And Marriage Makes
Making Healthy Stepfamilies
By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.
"So complex is the process whereby
the remarried family system stabilizes
and regains its' forward developmental thrust that we have come to think
as adding another whole phase to the family life cycle for those involved."1
and Betty Carter,MSW
Experts estimate that by the year 2000 there will be more
stepfamilies than any other kind of family in the U.S. Half of Americans
have been or will be in a stepfamily constellation at some point in their
half of remarried spouses procreate a mutual child in addition to children
from one or both former marriages, while the remaining 50% of stepfamilies
fall into the categories of stepfather families, stepmother families or
complex families in which both spouses bring children from another marriage
into their new union.
If the joining of two individuals in marriage is comparable
to blending two different cultures, as many a family therapist has suggested,
then the joining of two individuals with histories of past marriages,
divorce and children must be the joining of two different galaxies!
Previous loyalties and relationship loss which predates
the new marriage can play major havoc on well meant intentions in stepfamilies,
along with other stressors. It is illuminating knowledge to couples at
the helm of these families, that family researchers have identified the
best predictor of stepfamily happiness to be the quality of the relationship
that develops between the stepparent and children.3
Like any transition, timing can be one of the most important factors in
favor of healthy adjustment. The next most important factor in stepfamily
adjustment, as in any family is the strength and quality of the couples'
bond. These two very important variables are obviously related, as any
natural parent will attest, who feels "torn" between his/her
children and spouse. And any stepparent can relate the awkwardness of
finding his/her place as a family member and as a parent in a maze of
relationships and shared history established prior to his/her arrival.
So, the task itself is fraught with paradoxes. It is often
painful and difficult for the stepparent to find a place in an already
established system that grieves the loss of a person you may have never
met, including being the person who children "test" to see if
you are "good" enough to earn membership. It is also important
to remember that one of the developmental tasks of a family is to raise
and nurture its' young to adulthood in the best way possible. It is important
to remember that as a stepparent, you had a choice in the situation while
the children did not. As the adult your responsibility must encompass
an understanding that you will be expected to be concerned and involved
in caring for these children and ensuring their sense of security in traveling
through this transition of adding you to their family! If the job is too
big---Don't sign up for it!! Remember you are the adult and you made the
choice to marry a spouse who came with children. Very often stepparents
suffer from unrealistic expectations regarding the transition of blending
families, resulting in feelings of helplessness and victimization.
And very often natural parents share fantasies of the
perfect family union, pressuring spouses to love children they do not
even really know yet, or expecting a stepparent to discipline a child
before an appropriate affection has grown between the two. Natural parents
can play an important role in supporting the stepparent appropriately,
including being understanding of the frustration this role can hold, particularly
in the first two years of the new marriage. Pacing the role that a stepparent
takes on in the family to match realistically with the development of
the relationship between stepparent and child will go along way towards
developing a positive relationship.
Because more than 50% of remarriages end in divorce, we
can assume that information about the very complex process of blending
families is not well known. Being able to identify common pitfalls, predictable
feelings, and characteristics of successful remarried families will elucidate
a more viable and realistic vision.
In order to better understand this transition, let's take
a look at what the characteristics of successful remarriage are according
to family researchers.4
No instant love
Relationships take time. Time to grow, time to mourn the
past family unit. Realistic expectations between stepparents and children
must include a gradual period of getting to know one another. There is
no such thing as instant intimacy. One of the most common pitfalls that
stepfamilies can fall into is the expectation that "we are one big
happy family". This kind of idealization is often the result of unresolved
past loss and a set up for failure and disappointment. Respect one another
and take the time to become acquainted. Let the relationship build security
and caring on its own merit, without pressure to fill the fantasy of loving
one another before a solid " like" has been established. On
the average, 2-3 years is the time period for developing these bonds and
stabilizing the new family.
Losses can be mourned
By the time of a second marriage, it is often a child's
third family unit. The first being the biological parents' marriage, the
second being a separate or single family unit and the third being the
new relationship which involves a stepparent. Children need parental permission
and understanding to grieve these losses, before embracing the new family
system. Failure to accept mourning as a natural feeling may result in
angry outbursts and potential alienation. One way to build relationships
at this transitional time, is to allow stepparent-child relationships
to be initially more distant. Eventually, if given the space to express
themselves and resolve past loss, children do show genuine interest or
liking for this new person who has been brought into their home. Children
will eventually respond to the health and love present in the couples'
relationship over time, as they do want their parents to be happy.
Parents also suffer loss, particularly if their own biological
children are not living with them. Loyalty to previous members who used
to live under one roof can make it a difficult process to bond to new
members, but given time and respect for each others' feelings and boundaries,
these bonds do grow. Relationships become what they are meant to be. A
small child will tend towards accepting the stepparent in a parental role
differently than a teenager. Coming into a teenager's life may involve
more of a friendship, depending on the individuals and needs involved,
while coming into a family with a one year old will usually require parental
nurturance and attachment similar to that of a primary parent.
Strong couples' relationship
Even though taking on certain responsibilities, particularly
discipline, may take some time for a stepparent, the key to any healthy
family system is the mutual love, caring and respect that the spouses
share. Working through the predictable stresses of becoming a stepfamily
secures your relationship. Taking time to be together is also important,
as in this situation the honeymoon phase of the relationship has no doubt
been curtailed. Take time to be alone and develop your bond independent
of the children and parenting roles in the family. This is not a step
that can be skipped! The couple relationship needs some breathing space
of its' own to grow. Getting away for a weekend may be difficult with
all that is going on, but it is essential to the health of your marriage.
