The Challenges of Step Family Living

Family life is being challenged every day. One out of two marriages is ending in divorce, no matter what their preparation, age, education or socioeconomic status. Many parents who divorce and remarry, divorce a second ...

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Family life is being challenged every day. One out of two marriages is ending in divorce, no matter what their preparation, age, education or socioeconomic status. Many parents who divorce and remarry, divorce a second time. According to statistics from the Stepfamily Association of America, almost sixty percent of re-married families divorce.

One would think when a parent with children marries a second time, the likelihood of success would be greater. Unfortunately, the data that we have indicates the opposite. Couples with children that re-marry have a tougher time at making their marriage work, as well as making their new family work.

Why? What are some of the challenges of stepfamily living? Some of the obvious ones are divided loyalties, the loss of stability as they go between two homes, the loss of attention as the new couple pays attention to one another and the deep sense of loss identified or not identified, as children adjust to living with one biological parent.

When a stepfamily is created, new, more complex relationships emerge. Thus it is essential that every stepfamily member become aware of the issues that naturally arise from being a stepfamily. All the members of this new family need to develop coping mechanisms and communication skills that are unique to stepfamilies. This process takes time and hard work.

Stepparents need help in understanding the inherent difficulties in blending two families together. They also need to learn child-rearing strategies, which are distinctly different from those of nuclear families.

Myths are beliefs that strongly influence the way we look at behaviors and attitudes. They affect how stepparents adjust to their new family, how they react to each other and how they react to the children they share.

One of the major myths is: "love occurs instantly between children and stepparents." This is clearly the expectation. Because you love your new partner, it is automatically believed that you will love his or her children. The children will automatically love you because you are such nice people. If you really think about it, you will recognize that establishing new relationships takes time. It does not happen overnight or by magic. It is a process that really takes a lot of hard work.

Another myth that some people hide behind is "children of divorce and re-marriage are forever damaged." Children go through a painful period of adjustment after a divorce or re-marriage. Adults often respond to their children's pain with guilt. Somehow they feel they can make it up to them. This leads to difficulties in responding appropriately to one's children's hurt, and setting appropriate limits, which is an important part of parenting.

Recent research offers renewed hope for children of divorce and re-marriage. With consistent hard work and time, most children do recover their emotional equilibrium. Five and ten years later, most are found to be no different in the ways that are important from the kids in first marriage families.

So often I hear the statement that "stepmothers are witches." This statement, more often than not, is based on the fairy tales we hear as children. These stories tell us about stepmothers who are not kind, nice or fair. Mothers may be confused about their roles when they become stepmothers. They are usually nice people, wanting to do a good job. Unfortunately, the world seems to have another idea about stepmothers.

This negative concept of the stepmother imports a very personal and often hurtful image of Mom as a stepparent. The research is clear and tells us that stepmothers have the most difficult role in the stepfamily. But, those who are step moms know that already.

Oftentimes, when people remarry, they are optimistic and hopeful. They want life to settle down and they want to get on with being happy. If your hope or expectation is that once the wedding vows are spoken, life will return to normal (whatever that is), you are going to be disappointed.

The adjustment to stepfamily life does not occur quickly or magically. Stepfamilies are complicated. It takes time for people to get to know each other, to create positive relationships and to develop some kind of significant family history. That usually takes a few years.

A disturbing myth is the belief that "children adjust to divorce and re-marriage more easily if the biological fathers or mothers withdraw."

Children will always have two biological parents, and will adjust better if they can have access to both. This means that they need to be able to see their non-residential parent and to think well of him or her. Sometimes visitation is painful for the non-residential parent, but it is very important to the child's adjustment and emotional health, except in those instances of parental abuse or neglect.

It really helps if the residential parent and stepparent can work toward a "parenting partnership" with all the adults involved. Sometimes this cannot happen right away, but it can be something to work toward.

The myth that "stepfamilies formed after a parent dies are easier" is a real misrepresentation of the truth. People need time to grieve the loss of a loved one. Any re-marriage runs the risk of "reactivating" the unfinished grieving. These emotional issues may get played out in the new relationship with detrimental effects.

When people remarry after the death of a spouse, especially one they loved, oftentimes they want a relationship similar to the one they had. When people remarry after a divorce, they are usually looking for something very different. Sometimes new partners may find themselves competing with a ghost.

Finally, many people live with the myth that there is only one kind of family, a husband, wife and children. Today there are lots of different kinds of families: first marriage, foster, single parent and stepfamilies to name a few. Each family system is valuable and has different, unique characteristics. Just because there are two adults in the stepfamily doesn't mean it recreates a biological family.

Stepfamilies are different, but can be equally nourishing, supportive and life giving. They demand a lot of work, insight and commitment on the part of every member of this new family system.

For further information, you can call the Stepfamily Association of America at 1-800-735-0329.

"The Challenges of Step Family Living" is a two-part program that will offer a clear and concise approach to helping individuals deal with the many challenges presented by the complex relationships of stepfamilies. This program will be held from 7:30pm to 9:30pm on Tuesday, May 31 and Tuesday, June 7, 2005. For further information, call 631-928-4114.