Keys for creating a successful stepfamily

OPINION — Although increasingly common, stepfamilies are often seen either as abnormal or, on the other end, as if they were similar to first-marriage families once the dust settles.

Research and experience demonstrate, however, that “the idea that the stepfamily must match the original family is flawed. A stepfamily is an alternate, not an aberration,” said Scott Browning, a leader in stepfamily research, at a conference.

I am a member of two different stepfamilies: my father remarried after my mother’s death; and my wife has a son from a previous marriage. I know that blended families have all of the struggles of a “first-marriage family” as well as challenges unique to their situation. They’re also capable of great unity, affection, and joy. The following are some keys for happy stepfamilies that, while perhaps not applicable to every situation, have helped enough stepfamilies to be worth considering.

  1. Don’t rush it. Blended families are usually formed after a painful event, like divorce or death. Don’t rush the healing process or hurry family members to act like everything’s okay. Pushing them to embrace a new lifestyle and new family members may lead them to do the opposite. Allow as much time as necessary for the transition to happen naturally. Of course, disrespectful behavior needn’t be tolerated, but acknowledge that it’s okay for them to experience complex emotions as a stepfamily is forming.
  2. Don’t abolish the original families. There is “no need to destroy one family to build a new one,” Browing said. “Multiple families can exist within the greater umbrella of the stepfamily. In fact, accepting that often eases tension.” It’s healthy for each family to retain some of their traditions and to spend time with just each other once in a while.
  3. The biological parent should be the primary disciplinarian, at least in the beginning. The step-parent often has their work cut out for them trying to gain the acceptance of the children. Expecting him or her to be the primary enforcer of consequences will merely increase the children’s resentment. The biological parent must step up to the plate and the children should be made to understand that the step-parent has authority because they’ve been deputized by Mom or Dad.
  4. Define new house rules together, ideally in a step-family meeting. Rules from the first-marriage family are often revised or dropped from the remarried family, which leads to confusion and feelings of instability. Deciding together what rules to keep, drop, and change helps to unify blended families.
  5. Establish co-parenting expectations with exes. Almost anyone who’s co-parented with an ex can tell you that chaos ensues when children have wildly different expectations and rules from house to house. Coming to an agreement is necessary. Depending on the relationship dynamics, some former couples can do this easily, while others cannot. In the case of the latter, a skilled family therapist can help establish co-parenting expectations and boundaries, with the clear understanding that therapy will be focused on agreeing on what is best for the children, not airing dirty laundry.
  6. Let the kids decide whether or not to use step labels. Some children resent having to call an unrelated person their mother, father, sister, or brother, while others embrace it. Don’t dictate to them what labels to use; they’ve got enough going on that’s outside of their control that this one should be their call.

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Written by Jonathan Decker for St. George Health & Wellness magazine and St. George News.

Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist with an office at the St. George Center for Couples and Families. For more information, contact him by email.

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2 Comments

  • Gloria September 15, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    As a step and biological Mom, and the author of a book on stepfamilies which involved not only my own experience but research with stepfamily authorities and other stepfamilies, I am aware, all to often, of divorce among these families.

    One reason is that there are no understood guidelines for these families. Society tends to apply the rules of first marriages, while ignoring the complexities of stepfamilies.

    A little clarification: In stepfamilies the child(ren) is of one co-parent; in a blended families, there are children from both co-parents, and virtually all family members have recently experienced a primary relationship loss.

    The Landmines

    Three potential problem areas are: Financial burdens, Role ambiguity, and the Children’s Negative Feelings when they don’t want the new family to “work.”

    Husbands sometimes feel caught between the often impossible demands of their former family and their present one. Some second wives also feel resentful about the amount of income that goes to the husband’s first wife and family.

    Legally, the stepparent has no prescribed rights or duties, which may result in tension, compromise, and role ambiguity.

    Another complication of role ambiguity is that society seems to expect acquired parents and children to instantly love each other. In reality, this is often just not the case.

    The third reason for a difficult stepparent-child relationship might be that a child does not want this marriage to work, and so, acts out with hostility, since children commonly harbor fantasies that their biological parents will reunite. Stepchildren can prove hostile adversaries, and this is especially true for adolescents.

    Stepmother Anxiety

    Clinicians say that the role of stepmother is more difficult than that of stepfather, because stepmother families may more often be born of difficult custody battles and/or particularly troubled family relations. Society is also contradictory in expecting loving relationships between stepmothers and children while, at the same time, portraying stepmothers as cruel and even abusive (Snow White, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel are just a few bedtime stories we are all familiar with).

    Stepfather Anxiety

    Men who marry women with children come to their new responsibilities with a mixed bag of emotions, far different from those that make a man assume responsibility for his biological children. A new husband might react to an “instant” family with feelings which range from admiration to fright to contempt.

    The hidden agenda is one of the first difficulties a stepfather runs into: The mother or her children, or both, may have expectations about what he will do, but may not give him a clear picture of what those expectations are. The husband may also have a hidden agenda.

    A part of the stepchildren’s hidden agenda is the extent to which they will let the husband play father.
    The key is for everyone to work together.

    The husband, wife, their stepchildren, and their non-custodial biological parent can all negotiate new ways of doing things by taking to heart and incorporating the information you are about to learn—the most positive alternative for everyone.

    One Day at a Time

    Now you have a pretty good feel for what everyone is going through. How do you start to make it better — a process that can take years? First you must be very clear about what you want and expect from this marriage and the individuals involved, including yourself. What are you willing to do? In a loving and positive way, now is the time to articulate, negotiate, and come to an agreement on your expectations and about how you and your partner will behave.

    The best marriages are flexible marriages, but how can you be flexible if you do not know what everyone needs right now. And, this may change over time, so there must be room for that to happen as well.

    In flexible marriages partners are freer to reveal the parts of their changing selves that no longer fit into their old established patterns. You couldn’t possibly have known at the beginning of your new family what you know now and will learn later.

    Spouses may feel the “conflict taboo” even more than in a first marriage. It is understandable that you want to make this marriage work. You might feel too “battle-scarred” to open “a can of worms.” And so, you gloss over differences that need airing and resolution—differences over which you may not have hesitated to wage war in your first marriage. Avoiding airing your differences is a serious mistake. It is important for you to understand your own and your partner’s needs because society hasn’t a clue how stepfamilies should work. Unless you talk about your expectations, they are likely to be unrealistic.

    Living Well

    Since roughly one third of stepfamilies do survive—even thrive—we know that stepfamilies can grow the safety, support, and comfort that only healthy families provide. Consider the following for living your step/blended family life well:

    You must assess, as a couple, how well you accept and resolve conflicts with each other and key others. Learn and steadily work to develop verbal skills: listen with empathy, effectively show your needs, and problem-solve together. The emotional highs of new love can disguise deep disagreement on parenting, money, family priorities, and home management, i.e., values that will surface after the wedding.

    Together, accept your prospective identity as a normal, unique, multi-home stepfamily. You need to admit and resolve strong disagreements, well enough for positive results.

    You must balance and co-manage all of these tasks well enough on a daily basis to: build a solid, high-priority marriage; enjoy your kids; and, to keep growing emotionally and spiritually as individual people.

    Know and take comfort in the fact that confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security—and often (not always) the love—that adults and kids long for.

    Gloria Lintermans is the author of The Secrets to Stepfamily Success: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect, http://amzn.to/stepfamily

  • DAVE September 16, 2014 at 11:13 pm

    My opinion, on a particular matter: StepFamilyReality

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