The most romantic statement my husband Gabe ever made to me didn't happen on our wedding day. He didn't declare it at the base of the Eiffel tower, or pen it in a greeting card. The sentence caught me by surprise as we were out to dinner on a rare weeknight alone.
The early years of blended family life can be tough, and Gabe and I, with our combined six children, were in the thick of it. We were feeling particularly banged up and bruised that night. Truthfully, we weren't all that excited about going out, but felt like we should take advantage of our childless state and paint the town red. Or at least share a pizza.
We settled in to a corner table in a small Italian restaurant. It was busy that night, but we weren't bothered; this wasn't a real date night, after all. We placed our order and began devouring the hot, pillow-soft dinner rolls. Too exhausted to talk about the comings and goings of our blended bunch, or what we had on our combined agenda for the rest of the week, we sat in silence.
Two butter-slathered rolls later, I was feeling more comfortable. I was remembering how much I love the tall blue-eyed guy seated across from me, and was ready to talk.
"Tell me a secret?" I asked.
Gabe responded by sharing the latest client deal news from work.
"That's not a secret!" I exclaimed. "Tell me about that high school girlfriend you really loved. The one who's overseas now."
Gabe began to talk about his crush, and we settled into a real conversation. Our pizza and salad came, and we kept talking as we shared our meal. The conversation grew more serious, winding through the choices we'd made as adults. We each talked about longing for a simpler life, unfettered by the logistics of our blended family. I told Gabe that I sometimes missed parts of my marriage to Billy, even knowing I was happier in my current marriage.
"What do you miss from your marriage?" I asked him.
"My first marriage produced three of the people I love most in this world. I am eternally grateful for the marriage in that respect," he began.
"But I don't miss anything about it."
I didn't understand. Gabe's marriage to his first wife lasted more than a decade. They shared holidays and family and a thousand meals. How could he not miss anything from that life?
Gabe continued. "Our life today is wildly different from what I experienced before. I learned the lessons offered by my divorce: I stopped traveling for work, began looking for ways to enjoy my life with my family now and focusing on what makes me truly happy. I've changed."
"Our marriage is a different entity than my first. It serves me and challenges me. I view you as my equal partner. My life before was black and white, and you have colored my world."
I sat stunned, blinking back tears.
Our marriage is different. You have colored my world.
I didn't realize until that moment how much baggage I carried. Up until then, I was painfully aware I was Gabe's second choice. Joining his life, very much in progress, made me feel like our relationship was missing the foundation of a first marriage.
We work hard in our blended family to fully incorporate all sides of our children's families. My children’s father is in and out of our house every other day. We see our childrens’ family at every school event and sporting match. Our phones buzz constantly with texts from our exes about exchanges, agreements and kid scheduling logistics. Coparenting inclusively works very well for our children, and sometimes takes a toll on us as a couple.
The constant presence of an ex, in person or in an inbox, is a dynamic unique to blended families. Other couples without children typically don't interact regularly with their partners' former lovers. Those ghosts don't attend family dinners or help plan birthday parties.
Regularly interacting with an ex can cause stress for both parties, even if the overall relationships are positive. When a former relationship is high conflict, the stress grows exponentially.
Constant contact with an ex can make the old relationship look more important than it actually was. My ex Billy and I smile and laugh at every custody exchange. I don't have feelings for Billy; I am intentionally making our interaction look fun and easy for our children. Watching, Gabe might think Billy's and my former relationship was significant enough to still hold my attention. It wasn't and it doesn't.
The clear simple statement Gabe made that night taught me an important lesson. Hearing him choose our life together was powerful. He'd already chosen it before, on our wedding day, but the noise and bustle of our blended family drowned out the power of that first, formal choice. It was important for me to hear how much he valued our marriage, bruised and battered as it was that night.
It's a lesson I've taken to heart in the days that followed. I began telling Gabe he's my favorite, rather than assuming he remembers. When a kid-scheduling mix up happens and we have kids unexpectedly, I whisper in his ear that I'm sorry we've missed our date night as the dervishes whirl around us. I am intentional about telling him how much I love him and that his presence has enriched my life.
Our blended family life is loud. I shout my love for Gabe often, because he taught me how powerful it is when love drowns out the noise.
Kate Chapman is a mom and stepmom to six children, ages 8-15. She writes about her modern-day Brady Bunch adventures at This Life in Progress. A widely-published blended family expert, Kate addresses the tricky topics of divorce, coparenting and stepfamily dynamics. When she’s not writing, she’s feeding the children and turning off lights in empty rooms. Follow Kate on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for coaching, support and inspiration.