Newly remarried John and Mary had two children, each from a prior marriage, making a new stepfamily with four children. While all were expected to get along peacefully, trouble began early. First, teen stepsiblings Jeff and Lora became attracted to each other, which made them feel guilty and confused. The teens also wanted more freedom at the same time that John and Mary wanted more togetherness. Stephen, who was the oldest in his previous family was now the middle child. Joy, who had a certain favorite chore in her family before, was now doing a different, and dreaded one. John and Mary also had difficulty agreeing on rules and modes of discipline. Here came the arguments and the tears. With so much fighting and quarreling going on, John and Mary were wondering what on earth they had started by getting married.
John and Mary's situation is not unusual and illustrates several common challenges when two families are combined and an attempt is made to meet everyone's needs. What makes it so hard to combine two families?
Each stepfamily member brings with him or her a unique family history, formed in their prior family. Each family had its own way of doing things. They had established their own rules and traditions, and each individual played a particular role. Now they are expected to adust to new traditions that may seem foreign and uncomfortable. Making such adjustments is not easy.
Emotional Attachments Precede Stepfamily Formation
Most families form strong emotional attachments or bonds over the course of their years of living together. Family members may feel that these bonds are threatened by the entrance of new individuals they are expected to care about as "family." This threat to preexisting bonds of love is likely to be felt more keenly if stepfamily members are pressured to love each other instantly.
Husband and Wife at Different Parental Stages
The spouses may bring to the stepfamily different parenting experiences and skills. A man or woman who may not have been a parent before may find himself or herself a stepfather or stepmother to a teenager. There may be tension in the marriage as a result of this difference in experience and skills.
Children at Different Developmental Stages
Upon remarriage, children who were in one birth order in their prior family often assume another birth order in their new stepfamily. For example, a child who was accustomed to being the oldest now has an older stepsibling who has taken over some of his/her responsibilities and privileges. Children, especially teens, may have a difficult time adjusting. They may resent being encouraged to "pull together" as a family when they want to spend more time with their peers. Conflicts over discipline and new rules are common, and teenagers often rebel against changing the old ways of doing things. Also, many teens complain that they are not trusted to be responsible as they were before the remarriage.
Quite innocently, children with emerging sexuality, like teen stepsiblings, may be attracted to each other, inviting feelings of confusion and guilt. These stepsiblings may deal with these feelings by avoiding each other or by fighting often--neither of which addresses the issue. Attractions between the newly married spouses may unintentionally foster physical attractions between maturing stepsiblings. There is also the potential of a teenager developing a private sexual fantasy about the new stepparent.
Ideas for Meeting the Challenge
- Take a child development and/or parenting class, together. This will help the less experienced "instant" parent gain important knowledge and skills, and will also give each of you a shared parenting language to use as you work together as parents in the stepfamily. Read some good books on stepfamily development, stepparenting, and other topics suggested in the article, Recognizing Stepfamily Myths, Realities, and Strengths.
- Accept the validity of different life cycle phases for adults and children. In a stepfamily, some will have been married before while others have not; some will have been parents while others have not. Children who were the oldest in one family may be the youngest in a stepfamily. It is reality. Just accept it.
- Understand the normalcy of the problems and be willing to talk to one another about them. Most of the challenges stepfamilies face are part of the normal adjustment process. It is important that family members feel they can talk to one another about problems. Regular family councils are a good time to air concerns as well as celebrate successes. Couples would be wise to hold regular couple meetings to discuss how the marriage is going, different parenting styles and how to make them work in the family, and other concerns so that they can present a united front to the new family. If you have difficulty dealing with problems on your own, get help.
- Be willing to negotiate incompatible needs. Teens from previously separate families wanting more freedom and newly remarried parents wanting more family togetherness is an example of incompatible needs. Family meetings present a time when these needs can be discussed and a solution reached that is fair to all concerned. Communicate individual needs clearly. Using I statements ("I need more space;" "I need time to think") is one effective method to state needs.
- Be willing to respect each other's feelings and opinions. For the good of the family, listen to one another carefully and be willing to change whatever is causing a problem. Agree on some common goals that will unite the family and help all move in the same direction. Listening and being willing to make adjustments help stepfamily members have the tolerance and flexibility needed to get through the tough times.
- Establish and respect personal boundaries. Be respectful of one another's boundaries, especially a teenager's need for privacy. For instance, avoid barging into a teen's bedroom or otherwise prying into their personal affairs. To diminish chances for sexual attraction between teen siblings or between teen stepchildren and stepparents, be modest in your dress around the house. For example, avoid lounging around in the front room in your underwear. Incest taboos may not kick in as readily for teens in a stepfamily. Set up rules that make it clear that romantic interests are to be found outside the home.
- Build feelings of inclusion and unity. Some stepfamily members may feel like the "outgroup" because they are outnumbered by the "other side" of the family. Other stepfamily members may become the "ingroup" because everyone moves into their house. Consider moving into a home that neither family has lived in before.
Conflicting rules about things like curfew, homework, and television may exist in the previously separate families. Battles may rage as you try to meet everyone's needs in this area. In some stepfamilies, each parent manages their own children in this area, while other families decide on an approach that combines rules from each previous household.
Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Fitzpatrick, J., Williamson, S., Duncan, S. F., & Smith, T. (1989). The remarried family: Meeting the challenge (Publications 607A-H). Auburn, AL: Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.
- Visher, J. S., & Visher, E, B. (1999). How to win as a stepfamily. New York: Routledge.