Stepfamilies are unique and individual – what works for one family may not work for another. Understanding the dynamics of your children and partner in the new constellation of your stepfamily helps create more harmony, trust and connection.

By Jeffrey Cottrill

Stepfamilies have unique and changing dynamics you need to respect and navigate along the way. “It’s important not to diminish the biological, non-residential parent in any way,” says Lillian Messinger, author of Remarriage: A Family Affair. “The children have a right to that parent’s love.” Ex-spouses will still be linked to each other via their children — as will uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents. “You must develop a family plan for a second marriage: think of all the ties the kids have,” advises Messinger.

According to Margorie Engel, MBA, Ph.D., the former president of the Stepfamily Association of America, the children in a stepfamily might feel like they’re being replaced by a stepparent. “Teens may have become more mature in a single-parent family, and had more responsibility looking after things,” she says, “but the stepparent may make them feel demoted. When the adult steps in, they might feel as if they’ve lost power. So the child will strike out, and the circumstance, not the adult, is to blame.

“Understand that the hostility may not be personal,” she continues. “The children may feel that they’re losing their parent. It’s very important to make time for parents to be alone with their own children, to show that they’re not abandoned; meanwhile, stepparents should build a history of common interests and create some one-on-one time, too.” A common mistake is to assume the family must do everything together, she adds. “Kids need time with friends and their natural relatives. There’s no problem with the father going away with his own children on a trip, for example. Everybody can get along by combining and compromising interests.”

Don’t let either your devotion to your own children or getting to know your spouse’s let you forget that you have a new spouse, too. Some stepparents sacrifice their marriages for the kids’ sake. “There’s an old joke that stepparents don’t have their honeymoon until the end of the marriage — when the kids have grown,” says Dr. Engel. “You have to nurture the marriage as well. Take a walk after dinner or go to a movie. Or have the children spend time with their non-residential parents on the same weekend, so you have a child-free weekend together.” If the marriage in a stepfamily is shaky, effective stepparenting will become impossible.

Because there are so many different types of stepfamilies, what works for others won’t necessarily work for you. “There simply isn’t one model that works in every situation,” Dr. Peter Marshall, author of Cinderella Revisited: How to Survive your Stepfamily without a Fairy Godmother, admits. “You can’t teach a course in it, like with first-time parenting, because the issues aren’t as predictable. There’s a world of difference between a stepfamily with one three-year-old and one with four teens from different families.” It’s your and your spouse’s responsibility to write a script for your own situation. If you can’t, enlist the help of a counselor — preferably one who has experience with stepfamilies.

Getting in step

According to Dr. Engel, “Adults all want the same thing: they all want supportive relationships, and they want to rear happy, healthy children. Stepfamilies aren’t as big a risk as the media make them out to be. People are trying harder now to work together, much more and much earlier. Typically, it takes a number of years, but they do it.”
It takes a great deal of time, adaptability, understanding, patience, and open-mindedness to have a happy stepfamily. Along the way, accept that there are going to be problems and awkwardness. Make a commitment to nurturing your marriage, and to raising happy, well-adjusted kids, and don’t be afraid to ask for help — from your spouse, family, friends, or a professional counselor if necessary. Your goals (a happy marriage, kids, and stepfamily) are too important to forfeit by suffering in silence.

Jeffrey Cottrill is the former Managing Editor of Divorce Magazine.

See related articles:
The Challenges of Re-Marrying and Becoming a Step-parent
How Blended Families Differ from Nuclear Families
Stepfamilies and Setting Your Ground Rules