One of the most frequent challenges I see with the step-couples that I work with is that one of them is struggling with feeling like an outsider in their own family. According to Dr. Patricia Papernow (2013), stuck insider/outsider positioning is a core challenge for the stepfamily. And for those who are stuck in the outsider position, the feelings can become very intense. To add a double whammy, the person who is on the inside is often unaware and has a difficult time empathizing with their partner’s feelings of exclusion and loneliness.
In my work with couples, I often find that this experience can create guilt and shame on the part of the outsider. Stepparents struggle with wanting to be wanted and accepted by the children. When this doesn’t happen, it can lead to negative self-talk.
We may find ourselves doubting our abilities as a stepparent, partner, and even questioning the relationship.
Dr. Papernow points out one of the common pitfalls for couples attempting to address this challenge. Many times couples instinctively push for family togetherness as a way to overcome one person feeling left out. If all was well in the family, this would be a great idea. But when the insider/outsider challenge is active, the positions tend to become more intense and stuck when the family is all together.
It’s important for a step-couple to recognize that the insider/outsider positioning is a real and very common challenge for stepfamilies.
It’s also one that can easily be retriggered by key life events: graduations, weddings, etc. But there are a few things that step-couples can do to help manage this challenge.
- Recognize that a partner who is feeling like the outsider is experiencing a very common challenge for a stepparent, and it can feel pretty intense. Honor that your partner’s experience is different than yours. Be careful not to see it as a character flaw.
- If you are the partner who is feeling like an outsider, then it’s time to switch things up. Intentionally select an activity that you enjoy or are good at, and with which your partner (the insider) struggles. By doing so, it moves you to the insider position. For example, if you’ve always loved ice skating, but your partner doesn’t. When you and your partner take the children ice skating, you are more likely to be the person the children turn to for help. In my work with stepfamilies, I have witnessed how this particular intervention can create a powerful shift for the family.
Written By: Jackie Dunagan, LAMFT