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Recognizing Stepfamily Myths, Realities, and Strengths
A stepfamily is defined as a household in which there are two adults in a
committed couple relationship and where at least one of them has a child or
children from a previous relationship. There are an estimated 9,100 new
American stepfamilies created each week. Fifty percent of all Americans have a
step connection. Recent estimates show that the stepfamily will be America's
most common family form in 2010. Thus if you live or have lived in a
stepfamily, you have a lot of company! Like all families, stepfamilies have
challenges as well as strengths. For stepfamilies to become strong, it's
important that they are aware of some of the common challenges they face and ways
to effectively deal with them. It's also important for them to identify and
build upon their strengths. That's what this article, and the other six that
follow, is all about.
These articles are designed to give you lots of ideas for safe and successful
navigation through the challenges of stepfamily life. The first article deals
with myths, realities and strengths of stepfamily living.
Myth Versus Reality
A basis for building a strong stepfamily is an understanding of its realities
as well as a debunking of its myths. First, we'll review major myths about
stepfamilies that, if believed, can discourage stepfamily bonding. Second,
we'll review some realities that provide a realistic contrast between
stepfamilies and first-marriage families. Finally, we'll discuss how the
realities of stepfamily living, although challenging, can be seen as strengths.
Understanding the myths and realities helps us appreciate what is normal as a
stepfamily develops, leading us to hold reasonable expectations for family
Common Stepfamily Myths
According to leading experts Emily and John Visher, there are seven common
myths stepfamily adults often have about their new family.
Myth # 1: Stepfamily blending happens quickly. Studies show
that it usually takes many months for a stepfamily to blend successfully. Most
stepfamilies become integrated in about four years but may take longer
especially when teenagers are involved. When stepfamily members buy the myth of
"instant blending," they may think that something is wrong with their family
when it seems to take so long for things to settle down. They may give up on
their new family too soon.
John, a new stepfather without children of his own, wanted more than anything
to get close to his new eight-year-old stepson, James. He would invite him to
go fishing with him and play basketball with him, two of James' favorite
activities. James would come along but seemed pretty half-hearted about it.
John began to wonder if James didn't really like him and became so frustrated
that he wanted to call off any shared activities. What John didn't realize
until later was that it was normal for James to behave that way and that it
would take time for James to warm up to him.
Myth #2: A stepfamily is the same as a first-marriage family. Stepfamilies
may have a tendency to inappropriately compare their family to ideal
first-marriage families they know. It's important to understand that there are
real differences between stepfamilies and first marriage families. Otherwise,
we may feel that our stepfamily is inferior to first-marriage families when it
doesn't model itself after them. We'll say more about these differences later.
Myth #3: Love occurs instantly. Expecting instant love among
stepfamily members is bound to result in frustration and discouragement. Love
can't be forced. True caring may take years to develop. In many stepfamilies,
mutual respect may be a more realistic goal. Even when stepparents are ready
and able to love a stepchild, the child may not be ready for that kind of a
relationship with the stepparent.
Lois was hoping that her new husband Larry would be instantly loved by her
children once he entered the family. After all, she'd made a great choice of a
new companion, and she loved most things about Larry--surely the kids would
too. She had to learn to be content with them occasionally doing activities
togetherand respecting one another but not openly showing love or saying, "I
love you." But that was just fine--the kids learned a lot of skills from Larry,
and that was his major role in the family.
Myth #4: Stepmothers are wicked. Fairy tales like Cinderella
and Snow White may be understood by children to imply that all stepmothers are
wicked. Stepfathers often are also negatively portrayed. It's important for
children to understand that whether a parent is bad or not does not depend on
what kind of family a parent is in.
Myth #5: Children whose parents divorce and remarry are damaged
Studies show that about a third of children of divorce
have long-term adjustment difficulties. The other two-thirds adjust in time and
are satisfied in their new families. Children who have difficulty adjusting may
benefit from professional counseling.
Myth #6: It helps children to withdraw from their nonresidential parent.
When children aren't allowed contact with the nonresidential parent, they tend
to have idealized fantasies about them. Left without occasional "reality
checks," children may develop expectations to which a stepparent can never
fully measure up. Normally, the best situation for a child's growth and
development is continued contact with both biological parents after divorce.
Myth #7: Remarriages following a death go more smoothly than those
occurring after a divorce.
While it may be more peaceful at home
following a divorce, children may view remarriage as a betrayal of the former
marriage partner. A parent who has died may acquire a halo that makes it very
difficult for a stepparent to enter and integrate with the new family.
My father died when I was three, and I idealized his memory. My stepfather,
Pete, entered the family when I was fourteen. I was strongly resistant to his
presence and influence. Even though Mom loved him, I didn't think he was good
enough for her, certainly not as good as my real dad. It took quite a while for
me to accept and appreciate Pete's place in the family.
Stepfamilies are different than first marriage families. Not better, not worse,
just different. Stepfamilies are more complex than first marriage families.
There are more people involved in a stepfamily interactions and decision
making. It's often a real challenge to keep everyone straight. There are fewer
norms for stepfamilies. Norms are guidelines that tell us how to act in certain
roles. Especially during the early stages of stepfamily development, it is
somewhat difficult to decide how to act and to determine one's place in the
Stepfamilies are different in structure from first-marriage families. According
to the Vishers, there are at least seven stepfamily characteristics that
distinguish them from first-marriage families.
Reality #1: A stepfamily begins after many losses and changes.
In divorce, a relationship has ended. People often find new places to live, new
jobs, new schools, and new friends. A first-marriage family begins under far
Reality #2: Individuals are at different places in their family.
One of the adults in the remarriage may have been a parent for several years
while the other parent has never had children. There may be children who
occupied the "oldest child" place in a former family but now become the "middle
child" in a new family. There may be teens who have been fantasizing finally
being on their own who are now being drawn in to integrate with the new family.
