Healthy leadership coalitions bolster the influence of the leaders in businesses and in families. When parents align to support each other, they lead from a position of unity. In blended families, sometimes unhealthy coalitions form when a parent and child align against the stepparent.
This often occurs when the stepparent becomes jealous of the close relationship a child has with the biological parent, and blames the child for infiltrating the marriage. This causes tension between the stepparent and stepchild, which unintentionally bolsters the alliance that child has with his natural parent. Then the twosome begin to justify their actions against the “common enemy” stepparent who is fighting to be part of the parenting coalition.
It actually isn’t a parent’s closeness to the child that makes this dynamic dangerous. Parents are meant to have strong, supportive relationships with their children. But when this relationship excludes the stepparent from authority and leadership within the home, things begin to fall apart.
For example, Carter felt that his wife’s relationship with her son left no room for him. “Please tell parents to put their spouse first in parenting,” he said. “It’s too late for us, but others need to know how destructive it is to side with their child all the time.”
Carter constantly felt undercut by his wife’s relationship with her son. After years of hoping it would change, he found himself looking for a way out of the marriage. An unhealthy coalition had won to the detriment of the marriage and family.
Between a rock and a hard place
But what are parents to do? On the surface it sounds as if they are supposed to just “side with the stepparent” in all circumstances. But what if they have a legitimate concern for their child that keeps pushing them to defend the child? What if they agree with the stepparent, but see defeat in the eyes of their child in the process?
Essentially the biological parent’s options are to:
Stay out of the conflict completely.
Take protective or supportive action in regard to the child.
Support their spouse in all situations.
Mediate the relationship between the other two, hoping to find the magic bullet solution that will make everyone happy. (This rarely works and usually leaves a parent emotionally exhausted and feeling like a failure.)
The best answer is “all the above.”
Biological parents who find themselves caught between their spouse and their child should step out of the conflict as often as possible. Getting triangled in someone else’s conflict usually keeps the two other parties at war, rather than finding peace. Although there will be times to step in, generally trust the warring parties to resolve their conflict themselves.
Stay out of the conflict unless you have to step in. Extreme behaviors (e.g., intimidation or violence) or prolonged hostility call for you to step in. Short of that, don’t play therapist.
If you feel the need to support your child to the stepparent (your spouse), talk to your spouse in private. Correcting your spouse in front of your child only bolsters his/her disrespect and the stepparent’s sense of betrayal.
If you want to side with your spouse, stand beside her when talking to your child. At the same time you are aligning yourself physically with your spouse, communicate your love to your child and your compassion for his frustration. Your child may be offended that you aren’t defending him, but that doesn’t mean you are doing the wrong thing.
Don’t keep secrets from your spouse. Secrets form covert coalitions that undermine the marriage.
In all things, communicate frequently and often with your spouse. Strive for unity of spirit as you deal with stressful circumstances.