A solid marriage is at the foundation of a successful stepfamily. In a stepfamily, however, bonds between a parent and child have preceded those of the marriage. Consequently, remarried couples need to make a special effort to care for their relationship. There are several things that pose challenges to the development of a successful remarriage.
Challenges Common to Many Remarried Couples
- Relationships with Ex-Spouses. The presence of a former spouse, and his or her occasional intrusion into the family, can create tension in the marriage. If the previous marriage was ended amid hate, anger, and resentment, these emotions can hinder the formation of a trusting new bond unless properly addressed. If an emotional attachment remains with the ex-spouse, this attachment will likely hinder progress of the new relationship.
- The Same Old Bad Habits. Individuals may carry into the new remarriage negative patterns of relating that led to the downfall of the previous relationship. For example, they may have had the habit of withdrawing from conflict rather than talking about an issue, which kept them from addressing and solving problems in the previous marriage. Unless such a problem is faced and fixed, it still has power to negatively affect the current marriage.
- Denial of Conflict. Remarried couples want to succeed at their marriage. Sometimes these desires are so intense that couples deny there are problems in their remarriage. They may have difficulty facing the possibility of problems and the potential of divorce in their remarriage. Unless they face the reality, couples may fail to address problems when they are manageable.
- Problems with In-Laws. The extended kin network provides a vital source of emotional and practical support to families of all kinds. However, in a stepfamily setting, if current and former in-laws have difficulty accepting the remarriage, they may undermine the new relationship by behaving in rejecting ways toward the new spouse. This may place increased strain on their marriage, especially if the couple values ongoing contact with the expanded family.
Additional Challenges for Remarried Couples with Children
- Instant Parent. For couples bringing children to the remarriage, parental responsibilities are immediate. Because the newly married couple is happy and hopeful about the new family, they often expect that everyone else should be too. While there may be much optimism, the new parental role can bring potential conflict in the family that can spill over into the marriage. For instance, if a stepfather exercises his parental authority too soon with his stepchildren, the biological parent may be caught in the middle between defending her new husband and protecting her own children. In addition, she may differ with the approach to parenting taken by the "instant" parent.
- No Opportunity to Build the Marriage Prior to Having Children. Since the couple has immediate parenting responsibilities, they lose the opportunity to build the foundation of a successful marriage independently of children. These parenting demands occupy a lot of attention in a stepfamily, and if remarried couples are not wise, private time important for the vitality of their relationship will slip away.
- Intrusion of the Nonresidential Parent. The nonresidential parent may resent the stepparent and may do things which sabotage the new relationship. For example, a nonresidential father may choose to withhold child support payments. In response, the stepfather may pressure his wife to restrict visitation. Unpleasant conflicts such as these may place additional strain on the marriage.
- Pre-existing Parent-Child Relationships. Parent-child bonds precede the new marriage. These bonds may be drawn so tightly that they may resist the entry of a new stepparent. A stepparent may feel like an outsider and develop resentment that in turn negatively affects the marriage.
- Stepparent-Stepchild Relationships. The stepparent role is often a most difficult one. Not only must stepparents watch themselves with their new step-offspring, they must also operate toward the stepchildren in ways that please their new spouse. Conflicts over discipline can spell trouble for remarriages.
- Finances. Although financial difficulties arise in remarriages without children, they can be especially challenging when children are involved. And it's not over how much as often as over for whom the money should be spent. For example, a husband may have a dual responsibility of providing for his biological children from a previous marriage as well as meeting the financial needs of his stepchildren. Negotiating how much goes to whom can create conflict. Resentments can arise when one family sees money they need or could use going to another family.
Building a Solid Couple Bond
It takes a lot of time and energy to make the stepfamily household run smoothly. In the process, remarried couples may place their own relationship on the back burner. Here are some suggestions for helping to build a strong couple bond.
- Accept the couple relationship as the primary long-term relationship. Realize that for the good of the marriage, the children, and the stepfamily unit, no relationship takes precedence over your marriage relationship. It is the couple relationship that helps the household run smoothly.
- Take time to work on any problem areas. Problem areas might include conflict, bad habits carried over from the previous marriage, or poor communication skills. Keep the ex-spouse from interfering with your marriage or family relationships. If problems are more challenging than you can handle on your own, get help. Take a marriage enrichment program or seek counseling from a competent and trusted professional.
- Plan time to be alone together. Couples who grow together make time for their relationship. Spend time to learn one thing about your spouse's life that day, have a stress-reducing conversation at the end of each workday, do something every day to show genuine affection and appreciation, and have a weekly date. During special fun times together, make it a point not to discuss family matters. Just focus on the two of you.
- Decide on general household rules together. For example, hold a family council and decide as a family who does what household chores. Invite the participation of all family members, but the couple should maintain final authority.
- Support one another with the children. Allow your spouse to discipline children without interference. If you do disagree about how a situation was handled, take that matter up together privately. Don't disagree in front of the children on disciplinary matters but present a united front.
- Expect and accept different parent-child, stepparent-stepchild relationships . For example, a stepparent should not feel offended or left out if a stepchild prefers to seek the advice of his or her biological parent on an important matter. Different levels of comfort and depth of involvement in relationships are normal. Of course, certain things like being respectful to one parent or child and rude to others are not to be accepted.
- Work out financial matters together. Whether you use a common-pot, two-pot, or even three-pot financial arrangement, make sure you decide these issues as a couple. Neither spouse should follow an independent course of action. Work out a financial arrangement that you both feel good about. For more information on dealing with financial issues in stepfamilies, check out the book by Patricia Estess titled "Money Advice for your Successful Remarriage."
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 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".3
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:5
"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".
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" (p. 33). 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 (p. 29).
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.