With two of three remarriages ending in divorce, it’s clearly challenging to successfully create a happy and lasting stepfamily. Preparation and good communication go a long way to helping you overcome the challenges of re-marriage, blending families and becoming a stepparent.

By Jeffrey Cottrill

Perhaps you’re getting married to someone with children from a previous relationship, or else you have children and are getting remarried. Are you (or your new partner) ready for an instant stepfamily? To make it work, you need to let go of any preconceived notions you may have about stepfamilies and step parenting — and make room for adjustment and compromise.

It’s not uncommon for at least one of the spouses to have children from a previous marriage, and this can create awkwardness and even upset. Children are often the most affected by a divorce. It’s traumatic enough to see their parents break up, but how do they feel about you (or your new partner) suddenly appearing in their lives as a “replacement”?

If you’re marrying somebody with kids, it’s vital that you understand that the children are a major factor in his or her life — which makes them one in yours, too. Similarly, if you’re a parent marrying a non-parent, keep in mind that your partner is jumping straight from having no children to being a stepmom or stepdad — an awkward transition at best. And if both of you are parents, you need to find a way to “blend” your respective families.

“The first couple of years are usually chaotic, because the family is reassigning everyone to new roles,” says Margorie Engel, MBA, Ph.D., the former president of the Stepfamily Association of America. “Everybody’s jockeying for position in a new family. The order changes: the baby may no longer be the baby, or the eldest child may no longer be so. Everybody has to figure out where he/she fits.” The challenge of a stepfamily is to make order out of chaos: all family members need to learn their respective roles, and to work/play together as a team, if not a family.

Are you ready?

Creating a stepfamily is a huge decision — much bigger than getting married without dependent kids from earlier relationships — because of the obvious baggage. It’s not enough just to love somebody. You have to make sure your love is strong enough to share your partner’s family life — and even if you’re sure, you can’t just jump into it without preparation.

Dr. Peter Marshall — a child psychologist practicing in Barrie, ON and the author of Cinderella Revisited: How to Survive your Stepfamily without a Fairy Godmother — points out that the relationship with potential stepchildren will be a vital factor in whether your marriage will last. “If you don’t want to get involved in parenting, or your partner doesn’t, it won’t work,” he says. “If you want to live with a person, you need to think about whether you want to take responsibility for his or her children. It’s very stressful: life gets extremely complicated, and it’s not just temporary. Some people are just not ready for it.”

Jeannette Lofas, Ph.D., LCSW, the president and founder of The Stepfamily Foundation, stresses the necessity of careful consideration. “Keep in mind that two out of three remarriages fail,” she says. “Would you take the children on a plane to San Francisco if there was only a 1/3 chance that the plane would work? Prepare very carefully. Marriage takes a lot of work to survive nowadays; stepfamilies take even more.” Dr. Lofas suggests premarital counseling to make sure you and your partner really know what you’re getting into; a counselor will help you to work out a family plan, or at least to start creating a plan. “Learn how a stepfamily functions,” she advises. “The couple has to work out a system for agreement; otherwise there’ll be a lot of conflict. Make sure that you agree on the plan, and that the agreement is clear to everybody.”

Lillian Messinger, the author of Remarriage: A Family Affair and a pioneer in family counseling in Toronto, has seen problems arise with couples who hadn’t taken the children from their previous relationships into consideration before they married. “Too frequently, a remarrying couple hasn’t stopped to consider that it’s not a honeymoon period — it’s a new type of family,” she explains. She suggests that having children and step parents get to know each other early on, on a gradual basis, will help ease tensions. “The new relationship has to involve the children as it develops — they should be part of the courtship, and if the kids have any problems, they shouldn’t keep them secret. An advance relationship before the marriage is extremely important.”

Dr. Engel adds that doing parenting homework on your own might be necessary. “You should look at your own knowledge base for relationships with children,” she advises. “Read a good child-development book in order to understand how children develop. Talk to other people in stepfamilies as well.” Learning about stepfamilies second-hand is no substitute for experience, but it will help you find your way. “Parenting is a hard job. There’s lots of chaos and you’re bound to become the ‘bad guy’ sometimes.”

Above all, don’t expect it to be easy, or that you and your partner’s children will love each other immediately. (Sometimes, in fact, love never arises between step parents and children — but mutual respect and liking will take you a long way as a stepfamily.) The more prepared you and your partner are, the better you’ll be at withstanding the bumps along the way.

Jeffrey Cottrill is the former Managing Editor of Divorce Magazine.

See related articles:
Stepfamily Dynamics
How Blended Families Differ from Nuclear Families
Setting Ground Rules In Your Stepfamily