Crucial Conversations QA

How to Talk With Your New Spouse About Your Stepchildren

Dear Joseph,

I recently got married and moved into my husband’s house. My husband has three children: two sons, 23 and 19, who don’t live with us, and a daughter who lives with us part time. I love them all very much and am happy to be part of this family.

But there is one thing I’m struggling with. The boys drop by unannounced pretty often. In the midst of working full time and trying to combine two households, I find myself very stressed with these surprise visits. I want them to feel welcome, but I also need some down time. This is the house they grew up in, so they’re used to coming and going. I’d like to get a heads-up when they are thinking of stopping by.

I don’t have kids of my own, so I’m feeling lost on what reasonable boundaries would look like and how to approach them without creating resentment or hurt feelings. My husband and I have discussed this at length and he thinks this kind of request will drive them away. How can I have my quiet and family, too?

Signed,
Stuck Stepmom

Dear Stuck Stepmom,

Congratulations on your marriage. It’s to your credit that you are being thoughtful about boundaries and agreements before issues become divisive. The fact that you freely express love for your stepchildren shows there is enough goodwill to find a way forward.

The crucial conversation is not with the stepsons, but with your husband. He married someone with different needs and norms than his. You married someone with a different reality than yours. There is so much I don’t know about your situation that would lead to different potential outcomes. For example, is your husband being influenced by:

  • The boys’ mother competing for their time and attention?
  • Guilt about things that affected the kids in the previous marriage?
  • A desire to increase his connection because the boys are heading in risky directions?
  • A hope the boys will mentor and connect with their younger sister?

Since I’m flying blind in these nuances, I’ll focus my advice on the decision-making principles, not the outcome.

  1. Declare your commitment to Mutual Purpose. Let your husband know that you will not be satisfied with any solution that doesn’t satisfy him. At the same time, let him know your needs are important to you and you will expect the solution to accommodate you as well. Be firm on both parts. Tell him you want to understand all of his needs and concerns first. You’ll share yours only when he says he believes you “get it.” However, let him know up front that it’s likely you’re both going to have to give a little in order to find a workable solution.
  2. Listen intently to his needs and concerns. Listen. Ask questions. Get curious. Don’t move on until he feels deeply understood, and until you can appreciate the legitimacy of his needs. Ask questions to get beyond the positions he advocates to the needs and concerns behind them (like the four examples above).
  3. Be honest about your needs. As you share your needs, be careful to differentiate between enduring needs and adjustment needs. Enduring needs are those that are so embedded in your personality that they are unlikely to change. Adjustment needs are those that will relax over time as you get used to a new “normal.”
  4. The result will likely be a compromise. This means that neither of you may be fully satisfied with the details but will derive satisfaction from the fact that you are sacrificing for your mate. Love is about sacrifice. If you can’t derive happiness from occasionally surrendering your interests in the service of the other, then it’s a transaction not a marriage. Be creative in looking for solutions. For example, if your frustration is that the boys leave messes, you may be able to agree to their spontaneous drop-ins, but only if they (or your husband) are held accountable for restoring the house to your standards.

The most important thing is that you spend the time needed to arrive at a shared solution soon. Don’t let this fester or the present feelings of goodwill will start to evaporate.

Sincerely,
Joseph