Joys and Challenges of Stepfamily Life

“They shouldn’t call it a wedding” someone whispers to a friend, during the marriage ceremony of a couple that are each marrying for the second time. “They should call it something else.” So opens the 1999 novel, Other People’s Children, by Joanna Trollope. This hushed, embarrassing comment voices the ambivalence many people feel towards second marriages and stepfamilies.

A stepfamily is a family in which one or both of the adult partners bring children from a previous relationship. In America, one half to sixty percent of first marriages dissolves in divorce. Seventy five percent of those individuals remarry, according to the Stepfamily Associates of America. One out of three Americans is now a stepparent, a stepchild, a stepsibling, or some other member of a stepfamily. More than half of Americans today have been, are now, or will be in one or more step situations during their lives (J. Larson, Understanding Stepfamilies, 1992).
Despite their numbers, stepfamilies remain invisible within our culture, and they are tacitly considered “second best.” The phrase “broken home” comes to mind. Stepfamilies are encouraged to masquerade as the “norm” of two biological parents at home with offspring from their union only. This attitude does a great disservice to many living in stepfamilies. The fictional example below illustrates how stepfamily needs can be quite different from biological families.

Jan and Mike thought their marriage (a second one for each of them) was over after the first year, for a number of reasons. Jan could no longer tolerate the painful, chaotic weekends with Mike’s 11-year-old son Seth. Jan had no children of her own, hence had discovered the stresses of becoming an instant step mom. Jan and Mike had Seth every weekend. Jan just wanted to relax after a hard week as a bank manager, and spend it with her husband, but she tried her best to fit in and to make Seth like her. Mike missed his son during the week, and he wanted to shower Seth with his time and attention during the little time he had with him. Jan felt left out by Mike and Seth on the weekends. In fact, she privately disliked Seth, which made her feel even worse. Mike thought that Jan was selfish when she gingerly approached the idea of spending some time alone as a couple on weekends. Mike was dismayed by Jan’s lack of attachment to Seth, although he admitted that Seth treated Jan as if she didn’t exist. Jan knew it was worse than that. When Mike wasn’t around, Seth sarcastically criticized her cooking, called her names under his breath, and refused to do the dishes. Initially, Jan went everywhere Mike and Seth did, even if it didn’t interest her. Mike wanted them all to be together as a family over the weekend. Gradually, Jan became more and more resentful. Seth increased his bid for his dad’s exclusive attention and ignored Jan even more. Other complications included Seth’s biological mother telephone 4 or 5 times during the weekends, with instructions on things like what the kids should eat and what movies they should watch. This drove Jan crazy but Mike couldn’t stop it, and Seth was caught in the middle.
Couples step down the aisle for the second time with the same loving intentions as the first time. They feel wiser, more mature. They believe their love for each other will carry them through building a new family unit. Within the first year or so, though, they commonly discover that love within the couple isn’t enough. This love is tested when all manner of family members (the children, extended family, former spouses, etc.) jockey for their place. The couple’s love can be sorely tested when the “sticker shock” of the marriage seeps in, after one tolerates untold rudeness by a stepchild torn by loyalty binds, after repeated intrusions by a former spouse, or after discovering lingering financial or legal issues attached to a former marriage, for example. When stresses mount, and idealized notions crack, information about the “norm” for stepfamily development can be very helpful.

After seeking counseling, Jan and Mike were able to realize that their dilemmas were part of a normal stage of stepfamily life (not something intrinsically wrong with them!) They came up with a compromised solution, after letting go of some unrealistic expectations: Mike spent one day with his son alone (thereby honoring Seth’s desire to have private time with his dad). Jan had precious time alone to relax from a hard week. She caught up with her friends, an added bonus. Every Sunday night, Jan and Mike made a date to go out to dinner alone together. This plan fortunately curbed the blaming between them and took the pressure off everyone. By airing differences at this stage in their stepfamily life, and with mutual understanding, they avoided further alienation and unrealistic expectations of how their family should be. Over time, Mike learned to set limits with his former wife about intruding upon his routine parenting, while still communicating respectfully with her around important matters. Seth and Jan, when the pressure was taken off them to instantly bond, found interesting ways to connect. One rainy weekend when Mike had the flu, they discovered that they both liked corny jokes and chess. It was a turning point for both of them.

Many people make the mistake of measuring the success of their stepfamily by whether all members love each other. People who have weathered the early stepfamily stages reap many rewards, just as we all do in any kind of family. This takes time–most experts say at least 4 years. It is also extremely important to enrich the couple relationship along the way, seeking support from other stepfamily couples, or counseling when necessary. Stepfamily life, among other things, offers unending opportunities to learn flexibility, compassion, empathy, negotiation skills, detachment for that beyond one’s control, forgiveness, and yes…humor.

(Dr. Beth Warner is a licensed psychologist who is listed as a clinical affiliate with the Stepfamily Association of America. She practices on Nantucket.)

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