Being a stepparent - retroactive jealousy

"Being a stepparent can be like walking into the middle of a performance already in progress and trying to find your role without disrupting the plot."


Being a stepparent presents a unique set of challenges that are different from those faced by biological parents. Depending on your partner's level of involvement with their children, being a stepparent requires patience, understanding and a genuine willingness to work through challenges as they arise. It's essential for stepparents to communicate openly with their partner, to avoid issues building up and causing resentment on both sides.

In this article, we'll be exploring retroactive jealousy as a stepparent, how to cope when your partner has a good relationship with their ex and, ultimately, deciding if this relationship (as a stepparent) is for you.

What is retroactive jealousy?

Retroactive jealousy is a type of jealousy that arises from thinking about your partner's past relationships and/or romantic or sexual experiences.

Stepparents may experience retroactive jealousy when they learn about their partner's history with their ex-spouse, especially if that relationship was positive or long-lasting. There can be a feeling of jealousy around your partner having children with a previous partner and knowing you won’t be the first to have a child with them (if your relationship progresses to that level).

There can be jealousy when you see old photographs of them together as a happy couple and family photographs. This is a subject that evokes a lot of emotion from stepparents.

Retroactive jealousy is a common emotional response, but it’s also important to recognise when it is affecting your well-being and to seek support to manage it constructively for yourself, your partner and the child/children.

Here is an example of retroactive jealousy, being experienced by a stepmother in an online public forum:

“I feel like she got the best parts of my boyfriend and I'm left with scraps of him. She got the marriage, three kids, the mansion he designed, the car, and collects a nice amount of child support from him every month.

“I will always be second place and I hate it. I don't share the bond and experience of having kids with him and it makes me jealous that he shares that with someone else and she will forever be in his life.

“I want to grow with someone, experience firsts with someone and be their one and only.”

If you find yourself with similar feelings, it's advisable to seek support, to explore further with a counsellor experienced in working with stepparent/stepfamily issues and explore if this is the right relationship for you. 

Dealing with a partner's good relationship with their ex

A stepparent may suffer from feelings of jealousy, insecurity, comparison or discomfort when their partner has a good relationship with their ex. There is sometimes a fear of the partner reconciling with their ex and feelings of not being good enough. You know as a stepparent, the two of them were once attracted to each other. You’re in this unique position, of having to have an ex in your life, because they have kids together. This isn’t a situation where you can ban contact with the ex.

It’s important to be open with your partner and express your feelings and expectations, whilst being prepared to hear that your partner may not agree with you and is unwilling to change the way they interact with their ex. A certain amount of communication will always be required between coparents and this is in the best interests of the children. There needs to be a balance in the amount of communication. 

Here is an example of too much communication (from a recent thread on a stepparent forum):

“My partner thinks he (her ex) should be updated almost constantly on what’s going on with his daughter. Photos before nursery, photos after nursery. Every day, Is this normal?” 

Some stepparents try and demand that communication should only be about the children, however, it’s important to realise that some ex-partners are able to maintain a healthy coparent relationship and discuss other issues, too. This doesn’t mean they want to get back together or that they have any romantic interest in each other. Not all ex-partners hate each other. Some may have done so, but, over time, have been able to reach a place of understanding, for their own well-being and in the best interests of their children.

There are a couple of things I would like stepparents to think about here. Firstly, if your partner and their ex had this level of communication and interaction before your relationship and this suddenly changes at your request, be prepared for the once amicable coparent relationship to become fractious. This could lead to resentment from your partner towards you.

Another factor is the impact of your relationship with the stepchildren - if you insist that the previous coparent relationship isn’t acceptable for you. The children (depending on their ages) may see the change in their parent's communication and figure out that this change has something to do with you, ultimately leading to issues in your relationship. 

You ultimately get to decide if you are comfortable being with someone who has the amount of interaction with their ex that your partner has. Use the dating period wisely, like a form of probation and observe if this is something you want to be a part of. The level of enmeshment/codependency may be more than you feel is healthy and just isn’t for you.

I often see the words “I can’t wait till my stepchildren are 18”. But, they don’t disappear at 18 and, in the current high cost of living times, young adults are living at home longer than ever before. This can be a point of contention for many stepparents.

Everyone’s situation will differ and if you have children with your partner, no doubt that will greatly influence your decision, as you may have a fear about the impact on your children.

Being a stepparent is not the right choice for everyone and it's essential that you evaluate whether the challenges are worth the effort. Does the good outweigh the bad? Is your partner supportive, appreciative and overall worth it? You’re not less of a person or a failure in any way for stepping away (no pun intended) from this relationship. 

Be reassured, that your feelings are valid and sometimes it takes reaching a place of acceptance and painful emotions to establish that this isn’t the relationship for you. Think about the impact on your own mental health and well-being and consider professional guidance in the form of counselling to help you reach a decision.

Remember, it’s your life and your decision.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Northolt, Middlesex UB5 & Uxbridge UB10
Written by Tricia Ibe, MBACP, NCPS
Northolt, Middlesex UB5 & Uxbridge UB10

Tricia Ibe, (MBACP) (MNCPS Accredited) Counsellor. I am experienced in supporting people to achieve healthy relationships, to navigate the challenges of Step/Blended families. infidelity and struggles with being the other woman/man in a relationship.

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