Sharon Stober was planning a night of passion. "I was going to light candles to set the mood and the whole bit," she sighs. But by the time her husband and her 10-year-old son from her first marriage had returned from football practice, her good intentions dissipated like candle smoke. "My husband coaches my son's team, and my son was upset because he thought his stepdad had been too hard on him," explains Stober, who lives near Chicago. "I felt caught in the middle, and by the time we were in bed, I was too drained to even think about sex."
Every couple with children has days when sex is down on the bottom of the to-do list. But being in a stepfamily means Stober faces additional hurdles when it comes to creating time and space for passion. She married her husband five years ago, when her son was 5 and his daughter was 6. "We have a happy marriage, but the intimacy part is definitely challenging because we have so much going on. The other night was a classic example. I might not have felt so torn emotionally if my husband were my son's biological dad -- but the whole situation really took my mind off romance."
When you marry for the second time, you have the same raging hormones and starry-eyed hopes for the future as you did your first time down the aisle. However, when one or both of you have kids from a previous marriage, you fast-forward over those carefree adult-only years. Instead, you may be faced with grumpy children, divided loyalties, conflicts with ex-spouses, greater financial responsibilities, and incredibly com- plicated schedules. Spontaneously making love in the kitchen or lounging in bed on a Sunday morning -- things that are a normal, important part of any couple's developing sexual relationship -- are virtually impossible with kids around.
For a while after JoAnn Uricheck, of Philadelphia, married her husband, they never had sex when his young son was home. "It was just too weird," she says. Eventually, they took the risk. "My stepson's bedroom door had to be closed, our door had to be closed, and we'd turn on the radio, but I was still incredibly nervous." Now, eight years later, Uricheck has two daughters of her own and has come to feel differently. "Sex is the keystone of our marriage," she says. "Whenever we can connect physically, everything else seems easier."
When Uricheck started dating her husband, his son was 4, and every time she sat on the couch next to his father, the boy would squeeze between them or try to pull his dad away from her. "He always wanted to be the center of attention," she says. Unfortunately, the underlying concern for many children in blended families is "Who do you love the most?" When your child sees you kissing or snuggling with your new spouse, he's bound to feel threatened. Children under 6 tend to act out because they're too young to articulate complex feelings like jealousy or a fear of abandonment, notes therapist Robert Klopfer, codirector of Stepping Stones Counseling Center, in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and a stepfamily therapist. Older kids -- who are more embarrassed by displays of physical affection because they're beginning to understand what sex is -- may not hesitate to verbalize their opinions: "Why do you have to hold hands all the time?" or "Gross! Do you always have to kiss each other goodbye like that?"
"It's fine to be demonstrative," says therapist Cheryl Erwin, coauthor of Positive Discipline for Your Stepfamily. "Research has shown that kids learn to have healthier relationships themselves when they witness appropriate affection between loving adults." However, you need to find the middle ground between acting cool and steaming up the windows. So put a lock on your bedroom door, and don't make out on the couch in front of the kids, but don't feel as if you have to stifle brief kisses, affectionate pats, or loving glances.
It can be hard to feel romantic and excited about your marriage, though, if your children don't seem happy with the new arrangement. In fact, parents are often surprised that their kids object more to a new partner after the wedding than before. "It wasn't until after we were married that my 6-year-old stepdaughter realized I wasn't going away and became really pouty and defiant," says Erin Flynn, of Decatur, Georgia.
Taking steps to help your kids feel included and important can go a long way. For instance, Flynn began dating her husband, Skip, when his daughter was 3. She'd cling to her dad and whine whenever the couple kissed goodbye, so Skip came up with a routine. "I'd embrace Skip with her, then I'd kiss his cheek, he'd kiss his daughter's cheek, and she'd kiss me," says Flynn, who's now in her sixth year of marriage and has two young children of her own.
Older children, who often need convincing that there's enough love to go around, may benefit most from one-on-one time with their biological parents. "At first, parents may feel like a rope in a tug-of-war between their children and new spouse," Erwin says. "But if you recognize that this is normal, you can give yourself a grace period and relax while everyone learns to live together."
Of course, you and your spouse should take advantage of times when your children are visiting your exes to recharge your relationship. That's possible if only one of you has children from a previous marriage, or if your exes are flexible enough about schedules to allow you to coordinate weekends alone.
When you have children living with you full-time, however, you need to be creative. "We try to schedule a sex date at least once a week, because that's the glue that helps hold us together," says stepmom and stepfamily counselor Kay Grimes, of Dallas. You should also plan to do something fun away from home every week. If it's a financial stretch to go out to dinner, then take a walk, window-shop, drive around looking for your dream house, stroll through a museum, or sit in a coffee shop and do the crossword puzzle together, suggests Sharon Stober, who's also the editorial director of Your Stepfamily magazine. In addition, try to create 20 minutes of relaxed time alone together every day, she urges. "And that doesn't mean falling asleep in the same bed." Wake up every morning and vow to show your affection at least once that day. Can you promise, perhaps, to kiss your husband's neck before work on Monday, instead of blaming him for his daughter's rude behavior over the weekend? Can you take the initiative and start the lovemaking tonight?
Whatever your situation, keeping your sense of humor is key. So is flexibility, says Brian Foti, of Spring Hill, Tennessee, who's in the fourth year of his second marriage and has an son and two stepchildren. "Sometimes you just have to remind yourself that the children's needs come first -- end of story." As a jazz musician, he compares blended family life with music: "You'll always have to improvise to stay close."
Copyright © 2003 Holly Robinson. Reprinted with permission of Parents magazine December 2003 issue.