Co-Responsibility: What Does It Really Mean for Parents and Stepparents?

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We all bring baggage into our relationships, and our co-parenting, whether in the form of ghosts from the past (like our exes) or pre-existing expectations and patterns or more tangible things, like pets and furniture (not to equate the two, of course).

Whether or not our baggage is easily imported into our marriages is usually dependent on the type and size of our luggage and on our spouse’s attitude towards it.

Plus, as many of us learn after we have children, even stuff that we’d thought had been integrated into our relationships can sometimes create conflict down the line.

Take the cat, for example, the same one our spouse thought was cute when we first moved in together. Cut to a few years and kids later, when it takes us longer to change the litter because we’ve got a pile of childcare duties. We now hear:
“I can’t stand that smell. She’s your cat, so take care of her!”

Drawing lines about what’s mine and what’s yours, based on what we each bring into our relationships, can become that much more complex when children are among our imports, as is true for Carly and Seth.*

Carly and Seth have been married for 2 years; Carly has a 7-year old son from a previous marriage, named Tyler, who lives part-time with his dad. For a number of reasons, Tyler is soon going to be living with Carly and Seth most of the time.

When her ex-husband first suggested changes to Tyler’s custody schedule, Carly asked Seth for his input. Seth appreciated her effort to include him, but told Carly that he defers to her judgment when it comes to Tyler: “After all, I’m a stepparent.”

A few weeks later, Carly told Seth the new details of Tyler’s custody. As soon as she did so, he began listing all of the things he would not do once Tyler was around more, like attending after-school events.

Carly was surprised and upset by Seth’s response. Ever since they’d started dating, Seth had been great with Tyler, and seemed to take a genuine interest in him. She’d assumed that her husband’s involvement would increase, not decrease, if Tyler was around more.

Yet Tyler’s part-time schedule allowed Seth to treat his stepson like a recurrent houseguest; granted, one he’s fond of, but for all intents and purposes, Seth has been perfectly comfortable treating Tyler like someone who’s just passing through.

If Tyler’s going to live with them most of the time, Seth reasoned, his role as host is over, and Tyler’s now his mother’s responsibility: “After all, he’s your son.”

There’s no denying that navigating parenting roles and responsibilities is that much more complex in “blended” families, but whether we’re discussing a cat, or a child, the notion that something is fully (or even primarily) mine or yours to deal with, can be deeply divisive to our relationships and, potentially, damaging to kids, step- or otherwise, who watch us draw lines in the sand (especially if they are those lines).

I’m not advocating that everything we bring into our relationships automatically becomes community property, with each of us bearing 50% of the responsibility for tending to it, but I am staking a claim to the following:
What we bring into our marriage is no longer solely mine, or solely yours; now, it all belongs to us and to our relationship together.

That’s right. After we become we, while it’s tempting to opt out of topics and tasks, doing so increases disconnection and disrespect. In other words, no more:
“They’re your parents, so you tell them we’re spending the holidays in Hawaii,” or
“I’ve never cared about religion, so if you do, it’s your job to teach our kids about it,” etc.

More than that, drawing those lines ignores a basic ingredient to relationship longevity:
Whether we always agree with each other or not, we’re in this together.

How do we practice co-responsibility, without fully taking on each other’s stuff? First steps first: If it isn’t already obvious, make a list of those imports into your relationship that you, or your spouse, have refused to approach as a shared responsibility.

Assuming you’re not up for a 50-50 partnership, it’s good to begin by asking your spouse—the same one who dragged something into your marriage that you aren’t thrilled with—what’s important to them about that thing, whether it’s tangible (e.g., an animal) or intangible (e.g., a belief).

What next? Here are a couple of suggestions:
(1) Tell your spouse that you’re willing to help with “that thing” and want try out 1 or 2 ways. Then, ask for a list of at least 5 ways you could help. You can choose 1 or 2, or suggest your own (and, if your spouse agrees to them, try them out). Check in with each other in 3-4 months to discuss how the arrangement is going. Renegotiate, if needed.

(2) Take out a pen and paper, and write down the following statement:
“If I were to help my spouse with ‘that thing’ just 10% more than I do now, then I would do or say (or not do or say) the following: [fill in the blank].”

Jot as many responses as possible, with a minimum of 5 sincere ones. Next steps are up to you: e.g., try out 1 or 2; or show your list to your spouse and ask him or her to prioritize from most-to-least helpful. Do this exercise every few months and always check in to ensure your efforts are, indeed, helping your mate.

It’s undeniable: We all bring “stuff” into our relationships, which our spouses would rather do without. Yet, unless they’re deal-breakers (in which case we can choose to split up), once we commit to being together, my stuff and yours become ours.

How we handle what’s ours not only impacts our connection with each other, it also sets the terms for how we define co-responsibility, and how we model it for our kids.

Discover how to thrive in your relationship & parenting?

* Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.


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