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Change Your Steps in the Stepfamily Dance

You can survive step-kids!

Ever feel there should be a medal of honor for hanging on to your marriage while raising step-kids?

It's not easy to form a remarried family when one or both of you has a child. Some of my colleagues like the term, “blended family” (“just add kids and stir”). But here’s the problem: families don’t blend.

Obviously, life iy simpler when step-kids are already launched at the time of a re-marriage, or are so young that there’s lots of time to develop a new history with them. But re-marriage is rarely simple with a child in the house.Try to embrace, or, more realistically, appreciate the complexity. Rather than blending, You're more likely to feel that have been put through the blender.

Of course, it's complicated. When two people marry or couple up for the first time, they bring to their relationship the usual emotional baggage from their family of origin. When they form a stepfamily, one or both of also carry the emotional baggage from a first marriage and from the painful termination of that marriage through divorce or death. And triangles and loyalty issues are just about built into the system of stepfamily life.

When the woman becomes a stepmother, the whole world may expect her to take care of his children along with any she might have, because this is “what women do”

The father is likely to feel tied in knots from the negativity between his new wife and his child--or between his wife and his ex—without a clue how to make things better.

The stepfather, for his part, may try to step into an authority role with his wife’s children, only to find that his well-intentioned efforts are rebuffed.

If you expect everyone to feel “at home” in your stepfamily, drop the dream of blending everyone into a family “smoothie.” Forging a new family takes time, and couples need to move against the natural wish to push closeness.

Instead, both stepmoms and stepdads need to be sensitive to the importance of hanging out on the periphery. For example, If the mother enjoyed a special birthday ritual with her son before her re-marriage, her new husband can support them continuing the ritual as usual—just the two of them—rather than insisting that he come along. With time, the family can create new rituals of their own.

If there is a teen in the house, hanging out on the periphery is essential. Teens are especially confused by demands that they bond with new family, because they’re trying to separate from the family they already have.

Monica MCGoldrick puts it this way: If your stepkids are young, or if you’re very lucky, you may develop a parentlike relationship over time. If this happens that’s wonderful, but it’s an extra—not a given and not something to be expected.

All that should be expected is that stepmothers and stepchildren treat each other with courtesy, decency and respect. It’s the parent (not the stepparent) who has the primary responsibility to see that this particular expectation is enforced.

Marriage Rules has nine user-friendly rules for making your stepfamily work. While reading them, you may feel that you've just been given a plate of overcooked liver dressed with dry Brussels sprouts. The rules are simple, but putting them into practice takes courage, fortitude, and grace under pressure.

Start with two of the rules and stick with them. Take the high road. It's hard. And it's worth it.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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