In any stepfamily at least three people are struggling to form new family relationships while still coping with reminders of the past. Each family member brings expectations and attitudes that are as diverse as the personalities involved. Creating a successful stepfamily, as with any family, is easier for all when each member tries to understand the feelings and motivations of the others as well as their own. Ideally, discuss the realities of living in a stepfamily before the marriage.
What can you do? Plan ahead. Look carefully at your motives, and those of your future spouse, for wanting to get married. Get to know him or her as well as possible under all sorts of circumstances. Consider the possible impact of contrasting lifestyles. If your lifestyles clash, the children are the ones caught in the middle. Discuss how your lives will change by bringing two families together. What do you agree and disagree on when it comes to your concept of child-rearing.
Talk honestly with your children about the changes this marriage will bring: new living arrangements, new family relationships, and how this will affect their relationship with their non-custodial parent. Give your children ample opportunity to get to know your future spouse well. Consider your children’s feelings, but don’t allow them to make your decision about remarriage.
Discuss the disposition of family finances with your future spouse. An open and honest review of financial assets and responsibilities may reduce unrealistic expectations and misunderstandings. Understand that there are bound to be periods of doubt, frustration, and resentment.
Any marriage is complex and challenging, but the problems of stepfamilies are more complicated because more people, relationships, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs are involved than in a first marriage. Because its members have not shared past experiences, the new family may have to redefine rights and responsibilities to fit your individual and combined needs. Time and understanding are key allies in negotiating the transition from single-parent to stepfamily status.
In a good stepfamily every member is treated with dignity, care, and respect (initially love may not be in the equation). A healthy step or biological family is one in which each person feels the support to grow to his or her full potential.
If you have already jumped into the role of stepmother or father, the following three points can ease the transition process for everyone and give you breathing space as you continue to explore and use the ideas presented in this book.
Help stepchildren to get over their loss (the divorce or death of a parent) if they have not yet (it takes about two years). Or, perhaps, regardless of the time lapsed, they have not been able to because there was no environment of emotional support and trust in which they could have their feelings and come to terms with the “I wish I had(s)” or feelings that they somehow caused the divorce (as children commonly feel). They need a climate of emotional safety to not only express, but acknowledge their feelings rather than just blindly acting out with rage. They need to heal their loss before they can move on emotionally to creating and being part of a new stepfamily. You see your new marriage as completing your life, but a child may see it as something which will take away from theirs. You see it as a plus; they see it as a minus.
It is more important to develop a relationship of caring, communication, and respect with a stepchild than to hope for or expect instant love. Love takes time; it must grow. Be real with your emotions. What you resist persists, what you accept lightens. Encourage your children and stepchildren to be real about their feelings. Set limits on behavior, not feelings; for example, you cannot allow them to act out their anger by burning down the house, but you can let them express their feelings that they wish this new “family” didn’t exist.
Let your relationship with stepchildren develop gradually. Don’t expect too much too soon-from the children or yourself. Children need time to adjust, accept, and belong. So do parents. Don’t try to replace a lost parent; be an additional parent. Children need time to mourn the parent lost through divorce or death. Expect to deal with confusing feelings-your own, your spouse’s, and the children’s. Anxiety about new roles and relationships may heighten the competition among family members for love and attention as loyalties are questioned. Children may need to understand that their relationship with you is valued but different from your relationship with your new spouse and that one cannot replace the other. You love and need them both, but in different ways.
Help the child that goes back and forth between parents.Their lives are full of good-byes. Help children accept painful feelings so that these feelings can become smaller and more manageable. Let yourself and your children feel, so that everyone can heal. An idealized expectation becomes a prison while accepting the truth will set you free. If you are marrying into an existing family, TV and movies may have helped create unrealistic expectations of what a family is and how it functions. What it is not is a fairy tale of politeness and caring.
Why Most Stepfamilies Fail
One in three typical stepfamilies do succeed, long term. In order to find out how to accomplish this, you must be willing to first explore why most stepfamilies break apart. There seem to be five interlinked reasons why most average stepfamilies crash, often within 10 years.
- The adults in many stepfamilies seem to come from families which were, to some degree, less than functional. Without awareness and personal growth, these adults unconsciously pass similar emotional traits on to their kids, repeating and spreading a cycle of unreasonable need and an inability to get these needs met.
- Most stepparents resist fully accepting that they are forming a multi-home stepfamily, which will differ in over 60 ways from the one-home biological family they are used to. To make matters worse, many people overtly or unconsciously associate “step-” with failure, wicked, unnatural, second-best, and inferior. They do not want to learn about stepfamilies, let alone be one. This ignorance can be fatal, both as a partner and parent. Typical multi-home stepfamilies are amazingly complex and often take five to eight years, or more, to stabilize. Many unaware, love-dazed couples expect it will all come together in five to eight months.
