Step-Families

What can you do to promote world peace?
Go home and love your family.

MOTHER THERESA

Yes, they are more complicated. But they’re also richer. Stepfamilies turn out to be living laboratories for what it takes to create a successful relationships. They have surprising things to tell us all about marriage, gender relations, parenting, and the intricacies of family life.

Here we are, three decades into the divorce revolution, and we still don’t quite know what to make of stepfamilies. We loved the Brady Bunch, but that was before we discovered how unreal they were.
Contrary to myth, stepfamilies have a high rate of success in raising healthy children. Eighty percent of the kids come out fine.

What trips stepkids up has little to do with stepfamilies per se. The biggest source of problems for kids in stepfamilies is parental conflict leftover from the first marriage.

After five years, stepfamilies are more stable than first-marriage families, because second marriages are happier than first marriages. Stepfamilies experience most of their troubles in the first two years.

Stepfamilies are not just make-do households limping along after loss. All members experience real gains, notably the opportunity to thrive under a happier relationship.

The needs of people in stepfamilies are the needs of people in all families–to be accepted, loved, and cared about; to maintain attachments; to belong to a group and not be a stranger; and to feel some control by maintaining order in their lives. It’s just that these needs are made acutely visible–and unavoidable–in stepfamilies.

From the standpoint of the kids, yes, they feel loss going into a stepfamily–it certifies that their original family exists no more. And it takes time to adjust to a new set of people in family roles. But there are specific opportunities a stepfamily affords. Children acquire multiple role models, they get a chance to see their parents happier with other people than they were with each other. They learn how to be flexible.

It turns out that it’s the parents, not the stepfamily, that make the most difference in the success of stepfamilies.

Remember, divorce isn’t ending the family. It is restructuring it. Parents and children don’t get divorced. Stepfamily functioning improves dramatically when participants know which problems are normal, which are temporary, and that it takes time for people to integrate themselves and feel comfortable in a stepfamily. Generally, though, a successful second marriage helps to reduce–if not eliminate–kids’ problems. Divorced people are generally more compatible with their second partner than their first–even though there is a higher divorce rate among second marriages.

Stepfamilies are littered with possibilities for loyalty conflicts. A particularly common one revolves around entry of new stepparent. A mom feels hostile toward her ex-husband’s new partner; kids understand that their mom wants them to feel the same way. The same kids are also being asked by their dad to love the new wife, whom he loves. The kids feel torn because their parents are pulling them in opposite ways.

On the other hand, no stepparent should be expected to love, or even like, a partner’s kids, nor must demands be placed on kids to love the stepparent. Loyalty just can’t be forced. A strong couple relationship is necessary to the success of the stepfamily, but it cannot hinge on whether the stepparent likes the kids. After all, a stepfamily essentially brings together strangers. Entry into a stepfamily puts members in a position of assessing whether they are an insider or an outsider. There’s no fast solution for the inside/outside dilemma, but understanding that it’s normal can help.

The moral of the story: Every stepfamily is different. Stepparenting is not for wimps. Stepfamilies require a lot of relationship skills. They can be painful and they can be wonderful.