to force yourself on the established family dynamic. It’s easy to feel close with your partner, but recognize that sometimes the best way to allow the kids and even your partner to warm up to your presence is to just relax, be yourself and give them the space to discover for themselves who you are. Don’t force anything. Your place in the family dynamic will arise naturally from you simply being who you are.
Also, give your partner opportunities to do things on his or her own with the children. It is healthy for them to have time together without you being present. Treat yourself to something nice, a yoga class or a day with friends, and give them some time alone together.
3. Show You Care
Little gestures of kindness go a long way to helping a child warm up to your presence. You shouldn’t feel like a slave to the child, but going out of your way every now and then to do something sweet for her is a great way to help her understand you’re not a threat.
Some children do feel threatened that you are going to take away the love your partner has for them. Assure them this is not the case by your actions. Acknowledge when the child comes and goes from the home, say “Hello, how are you doing?” and say “Goodbye! Have a good day.” Say “Good morning, did you sleep well?” and say “Good night, I hope you have sweet dreams.”
I send my partner’s child a note in the mail every once in a while because he loves to get mail. It’s usually a fun card with some jokes or a puzzle inside. Show you care.
4. Discover Your Common Interests
In my case, I found I have a lot in common with my partner’s 8-year-old. We are both huge fans of Legos and Calvin & Hobbes. In fact, my Calvin & Hobbes comic book collection that I was reading when I was his age now fills one entire shelf of the bookshelf by his bed. Maybe you are a good baseball or basketball player or you’re good at drawing and the child has an interest in that. Take some time to explore your common interests together. This means a lot to a child when a caring adult is interested in something the child is interested in.
On the flip-side, don’t force yourself to engage in activities you don’t enjoy or that you’re not good at just to try to get closer with the child. This usually backfires. Children are very perceptive. They seem to have a natural sense of when you’re genuinely interested and when you’re just faking it.
5. Co-Parent Harmony
For situations where there is another parent in the child’s life besides your partner, let your focus be the child’s well-being when it comes to relating to the other parent. With my partner’s 8-year-old, there is a roughly 50/50 time-sharing situation. We have him at our home 3-4 days each week and so does she.
Do not try to create difficulties with the other parent; however, if he or she decides to try to create difficulties with you, I recommend backing away. You are not obligated to be friends with the other parent, and if he or she seems hell-bent on making things difficult for you, the best response is to back off and simply allow your partner to be the one handling any necessary interactions with the other parent. If the other parent harms you in some way, it may be necessary to seek counseling, obtain a restraining order, or take other actions for your own well-being.
Don’t let the other parent’s behavior be a reason to love your partner less. Often it is coming from a deep place of unhappiness in themselves when they lash out at you and they would like nothing better than for their cruelty to have a negative impact on your relationship with your partner. Be steadfast and neutral. Be responsive, not reactive.
6. Differences in Parenting
Even though I haven’t had children of my own, I have my own perspective on how to raise children which comes from my family and my many years of experience as a babysitter. When your partner is parenting in a way you disagree with, make sure you wait until the two of you are alone to address the issue. Addressing the issue in front of the child only confuses the child and creates a power-conflict.
Acknowledge that your partner and his child already have an established parenting dynamic between them. Your partner should be able to listen to and respect your opinion on parenting even if it is different from his own; however, doing so in privacy will allow him to consider what you have to say more carefully, and it is also more respectful of his established parenting dynamic. He may choose to incorporate some of your suggestions into his parenting, but try not to take it personally if he doesn’t. Depending on your partner, he or she may invite you to take a more active parenting role with the child, but again, don’t force this. Allow it time and wait for the invitation to do so.
7. When You Don’t Feel the Child Is Treating You with Respect
Much like with differences in parenting, I suggest taking your issues with the way the child treats you to your partner first. Be very clear and organized when you talk to your partner about this. Sometimes it’s far too natural for a parent to be on the defensive when it comes to someone having a bone to pick with his child’s behavior.
You can work through this with clarity and heart-centered communication. What I mean by heart-centered communication is simply stepping down from your logical mind’s idea of “right” and “wrong” and working from a place where you are simply expressing how you feel and trying to understand where your partner’s child is coming from. Together, with your partner, you can address the issue with the child and, if necessary, take some steps to help correct the behavior. It may just be something unconscious the child has been doing and the partner and child will be thankful for your added perspective so they can become aware of the issue and make a change for the better.
8. Make Family Bonding Time a Priority
Take time regularly to have a monthly or weekly family meeting. We found this to be very helpful. We had our first one about a month ago. We sat at our big kitchen table with a big jar full of colored pencils and some drawing paper. We each wrote or drew what we think each of the following means: focus, awareness and communication. My partner and I chose those three words because he, his son and I all seemed to be dealing with issues related to those concepts at the time. We made this time fun and respectful. We also each had a chance to bring up anything we wanted to talk about with each other more. We talked a little about picking up after ourselves and making sure we all feel safe and are able to be honest and tell each other how we are really feeling.
9. He Said, She Said
Try to stay out of arguments your partner and his children are having. Have a place you can go in the home to give them privacy to work out their differences. We have a reading nook I can retreat to if my partner and his son start hashing out their issues in the common areas of the home. I’m not indifferent to the issues between them, I step away mainly because I know I can be too prone to chime in, and it’s really not wise to get in the middle of your partner’s parenting, especially in a heated moment between the parent and child.
The last thing you want to create is a dynamic where the child is saying, “but she said I could…” or anything like that. If you don’t have someplace to retreat to in the home, you might consider heading out to a favorite coffee shop or bookstore for a little while. Just make sure if you do that you are clear with your partner as to why you’ve gone, otherwise it can be misinterpreted.
10. Everyone Is An Individual
Each person is a unique individual: you, your partner and each child. The child is often more of a little adult than we realize. In fact, your partner’s child may actually be an adult, like my partner’s older son who is just a few years younger than I am. Respect each person’s individuality. Relate to each person individually. This mean that if you are in the middle of an argument with mom or dad, don’t relate differently to the children because of the conflict you are having with your partner. Likewise, don’t automatically blame the parent for the child’s behavior. Children can learn behaviors at school, from other parents or family members or the media. Each person is having an individual experience within the communal experience of the family.