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The Importance of Keeping Promises in a Stepfamily

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We were in the home stretch of my 2nd grade year, and I was so excited for the end of year picnic celebration at the park down the street. My stepmom promised she’d be there, and I knew we’d have a blast!

Parents were supposed to meet us at the park, but my stepmom was running late and arrived about 10 minutes after the party started. I tried to rush her toward the tall slide, the best piece of playground equipment at the park, but she stopped me.

She said she had something to tell me first, and she knelt down to get on my level and proceeded to tell me that she and my dad were getting a divorce.

Adding insult to injury, she didn’t want to stay for the picnic. She left me devastated and confused, crying on the sidewalk at my 2nd grade picnic.

The next time I saw my dad, about a week later, we talked about how my stepmom had broken her promise to attend the picnic and how much it hurt when she told me they were divorcing, and then he made a promise of his own.

“That’s it. No more women. I’m giving up on love. Just Daddy and Kristen as a team forever.”

The Importance of Keeping Promises in a Stepfamily

The summer after my 2nd grade year, I stayed with my grandparents in Singapore, where my grandfather was stationed for work. My dad flew to Singapore and stayed with us for 2 weeks at the end of the summer before we flew home to the States together.

Waiting for us at the airport was an unwelcome surprise. My dad had met someone new, and he was excited for me to meet her.

My dad and second stepmom were married by October.

That was the second broken promise of many I can remember growing up with divorced parents…

Why Broken Promises are so Significant

When you’re a child of divorce, your entire world feels out of control, until you can acclimate to a new normal. Even when you find a new normal, everything becomes upended again when a stepparent enters the scene.

Every broken promise to a child of divorce sends them into this state of chaos again.

They cling to the routine, to the promises, to the opportunities. When those are taken away, it hurts even more, because they’ve already suffered a loss of their nuclear family.

Add to that the feelings of insecurity or inferiority when it seems like you’ve been replaced in your parent’s heart by their new spouse and/or the spouse’s children… It’s a lot for a child to bear.

Feelings of Abandonment

Work to combat your child’s feelings of abandonment by only making promises you can keep.

My stepmom should have followed through on her promise to attend my picnic, and she should have saved the conversation of their divorce for another time (unrelated, but it wasn’t really her place to have that conversation, and my parent should have been present). My dad should have never offered a promise about his love life.

These are kind of extreme examples, but I remember them clearly all of these years later. I remember just how badly it hurt and how confused and insecure I felt in that season.

As parents, we bargain and make promises because we want to console our children, but when those promises are broken, it can be even more traumatizing than if the promise was never made in the first place.

Not only do our children not feel nurtured or consoled, but now they may also experience feelings of abandonment.

Examples of Broken Promises in a Blended Family

Not attending a school event you committed to is definitely a broken promise to a stepchild, just as my dad making an emotional, rash promise to not remarry and subsequently doing so 6 months later was a broken promise.

But broken promises can truly come in all varieties and sizes:

  • Not showing up for custodial time, even though your little one is expecting you
  • Missing an extracurricular performance after you said you’d be there
  • Not taking the summer vacation you got the child excited about
  • Forgetting to bring her lunch at school when you said you would
  • Offering to chaperone the next field trip but not signing up when the opportunity comes up

No matter the promise or the excuse, all broken promises have an effect on children, especially those in blended families.

The Way the Child Sees it

When we break promises to our children, especially when we share custody and have limited time, we are essentially telling them they’re unimportant.

After quite a bit of therapy, I’ve been able to isolate occurrences from my childhood with divorced parents that have contributed to my co-dependency and concerns about being abandoned.

Is “You’re unimportant” a message you want to communicate to your children?

Further, when we don’t keep our promises, we are also giving them a reason not to trust us. And of everyone in the world, we should be the ones they trust the most.

One final thought on this: it’s natural for the child to take these broken promises personally. “Is it because there’s something wrong with me? Did I do something wrong?”

Growing up with divorced parents doesn’t have to be a disadvantage to our children. We simply need to do the best we can to help them succeed despite living in two homes. And top of the list of things we can do to help them through the transition? You guessed it, keeping our promises.

P.S. When it comes to divorce and children, there’s something else you should really keep in mind.

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