By: Christina Roach
The routine is all too familiar; your stepchild comes through the front door, head down, and drops removable appendages haphazardly onto the floor only to proceed directly to his or her room without an utterance of a hello or anything else that could be mistaken as an acknowledgement of your presence. With this you feel the pit in your stomach tighten and in your mind you start catastrophizing the events of the forthcoming weekend in rapid-fire precision. All the preparation work you had done to ‘psych’ yourself up for the days that lie ahead had been nullified in a matter of seconds.
“Here we go again,” is the thought that crosses your mind, remembering the countless previous visits that had started in similar fashion. Regardless of the discussions with your partner or the carefully developed plans put into the place, the status quo continues; neither you nor your stepchild feel comfortable with the transition period back into stepfamily life when you each have had time apart in your respective other relationships. You are coming off of one-on-one time with your partner and your stepchild is shifting from the residential parent household to the one with the stepparent.
Although this sequence of events repeats itself despite efforts to veer it from its seemingly natural course, is it forever destined to do so? Is it possible to skew it at the starting gate so the transition period is lessoned or, daresay, negated? A review of recent studies on the impact of eye contact on the emotional strength of relationships would have us answering this question with a resounding ‘maybe’.
Researchers have found a connection between actual eye contact and how we are perceived socially in regards to trustworthiness and likeability. It has even been shown that maintaining an appropriate amount of eye contact can result in higher levels of empathy. As reported recently by Kate Murphy in The New York Times, the areas of the human brain that allow us to more accurately interpret others’ feelings and intentions are only fully activated by engaging in actual eye contact.
So the question is how can this influence our ‘step’ relationships? Simple, as the stepparent, start making a conscious effort to engage your partner and your stepchild in ‘eye-full’ interactions. This may seem easier said than done, but start out small and capitalize on the opportunities that present themselves. Consciously making eye contact with your partner can be great practice for learning appropriateness without staring and building your own comfort level with maintaining it.
From here your learned skills may be transferred to your interactions with your stepchild. This is not to say that you should have the expectation of sitting your stepchild down for an hour-long eye-to-eye conversation on the meaning of life. Rather, stepchild-stepparent relationships are best approached with side-by-side activities that help facilitate an easing into getting to know each other as they are less intense and anxiety provoking for both participants.
Knowing the importance eye contact has on human interaction and your improved level of comfort with it gained through rehearsal will allow you to be ready when an opportunity arises with your stepchild. Hence, you may be more apt to meet the awkward glance in your direction with your own ‘eye nod’. And while working towards a more connected relationship with your stepchild is not a must, it can be a rewarding experience.
Capitalizing on these findings may also provide the motivation to instill a welcoming ritual to formalize the transition of your stepchild back into your home. With both adult partners playing a part, a purposeful engagement at the start of visitations can work to strengthen the bonds between the family members and also lesson anxiety partially due to an uncertainty of the next few days’ expectations.
Another crucial area that can be largely impacted by the increased use of eye contact is couple strength. The importance of establishing and maintaining couple strength, particularly in a stepfamily, cannot be overly stressed. It is this strengthening of the spousal bond which serves as the foundation onto which the stepfamily prospers. This attention to the spousal relationship itself will help the stepfamily weather the storm of potential pitfalls to be encountered in the new family structure.
The potential of engaging in eye contact with others, particularly those in our stepfamilies, is limitless. Researchers have provided us with another useful tool to use in our daily lives in order to continue building and then nurturing of the all too fragile ‘step’ relationship. In this one behavior there is the opportunity to take these relationships from merely surviving to thriving. So just as the old saying adage goes, ‘eyes are the windows to the soul’, they are indeed a passageway to a renewed spirit and connection with those with whom we engage.
Christina Roach is President and Founder of Success for Steps®, as well as a stepmom to an adult stepdaughter. She is a certified Stepfamily Foundation Master Counselor, having worked personally with stepfamily pioneer Dr. Jeannette Lofas. In addition she is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, a National Certified Counselor and a Distance Credentialed Counselor. Christina lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband and their two daughters. For more information visit www.successforsteps.com or contact Christina at: firstname.lastname@example.org