Relationships are strengthened by alliance. The us-against-them challenges create camaraderie and reassure us that we’ve got each other’s backs. Tension mounts when our partner offers excuses or explanations for the entity that’s causing us grief. If we have a frustrating call with customer service and regale our partner with the awfulness of that experience, we’re not looking to be talked into having compassion and understanding for the agent on the phone. We want our ally, our friend, to stand by our side and agree with how awful that must’ve been and empathize with how difficult it is to keep cool in those types of conversations. We want understanding, validation, reassurance that we are still likable, loveable, and most of all connected because those types of experiences usually make us feel decidedly unconnected and our reactions sometimes cause us to doubt whether we are in fact the “good person” we aspire to be and whether we can in fact handle the things in life that we have to face. We look to our partner for grace, forgiveness, absolution, and encouragement.
We might later be able to hear strategies for future improvement, might even actually seek out advice. We might find ourselves, if we’ve been comforted and believe it’s safe, trusting our partner enough to admit that we didn’t behave quite as well as we’d have liked and the other person maybe wasn’t as bad as we portrayed. We might even come to the point of acknowledging that our partner seems to have a knack for handling those kinds of situations and recognizing that they rarely have a negative experience with customer service calls. Out of that, we could end up asking for their secret sauce for keeping those types of conversations calm and productive, or come to some sort of agreement that, because those situations are so easy for them, from now on they’re going to take the lead on all customer service calls and we’ll pick up the slack in some area that’s easier for us to handle, like emptying the kitty litter box (just as an example).
What happens when the challenging situation, the other party with whom we’ve had the difficult interaction, is a child? In traditional marriages, that may be one of the perks of parenthood – to have the freedom to occasionally align together as a couple against the tiny mendicant who at times seems to be insatiable in saying, “I want, I want, I want . . .” They can sigh in exhaustion together, laugh in frustration, and be wistful in how fleeting they know this moment will be, all at the same time. It’s less likely that either of them will doubt the other’s endurance as a parent, happiness that the child is in their lives, or generosity when the reasonable and necessary “no” is occasionally given. The best and strongest times in the patriotism of a country is often in a time of war, a time of conflict with a common enemy where the citizens bond in their allegiance to a common mission and vision – to preserve the union and win the war (note that it’s not always necessary to utterly destroy the enemy to achieve that). Parents in traditional marriages can cling to each other in the midst of a child’s unappealing behavior and say, “Let’s raise this baby right so she grows up to be a decent person who we like being around!”
Couples bringing children into a marriage, rather than creating children out of their marriage, suffer systemic insecurity and an inevitable barrier to the experience of “we-ness.” Colluding in mockery of the exes is a decadent pleasure couples can indulge in for the we versus a common enemy fix. In first marriages, that ex is usually just a girlfriend or a boyfriend – the dumper or dumpee. But in “blended families,” even that indulgence is tainted because the ex cannot be wholly bad. He or she is the father or mother of the children, who must be wholly good, so the guilty pleasure of commiserating about what an annoying wench or angry a$$ the ex is, gets clouded and suppressed – it can’t be done around the children and it makes each of you feel a little sick inside because those beasts are part of the children and therefore the easy black and whiteness of it, the simplicity of otherness, is clouded and our fantasy of us against the world has to be melded with realism. What a downer.
Even worse, when children frustrate the partner who isn’t their birth parent, to whom can that partner turn for empathy, understanding, and relief? Often, if the partner looks to their spouse, their source of “we-ness,” instead of finding an ally for themselves against a common enemy, they find a pre-existing us that consists of the parent and child. An “us” alliance that appears, in this moment, to be stronger than the marriage we and, by default, positions the partner who most needs reassurance as their common enemy. All the fun and delight of the secret society of marriage, the rituals of their club, and the truths or dares they’ve shared during nights of slumber parties take a step down in value and immediately feel outdated and overblown. The partner stands there, feeling foolish, reaching out for the special handshake and finding their spouse’s hand already taken by that mendicant. Suddenly displaced, their fear of being an outsider is confirmed, their stature diminished, their foundation shaken. The one solid they thought they had, the exclusive deal they believed they’d made, turns out instead to be a tertiary alliance at best. Available for many situations, most in fact, just not this. A prior allegiance exists, a pact to which they were not a party and a treaty to which they are subordinate.
