Dear Vicki: I read your post last summer about the woman whose new husband and son butted heads all the time. I have the opposite problem and wonder if you can help me. Last year I married Ted, a divorced father with joint custody of two very active teenage sons. My 10-year-old son Sam and I moved in with Ted and the blended family thing is working pretty well except for one big problem: Sam is miserable and pulling away from Ted. In an effort to bond, Ted wants to play ball with Sam and take him to sporting events or even war movies, but Sam just isn’t into those things. He likes his time alone to read and draw. I’ve tried to explain to Ted that Sam is different from his sons, but he just rolls his eyes and questions whether we’re going to raise a wimp. How can I help Ted and Sam get along? I love them both and want everyone to be happy in our home. Signed, Worried in Washington
Dear Worried: First, let’s focus on the positive fact that Ted wants to do a good job raising Sam. That means he cares. Second, Ted is approaching the challenge of getting along with Sam like someone who has a lot of Wood energy in his personality. Competition is key to a Wood’s approach to life, and nothing says competition like sporting events and war movies. But Sam clearly isn’t a Wood person. Preferring time alone to read or draw sounds a lot more like a Water personality.
In the Five Elements model, Wood and Water relate to each other on the Nurturing Cycle, so you’d think the relationship between Ted and Sam would be naturally nurturing. And it can be. However, this particular Wood/Water relationship is a parent/child connection (or at least step-parent) where the child’s Water feeds the parent’s Wood, and this will make a subtle difference in the dynamics of the relationship. We’ll come back to that later, but first we’re going to talk about the most dramatic issue between Wood and Water, and that’s the concept of structure.
Wood and Water people differ radically in their approach to and appreciation of structure. Wood people are usually very structured and quite focused on productivity. Waters are very “go with the flow” and don’t need or necessarily like structure of any kind. Water people usually don’t plan and are willing to trust the outcome of anything. Woods, on the other hand, love plans. Plans propel Wood people forward, define their expectations, and provide the needed assurance that they’re never out of control. Going with the flow not only lacks control, but can seem undirected, chaotic, or even lazy to Woods.
As a Wood person, not only will Ted appreciate structure, he will enjoy games and competition, especially if he (or his team) wins. And if Ted’s children have turned out well, he might also expect that Sam will turn out well if he takes the same structured, competitive approach with him as he did with them. But of course, the last thing Sam’s sweet Watery soul will appreciate is competition and structure. Quiet, individual activities will be more to his liking. And if anything structured tries to contain him, Sam will be miserable. Without intervention, Sam will eventually begin avoiding Ted (a watery way of flowing around the attempted structure), which is likely to frustrate Ted who, as a Wood, will have expectations. So what do you do?
Ted is the adult, so have a chat with him. Even if he doesn’t buy into the Five Elements as personalities that have predictable ways of interacting with each other, he will certainly appreciate that each individual is a unique expression of likes and dislikes. The idea that someone might actually enjoy quiet time alone may seem strange to Ted. And the fact that Sam doesn’t enjoy competitive sports may come off as “wimpy” at first. But if you can help Ted better understand the uniqueness that is Sam, he can use the information to adjust his expectations around Sam and the ways he interacts with him. And you can help with this.
I encourage you to develop a list of activities that you know will resonate with Sam, but also have a bit of an “accomplishment” vibe for Ted. For example, Water people frequently enjoy stamp collecting, and a Wood person will appreciate the quest of finding those few missing stamps to complete a category. Or, if Sam is into art, Ted might consider taking (and finishing) a drawing class with Sam. But do make it clear to Ted that the class should be about the experience, not who can draw the best. Photography and music are other creative endeavors Waters usually appreciate, so maybe Ted could embrace some involvement with those and use it as a bonding opportunity with Sam. Also, anything involving water (swimming, fishing, etc.) usually appeals to Water people.
Finally, let’s return to the fact that on the Five Elements model Water feeds Wood via the Nurturing Cycle. Even though Sam is the child to Ted as a parent, if Sam is allowed to pursue what he is naturally good at, his successes will feed Ted. If Ted can stop expecting Sam to be like his children and enjoy this different parenting opportunity, their Nurturing Cycle relationship will kick in and Ted will probably feel surprisingly nurtured by his time with Sam. I’ve seen it happen again and again. Encourage your Wood husband to lean in to Sam in ways that are meaningful to a Water and I believe they will find they can create lots of good times together. Good luck!