- One or more new-stepfamily kids or adults are often blocked in mourning their agonizing prior losses. Every remarriage follows traumatic endings from previous divorce or death. Remarriage and/or cohabiting cause more major losses (and gains). Parents who did not see their parents grieve well, regardless of why they were grieving, can’t grieve themselves. How could they have taught you how to grieve. They repressed and avoided intense sadness and/or rage, and so were stressed and ruled by these emotions for years. Incomplete grief promotes crippling addictions and illnesses, nourishes post-divorce hostilities, splits biological kids emotionally between warring ex-mates, and prevents even adult step-kids from accepting the kindest of stepparents. Blocked mourning has clear symptoms. Once recognized, frozen grief can be thawed, over time.
- For most, the decision to remarry is made in a shared, wonderfully distorted state-of-mind: romantic love. Combined with the illusion that stepfamilies are not all that different from biological families, these distortions often cloud an awareness of what the couple is really undertaking, and what practical preparations they should make. Sobering divorce statistics imply that almost three of four stepfamily adults marry the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, and at the wrong time. They commit to mutual illusions.
- The final reason for such widespread re-divorce is that our media and most communities offer little or no informed, effective support for remarried people and their kids. There are few or no stepfamily co-parenting classes, support groups, newsletters, or aware counselors. Few clergy, teachers, therapists, mediation lawyers and judges, or medical professionals know how different, complex, and risky multi-home stepfamilies are. Stepfamily re-divorce seems to be a social-science black hole, though so many remarriages involving prior kids are highly stressful and ultimately fail.
Why Do Some Stepfamilies Survive
However, since roughly one out of four stepfamilies do survive-even thrive-we know that stepfamilies can grow the safety, support, warm closeness, strength, and comfort that only healthy families provide. The following, explored in detail throughout this book, can insure your success:
- Each adult must learn the symptoms, if any, of their own troubled childhood. You must identify your major destructive emotional traits and evolve a self-motivated, high-priority personal plan for healing. You must commit to it, and begin. Next, evaluate the odds that your prospective partner may have troubling emotional traits. If so, unless they are aware of their problems and are in solid recovery, settle for friendship.
- 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 important verbal skills: talking about how you communicate, empathic listening, effective assertion, and problem solving. Learn to manage your inner and personal conflicts. 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 versus “We’re just a family” (with unreasonable expectations). Then, stepfamily adults and kids (minor and grown) can try to agree on who belongs in it. You need to admit and resolve strong disagreements, well enough for positive results.
- Learn how your stepfamily differs from typical biological families, and the related typical stepfamily myths. Then, discuss realistic expectations for each of your many marriage and family roles. Be realistic, because without steady work on these, you and your kids will in all probability divorce within seven to 10 years.
- You and your partner must learn the five stages of healthy grieving, and the specific symptoms of incomplete grief. Then run a check on yourself, your partner, and each child, for major prior losses. If anyone is seriously blocking mourning their unique losses, you and your partner (including ex-mates) must agree on a plan to deal with that. And you must act on your plan. Consider specifically what each child and adult will lose with your marriage and living together. Evolve a clear policy for good grief and use it to guide and support all of you through your inevitable life losses.
- You and your partner should (separately) explore the following questions honestly: Why should I remarry? Why now? Why this person and their kids, ex (if not their first marriage)? If I have to, can I often put this adult ahead of my own kids without major resentment or guilt? (Stepfamily parents are inevitably forced to choose and often.) Can my partner do that?
- After the wedding, merge and stabilize your two biological families’ assets, beliefs, habits, values, rituals, priorities, and lifestyles. Everyone in your new multi-home stepfamily must give up some cherished things and accept new things. Support each other in mourning key personal losses.
- Consistently resolve the many values and loyalty conflicts that will result from your marriage. The most important and dramatic conflict of all needs to be mastered. Each parent must decide whose needs usually come first with them, their partner’s or their children’s. To protect your kids from another divorce trauma, you might need to put your marriage first. Also, clarify whose needs control each of your stepfamily’s homes. Learn how to problem-solve effectively together.
- Evolve and use a stepfamily goal plan. Stabilize your stepfamily roles. Revise most of your old biological family roles. Evolve new intra- and inter-home rules for these roles that everyone can accept well enough. Help each other admit and grieve key personal losses along the way.
- You must consistently balance and co-manage all of these tasks, plus a myriad of other responsibilities 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. And, don’t forget to laugh, play, and relax together along the way.
Know and take comfort in the fact that well-run by knowledgeable, confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), this modern version of an ancient family form can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security-and often (not always) the love-that adults and kids long for.