Do you know that sinking feeling? It’s sort of a mix of shame and powerlessness. Foolishness mixed in at thinking you had this close-knit tie of the first order, equal in allegiance to one another. And then you discover, or are reminded, oh yes, this one, this is off-limits sometimes. It was a mistake to look for support here, to look for understanding vis a vis this situation. In fact, I’ve been misunderstood, have in fact significantly downgraded myself because I’m now seen as attacking the primary. From an American perspective, it’s perhaps akin to a US alliance with Japan. Sturdy friends until Japan turns against the United Kingdom and all of a sudden Japan is going to find swift and sure distance established between themselves and the US; America’s first and foremost alliance is always going to be with Great Britain.
In the personal realm, there’s a backing away, there’s an itemization of the things that YOU do – you, other than; you, not us; you, not we. Where I thought I was relating from a shared perspective and where I believed my words and feelings would be placed in a context of commiseration and, oh yes, I’ve been there too and we can get through this together, it becomes rather a stiffening. There’s a comparison, a reasoning, an explanation, a talking down of the frustration, a now really, you shouldn’t be so upset, understand your position, they’re just a child, really, you’re an adult, don’t you realize how hard this is for them?
HOW HARD THIS IS FOR THEM?!? Good God, yes, I realize that, every day. How hard this – how hard I am for them to live with. How tough it is to be a kid. How AWFUL it is to be a kid in this situation. I WAS a kid in this situation. At this moment, however, that is hardly my point, my friend – aren’t you my friend? I was in fact coming to you for comfort, for solace, for relief and compassion. For a respite from having to be gracious and understanding, and oh, so adult because sometimes I just get tired of it. Sometimes I’m not very good at it.
Sometimes happens for EVERY PARENT, but only SOME parents are allowed to express it. Only some parents can admit to their spouse, without their spouse being put in the position of having the hair stand up on the back of their neck and a deep guttural growl murmur in their throat as instinct senses an adversary against their child. They would lay down their life and die for their child. They would kill for their child and now this entity, this being, who dares express fatigue or occasional displeasure with the state of the bathroom, the piled-up garbage, the dirty dishes in the sink, the belongings strewn throughout the house, the dried boogers stuck to the new chair, is a threat and the behavior of the child matters not. The behavior of the child, even if acknowledged, is irrelevant. You HAVE TO understand what they’re going through.
I HAVE TO, do I? I DO understand, which is part of what makes the frustration so hard to bear, because it’s laced with guilt and shame and grief. It’s slathered in knowing that the situation will never be quite right, that no matter how much I love this child, it will never be enough, it will never count as truly real, it will never be certain, it will always be subject to doubt. And that in and of itself is utterly exhausting. Isolated from the source of love and energy of the partnership, how does one find the sustenance to go on, where does one turn for support if not to their spouse? It would be abject betrayal to turn outside the home because there is a “we” with the children – the whole reason the behavior can lead to a need to vent is because those children are a part of our lives, because we spend time thinking about them, caring for them, providing for them, figuring out how better to love them and knowing we still will fail.
But instead of being able to commiserate in failure, that failure is punished further by isolation, by a removal from the innermost circle by virtue of sensing the tension that rises, the strain in the face of oh here we go again, from the true parent who is themselves in a most impossible situation of what they perceive and experience as divided loyalty. How can they justify in their minds the idea of them being a good parent if they allow such a personal complaint against their child? They can agree with their spouse lightly and occasionally, but if they do it too often or too enthusiastically then they’ve betrayed their primal loyalty, they’ve abandoned their cubs and this, perhaps untrustworthy, spouse might do harm. There must be some guard that’s kept up.
In traditional marriages, the couple can actually join together and put that guard up against the children (not that all do), but is it ever possible, or even wise, for spouses who didn’t birth the children together to wholly trust and defend one another at all costs and against any enemy, perceived or real, even if it’s a child? And if, when push comes to shove as they say, the partner believes they must align with their children to honor their duty as a parent and abandon their partner and the marriage because they’re an adult and are supposed to be able to handle themselves, is there enough “we-ness” left to hold onto? For the partner who’s not the birth parent, it is the not knowing – the stepping out over the abyss where you thought your partner had lain a plank for you and finding that they pulled it out and gave it to someone else, that mendicant, just as you were about to cross. But all you wanted them to do was let you get to the other side and then the two of you would have held out the plank to make a way for the child you love, together.
In some ways, the togetherness of marriage weakens us. Where someone might be quite strong enough on their own, once they become interdependent, once they give up their separate self to join in marriage, is there enough left to hold their own and stay together – especially if they’re each having to hold their own against the other? We say leave and cleave about adults disengaging from their parents to firmly attach to their spouse, but we can’t really say that for our children who are dependent on us. And perhaps it’s not the right phrasing or comparison, because it really ought to be that by cleaving together we are able to stay saner and be more stable and be a force of two together for our little ones, whether they are being good or bad.