Marrying someone who has been before is a lot like opening a novel in the middle and trying to read it. You don’t know the characters, the setting, the plot line, or the events that led to the mid-way point. And in some cases, you find out you’re the villain!
Being a second spouse can be like that. You may be confused about your place in the story. You may not know what happened before you. You don’t have a shared history. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. You may feel like you’re second-best, disliked, and left out.
If that resonates with you, you’re not alone! We’ve experienced this in our marriage, and we’ve heard similar stories from people just like you. The good news is that you and your blended family can work through this and come out on the other side stronger and more unified.
How Do You Feel as the Second Spouse?
The feelings and experiences of second spouses are as diverse as the blended families they represent, but we can share what we’ve experienced. And we can share some situations that others have gone through. Here are a few experiences and emotions you might encounter:
- Sharing your spouse. Your spouse’s ex may still make demands on your spouse’s time, especially if there are no boundaries in place. The kids have their own needs and have their own struggles with adjusting. If you and your spouse are not intentional about cultivating your marriage relationship, you may feel like you’re the last in line for your spouse’s attention and affection (more about that later).
- Feeling left out. The spouse and children in your new family established routines that didn’t include you because you weren’t there at the beginning. From nighttime rituals to prayer time on the way to school, your spouse and stepchildren know the ropes and rhythms of daily life and may leave you out unintentionally.
The good news is that as your blended family experiences things together and as you create new memories, you will become an integral and important part of the story. Be patient and prayerful. That left-out feeling can fade over time.
- Being the “step monster.” Children of divorce experience a smorgasbord of emotions, many of which they do not know how to process. Sometimes those feelings get heaped onto the new spouse. You’re the safest one to blame. No, it’s not fair, but it is a reality that may leave you feeling like an emotional punching bag.
All that being said, it’s not okay for your stepchildren to demonstrate repeated disrespect and disregard for you. If the displacement continues or worsens, you and your spouse may need to have a conversation about boundaries and how to communicate them to the kids. They need to know what is out of bounds.
- Comparison and competition. When your spouse has been married before, it can feel like the ex is haunting your blended family. You may even feel compelled to compete or compare yourself to the ex. You want to be a better parent, cook, sexual partner, joke-teller, project assistant, lunch maker, and caregiver. You may even think your spouse is comparing you with their ex. (That’s a lie from the enemy!) It’s an ugly spiral of insecurity, and no good ever comes from it. We’ve talked about comparison and competition on our podcast, so check it out if you’re feeling its sting.
- A spouse that won’t let go. Even if the divorce was amicable and mutual, an ex-spouse may struggle to let go of that relationship. They might call or email your spouse for emotional or moral support. They may even “bump into” your spouse if they’re feeling lonely.
While conversations regarding parenting issues (kids’ school work, health, schedule, etc.) are legitimate and necessary, other intrusions can cause conflict in your marriage if they feel out of bounds to you and your spouse.
Your spouse has a connection to their ex because of the children, but it’s okay for you and your spouse to decide what that connection will look like, and you may need to communicate those boundaries to the ex.
- My firsts aren’t their firsts. This feeling of disappointment can pop up as early as the wedding planning. While this may be your first trip down the aisle, it’s not theirs and they may have strong feelings about their second wedding. They have had a lot of other firsts–first mortgage, first vehicle, first car, first Disney trip.
Some things may feel less exciting to your spouse, but that doesn’t mean you have to dial down your excitement to match their enthusiasm. Your spouse’s emotions do not invalidate yours. Be open about how you feel. You might find that your spouse is excited about doing things a second time because they are sharing the experience with YOU.
How to Avoid Second Spouse Situations
One of the best pieces of advice we can give couples is to start tackling some of these issues before you get married. Being proactive can save you and your spouse a lot of frustration and angst. Here are some of our recommendations:
- Communicate. Communicate. COMMUNICATE. We cannot stress this enough. Before you get married, you need to talk about finances (see below), child discipline, past trauma, religious beliefs, dreams for the future, fears about marriage, and anything else important to you. Make regular, open communication a priority in your relationship.
When you feel left out, talk to your spouse about it. We set aside time every evening to catch up on what happened that day. And we have weekly and monthly checkpoints, too. We recommend these regular check-ins for you and your spouse.
- Get counseling. We highly recommend counseling before you get married. We want you and your future spouse to start your marriage on solid ground, and therapy is one great way to make that happen. A trained counselor can act as a neutral third party. They can see things from an unbiased perspective and spot potential problems. They can also give you the tools to use in your blending and your marriage.
We also recommend family counseling after you are married. This time together can be pivotal in establishing good patterns of relating to each other. It can also be a safe place to vent your frustrations and fears. And you may need to visit a counselor along your blended family journey, and that’s okay. Therapy is just another tool in the toolbox for building a strong, godly blended family.
- Set clear boundaries. This can feel tricky, especially when kids are involved. You want to make sure the ex understands the guardrails for interacting with you (or your spouse). You will likely talk with your ex about schedules, school work, behavioral issues, and upcoming expenses. And how often you have to talk with the ex often depends on the ages of the children. You may also see each other at games or other extracurricular activities, so it’s good to have boundaries in place.
You and your spouse need to determine (and communicate) the boundaries for other areas as well. Who will do the discipline? (We recommend the biological parent, at least in the beginning.) Will you have access to each other’s social media accounts? (We recommend that, too!) Will you or your spouse be alone with someone of the opposite gender? (If infidelity has occurred in the past, you can see why this conversation is necessary.) What is the role of extended family? How involved will they be? These conversations protect and deepen your marriage.
- Start blending before the wedding. If you want to give your kids a chance to adjust to the new person in their parent’s life, start the blending process before you get married. Slowly introduce your potential spouse. A trip to the park. Meeting up for lunch. Gradually increase the frequency of your outings the closer you get to the wedding. This allows the children to get to know their new stepparent and they aren’t caught off-guard. Doing things gradually also allows time and space for the kids to ask questions and start adjusting.
- Do the hard work of healing. Every person brings baggage into a marriage. For some, it’s a duffle bag. For others, it’s a U-Haul full of baggage. Whatever difficult or painful experiences you’ve gone through, make sure you’ve done the hard work of working through those before you walk down the aisle. That’s especially true if you’ve been through a divorce. Unprocessed grief and trauma from the previous marriage can negatively affect a second marriage. The more you deal with your baggage before the wedding, the more you can focus on your new marriage!
- Talk about finances. Under the best circumstances, talking about money can be a scary topic for some. If you or your spouse is bringing children into the marriage, it is essential to lay all the financial cards on the table. Talk about child support. What kind of debt are you bringing to the marriage? Discuss whether you merge your finances. Find out what insurance changes you may need to make. How will you maintain college savings accounts? Set a budget (and stick to it). Too many marriages end because of finances. Yours doesn’t have to be one of them.
- Establish a solid foundation. This is the most important step in setting your marriage up for success. We believe that God should be the highest priority in your life, as well as your marriage and blended family. Life without Him is like building a house on sand, but with Him as the center, you and your blended family will be able to withstand any storm you face (Matthew 7:24-27).
The enemy wants you to believe that being the second spouse means being second-best. He wants you to be discouraged and defeated. But Scripture says that “he who is in you [The Holy Spirit] is greater than he [the enemy] who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). You can resist him and he will leave (James 4:7) when you cry out to God and surrender to Him. Every marriage and family (blended or not) will face challenges, but God is greater than anything we will ever face. He loves marriages and families and wants yours to thrive!
Scott and Vanessa Martindale
Founders of Blended Kingdom Families