Just because you’ve found someone you love after divorce and want to spend the rest of your days with doesn’t mean your children will be so loving or excited about the new stepfamily. There are some important differences between a blended family and a nuclear family that can help you get your stepfamily off on the right footing.

By Jeffrey Cottrill

Although blended families, or stepfamilies, have become much more common and accepted in recent years, people still fall into the trap of expecting them to run on automatic. The most frequent mistake that people make when marrying into stepfamilies is believing that they’re like “normal” or nuclear families.

“Most people think that love will instantly appear,” notes Jeannette Lofas, PhD., LCSW, the president and founder of The Stepfamily Foundation. “They think that a stepfamily will function like a biological family, and they say, ‘I’m going to be the new father/mother.’ But the kids don’t want somebody new; they already have a mother or father. So step parents need to know what their new roles entail. It’s important to know the dynamics absolutely: the parent always feels conflicted in love between the new spouse and the children, and you have to work out how to manage that.”

Margorie Engel, MBA, Ph.D., the former president of the Stepfamily Association of America also debunks the notion that a stepfamily is like a first family. “A step parent is a support system for the parent,” she explains. “Some new step parents mistake their roles: maybe the woman wants to be the rescuing fairy godmother, or the man wants to make the kids shape up their behavior. But that’s not your role — you’re just an assistant. Nevertheless, you’re deputized. The other extreme are the step parents who do nothing because they think they’re not in charge. But you have to be the responsible adult when the biological parent isn’t there.”

Dr. Peter Marshall, a child psychologist and author of Cinderella Revisited: How to Survive Your Stepfamily without a Fairy Godmother, believes that the key to surviving within blended families is to be realistic. “You have to get rid of any preconceived notions about what a family ought to be,” he explains. “Instead, say, ‘what kind of family are we going to be?’ You must be very flexible and willing to adapt. You never know how close a relationship might become — you and the stepchildren might just stay polite strangers, for all you know. Don’t try to force things into a particular mold. Lots of people live in families in which they don’t necessarily ‘love’ each other, but they make it work.”

This doesn’t mean your stepchildren won’t eventually grow to love you, or that your children won’t learn to love your new spouse. But remember that a stepfamily is composed of two different families from separate backgrounds. “A frequent problem is when people want the stepfamily to blend straight away,” observes Dr. Marshall, who himself lives happily in a stepfamily. “You have to respect the old family, because the relationships between the natural parent and his or her children are very close. They need time to be the old family as well as the new.”

Lillian Messinger, author of Remarriage: A Family Affair and a pioneer in family counseling, points out, “Often, the partners are at different stages of their lives, and have different attitudes towards child-rearing. Too many couples believe in the myth of the ‘instant family,’ or ‘instant love.’ It will take time for them to feel like a family. It requires a lot of planning in advance to avoid disappointment.”

So don’t expect your stepfamily to become the Brady Bunch. “Families don’t blend,” says Dr. Engel. “They combine, they expand, but they don’t blend.” So you should figure out what your (or your new partner’s) role is, rather than making assumptions.

Jeffrey Cottrill is the former Managing Editor of Divorce Magazine.