Read part one of this series: Stepfamilies: The Loyalty Tug-of-War
In addition to troublesome emotions, what is most problematic in the loyalty tug-of-war is the perceived burden to take care of someone. One 5-year-old innocently expressed his burden this way to his stepmother: “When I’m here with you and daddy, can I love you, and when I go to my mom’s house can I hate you?” The only way this little youngster could resolve his tug-of-war dilemma was to “love the one he was with” and then turn around and convey negative feelings about them when with the other.
I thought this perceptive stepmother’s reply was noble: “Yes, you can.” While her sense of fairness wanted to ask him to stand up for his affections toward her, she wisely knew that this was unlikely for a 5-year-old (and most 15-years-olds, for that matter). She instead gave him permission, not so much to “hate” her, but to not be her caretaker.
Loving parents want to find ways of relinquishing loyalty binds for children, but it seems impossible to do so. Even after the death of a parent when there isn’t a competition between homes, some children who are genuinely drawn into their stepparent still find themselves fighting to “keep dad alive” by defending his character, habits, or beliefs.
They may idealize a deceased parent and declare, “My mother would have understood how important this is to me and let me go to the dance!” Loyalty conflicts simply can’t be removed from a child’s heart. But they can be managed.
Loyalty is Not the Enemy
Parents and stepparents must understand that loyalty is not a troublemaker in their home. A child’s primary loyalty to their biological parents is as it should be. God has created within parents and children a strong blood-bond that is vital to the integrity of the family. This bond generates a much needed commitment to one another. It also motivates us to care for and nurture family members. Loyalty is good.
A loyalty tug-of-war does create tension within and between family members. But real problems develop when adults refuse to honor the loyalties of children or compete for them. For example, a stepparent who refuses to let children keep important photos of their first family on display in their bedroom is in essence asking the children to deny their loyalties and affections for their blood-relatives.
Likewise, a parent who caters to their child’s material desires or removes chores so that the child is more attracted to spending time at their household is competing with the other household for loyalty. This only exacerbates the
- ongoing loyalty dilemmas faced by the child,
- emboldens their selfishness,
- and empowers them to “play one house off the other.”
The net result—the parental authority of both homes is weakened and children are forever caught in a no-win situation.
Love Conquers fear
A spirit of fear places children in the tug-of-war. Fear is the belief that love comes in finite amounts and therefore must be competed for. However, a spirit of love will take children out of many of their loyalty battles.
- Fear dishonors the attachments of children, love honors them.
- Fear strives to keep children emotionally near for personal benefit (often an act of aggression toward an ex-spouse); love confidently gives them permission to love others knowing that in the end, love from the child will likely return in full bloom.
- Fear pulls harder on the tug-of-war rope while love releases it.
Love is how we help children find relief from the tug-of-war.
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© 2008 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.