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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?

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.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

3 thoughts on “How to Talk With Your New Spouse About Your Stepchildren”

  1. jacque williams

    I am a step mother, and also married to a man who is a step father to my children plus my ex is remarried, so I see my 3 daughters deal with how their step mother treats them. Coming from that perspective, my thoughts are to wonder why it stresses you to have them there as much as it does. Not having had kids of your own, perhaps it’s just getting used to the idea of having “extras” in your space, which not easy! That being said, you have every right to ask for down time. My daughters’ step mother doesn’t want my children around their house and has effectively kicked them all out for various, ridiculous reasons, which has then alienated my children from their father as well. I can’t imagine that is helping their marriage, so I just caution you to not put the husband in a spot where he has to choose between any of you. Of course, I don’t know the full details or the personalities; I’m only speaking from what I have seen. All the best with this new adventure in your life. Kind regards,

  2. JC


    Want to improve your relationship with your adult stepchildren? Start with these tips:

    Let go of judgment. Stop viewing them through critical lenses. Accept them completely as they are. You may not agree with their choices. You have no say in what they do.

    Be likable. Warm your way into their hearts with cards, thoughtful gifts, nice dinners and supportive conversation. Your primary goal is to be pleasant. The rest will take care of itself.

    Find common interests. Discover ways you can connect with each adult stepchild. Talk sports with the Giants fan. Buy seeds for the gardener in the family. You’ll impress the kids with your caring behavior, and you’ll start to develop stronger bonds.

    Zip your lips. Never criticize the kids or their parent. That’s not your role. Let them solve their own problems. You graciously stay out of the way.

    Set time limits. Have trouble being around the adult stepkids? Then limit the length of your visits. If two hours is your max, feel free to leave after two hours. But be pleasant and smile during your outing.

    Know that time is your ally. The kids may or may not accept you. You can only do the best that you can. Hopefully your ongoing efforts will win them over. Be patient. It may take time.

    Commit yourself to your partner. You fell in love with your spouse. The kids came included in the deal. Focus your energies on the person you chose. That’s where your ultimate happiness lies.

    I would view this situation similar to being hired into a new professional role. Don’t try or don’t make any changes (in the household) for a few months. Let things continue as status quo, including the drop in visits by your stepkids. They, too, have to get used to the new routine(s) and in time I’m sure they will. You have to remember they probably have concerns about their dad’s new marriage and relationship. They don’t want to lose the connection w/their dad. You may not think or want that to happen as well but they are still young adults, not well versed in real life experiences so they’re not sure about things. They are probably also “testing the waters” as well.

    In time, once things settle down you and your husband should be able to provide the young men with rules and boundaries that you all can and will agree to.

    Sacrifices on your part will be stressful in the beginning but in the end it will be all worth it for you, your husband, your stepkids, and especially your marriage.

    P.S. Read #5 above “Set Time Limits” for yourself. If you need time away graciously excuse yourself and retreat to your room or go do some shopping. Just say, “I’m going to get outta your hair and let you three enjoy some time together”. But one word of caution…DON’T do this all the time the boys visit. Just when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

    And don’t let this fester. Like I said above “Sacrifices on your part will be stressful in the beginning but in the end it will be all worth it for you, your husband, your stepkids, and especially your marriage”.

    Good luck

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