Reality #3: Children and adults all come with expectations from previous
It's natural that persons with different family
experiences may have different ideas about how a family ought to be run.
Reality #4: Parent-child relationships predate the new couple
In first-marriage relationships this is the opposite,
except in cases of unmarried parenthood. Emotional connections such as love
between the biological parent and child preceded the remarriage. Stepfamily
members may feel threatened by the entry of a new member.
Reality #5: There is a biological parent elsewhere in actuality or in
This person, present or not, living or not, continues to
have an influence on interactions in the stepfamily.
Reality #6: Children are often members of two households. Transitions
are difficult for both children and adults. Moving from house to house can be
an unsettling experience for all involved. As the stepfamily becomes more
integrated, they can adjust to this temporary unsettling.
Reality #7: There is little or no legal relationship between stepparent
Stepparents aren't able legally to give ordinary
permission to participate in activities, such as field trips or medical
procedures, the way the biological parents can.
Seeing the Realities in a Positive Light
The realities of stepfamily living present many challenges. In this series,
we'll discuss the major challenges and how to deal with them. While it is
important not to ignore the challenges, it's also important not to be overcome
by them. For instance, as stepfamilies adjust to a new way of being "family,"
they may be tempted to focus only on the difficult and challenging aspects of
their new arrangement, throw up their hands, and walk away. They often give up
too soon--one reason why the divorce rate among remarried couples is higher
than first married couples.
However, it's counterproductive to focus only on the challenges and ignore the
many strengths and opportunities made available in stepfamily life. For
example, the increased complexity inherent in stepfamily life, with all the new
people and new experiences, can seem overwhelming at times. However, having new
people and new experiences can be a strength. There are more adults to meet
children's needs, model parental behavior, and provide support. It is helpful
when stepfamily members have a positive attitude toward developing new
relationships with the widened, extended kin network made possible by the
remarriage. Having more adults to care about them can be positive for children.
As one youngster put it, "You get to love more people, you know!" The
opportunities to share experiences, hobbies, and interests with all of these
people can be positive for family well-being.
Children often witness parental battles prior to divorce and may feel some
relief from them when divorce occurs. A new relationship where a child is able
to observe a positive model of adult intimacy again may serve as a reminder that
love is possible in marriage. Because remarried couples are often more
mature,experienced, and motivated to be successful, they may be more likely to
strive to be good communicators. The residential parent will likely be happier
as a result of this new relationship.
In stepfamilies formed with children from previous marriages, many things, from
how to rear the children, how to handle finances, and who gets which bedroom,
are subject to negotiation. For instance, during one Thanksgiving in a new
stepfamily, two formerly unrelated teenagers were arguing over whether orange
Jell-O salad or green Jell-O salad should be served with the meal. One of the
teens blurted, "We always have the orange Jell-O!" The other retorted,"That's
stupid. My family always has the green Jell-O for Thanksgiving!" While dealing
with disagreements can be difficult, stepfamily life provides perhaps even a
greater opportunity than first marriage families to learn cooperation,
flexibility, and negotiation skills. Family members may discover hidden
benefits in combining and integrating traditions and rituals from diverse
families. Stepchildren may become more adaptable as adults as a result.
While a change in birth order can be stressful, it may also benefit a child.
Perhaps a child who was the oldest in the former family would feel glad to
relinquish the pressure that may have been placed upon them as a first born.
While little or no legal relationship exists between a stepparent and a
stepchild, unless created by formal adoption, the stepparent is in a unique
position to be supportive to the child. Because of their sometimes "outside the
family" stance, they may be able to view family problems more objectively and
provide more objective solutions. Wise stepparents can be a support to a child
without intruding or creating divided loyalty feelings.
Characteristics of Successful Stepfamilies
The Vishers define a successful stepfamily as one who is successfully meeting
the challenges so that the majority are generally satisfied with their new
family arrangement. They have also identified characteristics of successful
stepfamilies. Think about how your family is doing in response to the following
Losses have been mourned. Stepfamilies often are formed out of loss. Adults and
children in successful stepfamilies acknowledge these losses but are ready
to move on to a new way of family life. They are looking to the future. Often
visiting with others who have dealt with or who are dealing with similar
situations can be helpful in this transition.
Expectations are realistic. One who holds realistic expectations about
stepfamily life will understand and accept its realities while resisting a
belief in its common myths noted earlier. Knowing what to expect will help you
be patient with stepfamily integration, which can take from one and a half to
five or six years, depending in part on the ages of the children.
There is a strong, unified couple. Even though it may seem like trying to "have
a honeymoon in the midst of a crowd," the successfully remarried couple plans
enough time alone together to nourish their relationship.
Constructive rituals and traditions are established. Traditions related to
holidays and special events are important ways for families to be together.
Successful stepfamilies continue the traditions established in earlier families
or combine them to form new traditions.
Satisfactory step-relationships have formed. Step-relationships take time to
grow and develop. Successful stepfamilies have an awareness of this and work
for mutual satisfaction.
The separate households cooperate. Resident and nonresident parents have
developed a parenting coalition. Instead of competing with one another,
cooperative parents focus on the best interests of the child in ways that
promote positive child development and continued beneficial contact with both
It's good to be aware of myths about stepfamily living and confront these with
the realities. The realities can be seen as problems or challenges, depending
on your point of view. Viewing the challenges in a positive light helps us to
be alert to how they can help us be a successful stepfamily.
The Stepfamily Association of America provides a listing of recommended
resources for stepfamilies. Contact them at 650 J Street, Suite 205, Lincoln,
NE68508 (800) 735-0329. Also find them on the web at
Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young