Resolving difficult parenting issues through honest sharing
and understanding will build intimacy. Just remember to be patient with
the desire for change. And seek the help of a counselor to help you resolve
and understand the very tumultuous feelings you will be having in building
your new family system.
Satisfactory step relations develop gradually and authority
must be predicated on genuine affection
Too often a stepparent expects or is expected to fill
in as a full-blown parent including discipline. This may happen after
children and stepparent have developed a bond of trust and caring. It
also might not ever happen, particularly if the children are teenagers
when the stepparent arrives on the scene. Adjust to the situation according
to its' natural evolution. It is unrealistic to assume your authority
will develop the same with a teenager as a young child. Respect boundaries
and what has come before as well as being open to a different form of
relating than your idealized interpretation of what family "should"
Establish satisfying rituals
Every family develops its' own culture. This gives members
a sense of belonging to an intimate group. Holiday rituals can be developed
that are unique to the present constellation. For example, a mother of
two children marries a Jewish man. Chanuka celebrations might be added
to Christmas, and the children learn new rituals and philosophies for
living. Other elements, like specific kinds of jokes or well-intentioned
humor can also go a long way in weaving a family together. Be open to
the unique characteristics and pleasures that develop naturally and spontaneously
between family members. Humor is a powerfully bonding experience. Finding
ways to laugh together will go along way towards establishing a sense
of belonging. Humor can be a form of intimacy, as sharing fun builds relationships
in which people tend to seek each other out.
Separate but cooperative households which involve ex-spouses/biological
Supporting children's relationship to their biological
parent who does not live in the stepfamily is important to healthy development.
Keeping these situations separate will decrease chances for conflict with
children being caught in the crossfire.
There are situations that are not ideal but can be carefully
managed to bring out cooperation and there are situations that experts
recommend against for co-custody which may not allow for cooperation.
In these more extreme cases (mental imbalance, parental dysfunction, or
severe child rearing conflict) family researchers recommend decreased
contact and no joint custody. However in the ideal, often with professional
help, parents are able to get over past hurts and work in the agreed best
interest of the children.
WHAT DO STEPPARENTS SAY?
Perhaps the best advice comes from the parents and stepparents
who have made it work! In a study by Duhl5
families that have succeeded in creating a healthy remarriage and developing
strong bonds with children gave the following advice to people embarking
on this journey of family-making:
- Go slow. Take time. Settle your old marriage (divorce)
before you start a new one. Accept the need for continual involvement
of parts of the old family with the new. Help children maintain relationships
with biological parents.
- Stepparents should try for mutual courtesy, but not
expect a child's love. Respect the special bond between biological parent
- Communicate, negotiate compromise, and accept what
cannot be changed.
In the end fathering and mothering are a result of the
time and effort we put into it. It is true that anyone can be a biological
"parent". But we all know of far too many cases where there
are natural parents but no true parenting. Stepparenting is always a conscious
choice, whereby biological parenthood may be accidental. Wherever there
is a choice to bring forth life, or be involved in intimate relationship
to developing children, we must remember that it is not the children who
have asked to be born or to "become married".
Our children deserve our superior effort at understanding
what is in their best interest, especially when feelings and struggles
are intense, as they often are in the transition to a remarried family
constellation. And it is a parents' job to be able to consider the needs
of the child and expect to put them first when appropriate. This is the
nature of parenthood. Whether you come by it biologically or through marriage,
parenthood requires maturity.
As with anything in life that involves soulful effort
and an amount of personal sacrifice, the rewards are reaped by those who
sow. One 17 year old who had lived in a remarried family since she was
13 summed up her feelings for her stepfather this way, "He's my Dad.
Anyone can be a father, but he's been there for me. I have a father, too.
But he's my Dad!" Remember, too, that children fare better the more
adults they have who are committed to their growth and well-being. There
can be room for two Dads or two Moms, if each relationship is respected
for what it is and supported in its' uniqueness. There has always been
considerable controversy surrounding the less than ideal emergence of
the nuclear family since its' recent inception. Perhaps the newly constellated
stepfamily network at its' best holds promise for a return to a kind of
extended family system. In any case, with support and knowledge for the
natural feelings and challenges of this kind of system, perhaps we will
be able to recognize the unique opportunity for conscious love, caring
and commitment that a stepfamily holds. Learning the value of nurturing
is afterall the core of healthy relationships of all kinds. See also
You're Not "The Brady Bunch" - a reader's question
to Gayle about step parenting teenagers.
1. McGoldrick and Carter Forming a Remarried Family
in The Changing Family Life Cycle , edited by McGoldrick and Carter,
2nd ed. Gardner Press, N.Y. 1988
2. Glick,Paul, 1991, from the 1987 National Survey of Families and Households
presented at Address to Annual Conference, Stepfamily Associates of America,
Lincoln, Nebraska, Oct. 1991.
3. Visher and Visher, chapter 8 in Normal Family Processes, edited
by Froma Walsh, Guilford Press, NY 1993 2nd edition
4. Visher and Visher, chapter 8 in Normal Family Processes edited
by Froma Walsh, Guilford Press, NY 1993 2nd edition
5. McGoldrick and Carter Forming a Remarried Family in The
Changing Family Life Cycle , edited by McGoldrick and Carter, 2nd
ed. Gardner Press, NY 1988
Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist
specializing in prenatal and family development. She
trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model
and is the author of An
Easier Childbirth, Birthing
Normally and her latest book, Making
Healthy Families. Her articles on family
relationships appear in professional journals and
she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such
as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting.
. She also serves on the
advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.
Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.
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