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 adjust 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.
The Family: A Proclamation to the World declares it the solemn responsibility of husband and wife "to love and care for each other and for their children" (¶ 6). Mothers and fathers have distinct but equal responsibilities. By divine plan, fathers are to "preside over their families in love and righteousness and . . . provide the necessities of life and protection. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners" (¶ 7).
But what about families who don't fit the traditional mold? How do these roles and responsibilities apply to stepfathers and stepmothers, working to unite a blended family? The Proclamation states that such circumstances "may necessitate individual adaptation" (¶ 7). Modern scripture and other gospel publications give insight into how gospel principles can be adapted to the needs of a blended family.
Build a Foundation on Christ
Build and strengthen your new family with the scriptures and words of Christ. Remember, "Happiness at home is most likely to be achieved when practices there are founded upon the teachings of Jesus Christ".2 Sister Chieko Okazaki (1998) wrote, "It seems to me that the Lord has a tender and powerful interest in these second-try marriages. Blended families should make him a partner in their enterprise".
Church attendance, family home evening, and family prayer can bring togetherness to blended families. "Pray in your families unto the Father, always in my name, that your wives and your children may be blessed" (3 Nephi 18:21).
Seek for Unity
Elder Wells counseled blended families to especially strive for unity.5 The Lord said, "If ye are not one ye are not mine" (D&C 38:27). This unity starts with solidarity and love between the parents. It is then built upon shared family goals and time spent together.
One way to develop unity is through family service projects. Elder Wells said of his own home, "Our 'blended family' was successful because we were given love and respect as well as opportunities to serve and sacrifice".5 He counseled all families to remember the words of the Proclamation: "Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities" (¶ 7).
Have Patience and Show Love
The Lord said, "Be patient in afflictions, revile not against those that revile. Govern your house in meekness, and be steadfast" (D&C 31:9). Stepparenting requires a special measure of patience. "Because emotional attachments between stepparents and stepchildren require time, it sometimes may take years to establish a united and harmonious blended family"5 The principle that love takes time is especially relevant to blended families.
Elder Marvin J. Ashton taught that developing love is a process of patience and persistence. "The Great Shepherd had the same thoughts in mind when he taught, 'If ye love me, keep my commandments' (John 14:15) and 'If ye love me feed my sheep' (John 21:16). Love demands action if it is to be continuing. Love is a process".1
Elder Wells noted that, even after many years, some stepparents may still play a secondary role in the life of their stepchildren. Nevertheless, the stepparent should give relentless love and patience to build that new relationship. "Though some children may be reluctant to bond with a new parent, they should not have to compete for that parent's love. While a stepmother, for example, may never take the place of a deceased parent in a child's heart, she can create a place of her own in that child's heart by showing love and exercising patience".5
Set Your Finances in Order
"And again, verily I say unto you, that every man who is obliged to provide for his own family, let him provide, and he shall in nowise lose his crown" (D&C 75:28). Finances can be a complicated matter for blended families. Open communication and frequent family budgeting sessions can help sort things out. The following is an excerpt from Elder Wells' 1997 address:
"All family members need to understand the family's financial situation and monetary constraints. Establishing a sound budget and setting financial priorities with the help of all family members can limit misunderstandings. Review the family's financial situation often, and avoid preferential treatment in money matters. When necessary, advice from a bishop or qualified consultant can be sought.
"Blended families, like all families, need to remember the blessings the Lord has promised to faithful tithe payers.
"'One of the best ways that I know of to pay my obligations to my brother, my neighbor, or business associate, is for me first to pay my obligations to the Lord,' President Joseph F. Smith said."5
Successful Stepfamilies are Possible
In a 1997 General Conference, Elder Jerald. L. Taylor thanked the Lord for "my second mother, who loved me as one of her own".4 Happiness in stepfamilies is possible. Elder Wells wrote that, "Like nuclear families, blended families within and without the Church can be successful, loving, and unified".5 Unique challenges must be faced. Sacrifices and adjustments must be made. But "Those who pay the price of making their blended families successful can know the joy that comes when we 'live together in love' (D&C 42:45)".5
Written by Megan Gene-Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Ashton, M. J. (1975, November). Love takes time. Ensign, 108-110.
- Nelson, R. M. (1999, May). Our sacred duty to honor women. Ensign, 38-40.
- Okazaki, C. N. (1998). Disciples. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.
- Taylor, J. L. (1997, May). Gratitude. Ensign, 33-34. .
- Wells, R. E. (1997, August). Uniting blended families. Ensign, 24-29.