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. 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 life.
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 permanently. 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 family.
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 different circumstances.
- 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 families. 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 relationship. 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 memory. 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 andstepchildren.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 characteristics:
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 biological parents.
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. Find them on the web at http://www.stepfam.org/.
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.