Keys to Stepfamily Success

Stepfamilies, here defined as a union that includes at least one child, a biological or adoptive parent, and a new partner, face many distinctive challenges. Unlike first marriages, most stepfamilies form in the wake of losses such as divorce or death. The structure of a stepfamily, as distinct from first marriages, typically includes “insider-outsider” coalitions; children and their biological or adoptive parent nearly always have stronger ties than those between stepparents and stepchildren. Many children feel threatened by arrival of a stepparent. Unlike most couples in first marriages, couples in stepfamilies do not have opportunities to develop their relationship before raising children; at the same time, raising children is usually more complex because the stepparent’s role in parenting is usually initially unclear. When stepfamilies form in the wake of of divorce, there is nearly always “another household” to contend with that can threaten the integrity of the stepfamily unit.

With all of these challenges, stepfamilies can and often do successfully integrate, and stepfamily households can become loving and harmonious. Stepfamilies have a much higher chance of success when the new couple recognizes the challenges that come with forming a stepfamily, and proceed in a deliberative, step-by-step manner to build strong and durable family relationships.

It is crucial for couples who are contemplating beginning a stepfamily to make sure that, it there is an ex-spouse involved, his or her status as a parent is recognized and supported. News of an impending remarriage sometimes re-ignites conflict with the “other parent”, who may feel that his or her role is being usurped. It is important to give notice to the other biological parent before introducing a prospective partner to children, and reassure him or her that the new spouse will not usurp his or her role.

It is imortant to make a particular effort to nurture stepparent-stepchild relationships. Stepparents first need to establish themselves as friends or confidantes as distinct from disciplinarians. Many children feel conflicted about becoming close to a stepparent, as a stepparent may represent a final “nail in the coffin” to their dream that their parents might reunite; they may feel that they are betraying their other parent by becoming close to a stepparent. It is advisable for stepparents to move carefully in their efforts to engage; they should be particularly careful with physical affection, and never suggest that they are usurping parental roles. Biological parents can help the stepparent-stepchild relationship by taking primary responsibility for discipline, and by directing their children to act in a respectful manner towards stepparents.

It is vital that the new couple make time to develop their relationship and clarify important issues. The couple should aim to prioritize time for each other despite the demands of parenting; it helps to make regular dates or take trips without the children. It is also important for them to clarify financial needs and concerns; most couples have found that sharing their money together leads to greater family unity.

As the stepparent integrates into the family, it is important to reaffirm the relationship between biological parents and children. Many stepchildren fear that the arrival of a stepparent will mean that they will have less time with their parent. Carving out time for the biological parent and child to spend together without the stepparent present can alleviate these fears. Stepparents can facilitate these efforts by making sure that they have social supports outside of the immediate family.

Even while attending to these individual relationships, a certain amount of time needs to be carved out for the whole family to be together. While it is usually unwise for all family members to embark on long trips together early on, short fun activities can enhance stepfamily cohesion. Whole-family activities usually run smoother if the couple does not demonstrate too much physical affection within sight of the children. It helps if the family continues to practice many of the rituals and activities that they did prior to the arrival of the stepparent, even as they slowly add new activities.

The slow and sometimes uneven pace of stepfamily integration can be hard for many well-meaning couples who are excited to begin their “instant family”. Keeping expectations realistic can help. It is important to remember that couples usually need at least two years to begin to function as a unit, and many stepchildren need even more time to accept a stepparent.

Stepfamily life can be successful, especially if couples follow a deliberate, step-by-step process of stepfamily integration. Therapists with training and experience in stepfamily dynamics can help families pace themselves, meet the needs of both adults and children, and lay the groundwork for a cohesive and secure family environment.

–Posted by Jonah Green

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