Rights and responsibilities of a stepparent

As a stepparent, do I have the same rights and responsibilities as the "biological" parent, who I am married to? Can the other (never married) biological parent legally tell me to never discipline their child? In a custody dispute between the biological parents, do I have any rights?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Consult a lawyer for the pertinent family law in your state. However, in general, stepparents do not hold custody rights unless custody is taken away from a biological parent and given by law to caretakers other than biological parents. It is usually the case that a parent's natural rights continue whether or not the parents have been married. Therefore, unless it is the case that the biological father is actually deemed incompetent to parent, (or voluntarily relinquishes his rights so that you may legally adopt) you will fare better to approach this situation with greater cooperation and less "going for the jugular."

Beware of the danger caused by blurring boundaries between two separate households. Taking on a fight with the biological father is not beneficial for at least two critical reasons: 1) there is little likelihood you could ever "win" on legal grounds and 2) more importantly, you contribute to strain, and a conflict of loyalty for your stepchildren. You must make appropriate room for their biological parent that does not invade the boundaries of your home. Reflect on your own tendencies towards creating conflict instead of long-term solutions which truly have their best interest at heart! It is your wife's job, not yours to handle this situation appropriately.

Consider that a part of the solution to your difficulty may lie in creating better boundaries between family situations. Do not discuss parenting with the ex. And any discussion that needs to occur about parenting between your wife and her ex can take place with the help of a family court counselor, or other family therapy mediator. The usual response to parenting differences by the court tends towards support of separate rules in separate houses. Except, of course, in cases of child abuse.

But rest assured that you do not have to account to your wife's ex" for your behavior in your own home! (Unless, of course, you were committing child abuse rather than exercising a different parenting style.) What goes on in your home need not be controlled by the biological parent living elsewhere. By creating stronger boundaries, you will likely circumvent conflict. The biological father will not be able to invade your privacy, once you stop responding to his "knock at your door."

Suggest to your wife that she begin by setting boundaries with her ex about what is discussible" between them. It is between you and your wife to decide what the rules are in your home, including discipline. She should make it clear that her ex is not invited into this discussion. Remain neutral and avoid hostility. But do not engage in discussion that is over the boundary to begin with! It is okay for her to hear his concerns, if she wishes, but it is not incumbent on her to feel compelled to continue to respond to them, once differences are clearly acknowledged.

Maintaining clear boundaries includes staying out of the middle of your wife's and her ex's negotiations. This is not really your battle! Your place of power is by her side in the marriage. This is where the two of you make decisions together about "house rules. It is then her job to set boundaries with her ex that respect the privacy and authority of your separate household. Do not make the mistake of taking on her battles. If she needs help, she should get outside professional consultation to help her establish these boundaries with her ex.

Your wife should simply represent clearly that there may be alot of things that the two of them do not see eye to eye on. And parenting styles is one of them. She may start by saying something like, "I appreciate your concerns. I do not always agree with your parenting style, either. However, I believe it is best to respect these differences. I decide what goes on when the children are with me. And when you are in charge, you decide what rules they abide by. I do not want to discuss this with you any further." In this way, your wife refrains from including you in the discussion and sets clear limits about separate household rules. For further discussion about dealing with ex's and stepfamily development refer to John and Emily Visher's book, "How to Win as a Stepfamily" and my article on "Making Healthy Stepfamilies".

It is your wife who holds the parental authority, as the biological parent. Your power is derived from the relationship with her. You negotiate regarding the agreements in your marriage and household (including parenting). But it is she who must clearly establish what is negotiated between biological parents. The lines of legal responsibility/power do in fact lie with your wife, and not you! Though this may not feel fair to you, it is the case that your place of power and "rights" rests only on your ability to successfully negotiate with your wife. But the good news, is that this does not seem to be a problem for the two of you!

Congratulations on a healthy marital relationship as well as a wonderful connection with your stepchildren. Well placed trust in a good relationship provides greater insurance for negotiating your needs for happiness than any court of law could ever hope to emulate!

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