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The 25 Stepfamily Realities

You've Got to Name It to Tame It

This is the first step to succeeding in your stepfamily: GETTING REAL. 

Confusion, overwhelm, blaming, and their fallout plague millions of stepfamilies. It makes sense, few stepparents, parents-in-step, and stepchildren understand what is happening. Knowing why stepfamilies struggle is powerful medicine. 

Time and time again, studies prove that this knowledge (and using it) makes a HUGE difference. Your odds of staying together happily can almost triple. Knowing what is realistic to expect in a stepfamily is vital for creating household strategies that work. In other words, you have to know what you are dealing with before you can deal with it. Stepfamily Services teaches you about the following 25 dynamics* and strategies for dealing with them. 

A Reality Check

Stepfamily dynamics will always be there; it is our experience of them that changes. We can not turn our stepfamilies into original families (AKA intact, traditional, nuclear, biological families). But, we can become skilled and more relaxed in our stepfamilies. If you are at 'ouch' right now for certain stepfamily situations, like visitation drop-offs and pickups, you can move to 'good' and even to 'great'.

I have lived through every one of the following 25 stepfamily realities, three times - as a child in a stepfamily, and twice a stepmother. It wasn't until I could name what was happening that I could begin to respond more calmly and, eventually, wisely. Research tells us that knowing about the following 25 dynamics is vital for stepfamilies to succeed. Do you see your stepfamily in this list?

Improve Your Situation

Something happens when you know the following 25 realities of stepfamily life. It becomes clear that stepfamily life is naturally complicated and intense – it is amazing how blaming suddenly seems useless AND how much less power the dynamics have over our state of mind. Forgiveness is a natural next step. 

By knowing the typical realities (below) of stepfamily life, it can be like taking off the blindfold, and no longer being the handcuffed passenger on a roller coaster. 

Knowing what can be expected from a stepfamily, you can better prepare for and respond to situations, like stepfamily meals and drop-offs and departures, and learn by reflecting on how they went so that you can continually improve your stepfamily life. When you and your partner and the children can talk about these dynamics, using the same words, it can ease some of your communication. 

Prepare --> Respond --> Learn -->

Improved Preparation --> Improved Response --> Learn

With each dynamic below, I invite you to ask yourself, 

  • An example of this dynamic in my stepfamily is when _________________.
  • I have responded to this situation by _____________________.

The 25 Stepfamily Dynamics

1.The Stepfamily does not and can not function like an original family

Treating a stepfamily like an intact family is like pouring gasoline on a grease fire. The typical stepfamily is more complex and intense than an intact family. Stepfamilies operate from a unique combination of situations, feelings, and behaviors. Once learned, helpful responses to this reality can create helpful behaviors. Most struggling stepfamilies are trying to turn the stepfamily into what an intact family acts and feels like and feel disappointed, discouraged, contemptuous and critical when it doesn't measure up. Other stepfamilies deny there is a problem, believing that pain is an inevitable part of family. 

In an intact family, the children are often put before the parents. Biological parents experience their children as an extension of themselves, so it is natural to want to devote time, energy, and money to the children. In stark contrast, the stepparent often does not feel this desire, or does then may eventually not want the children to exist at all, depending on how imbalanced their partner's attention and respect is to the children's wants and needs compared to the stepparent.

Most stepfamilies experience confusion and disorientation once the honeymoon phase wears off. Stepfamily Services gives you a map of the territory of stepfamily dynamics and teaches you what works.

2. The Rejection of "Outsiders"

It is normal to reject a new heart, kidney, or other transplanted organ. This is a natural protective response that, without medical attention, can become pathological. A stepfamily can suffer from a similar issue psychologically. However, most stepfamilies do not realize this is what is happening and so do not seek help, or their counselors are not trained to recognize this issue as a stepfamily dynamic and so it it not appropriately addressed. 

3. Opposing Sexual and Biological Ties

In the intact family, generally both parents work together to build the well-being of the child. However, for stepcouples, the parent/child blood tie and the parent/stepparent sexual connection can settle into a tug-of-war. The parent is often torn between child and partner. The parent also has lost the possibility of experiencing the joy of sharing with their romantic partner the devotion to a shared biological child. Meanwhile, stepparents can become jealous and resentful of their partner's devotion and doting over the child. 

As a new romantic life partner, it is natural to expect to feel like the most important person in our partner's life. We do not expect to be seen as being "in the way" or "a complication." What actually often happens, is that the children are used to coming first and they do not believe the new stepparent is entitled to this rank. The parent then is caught in the middle, while the stepparent is treated like an outsider.

4. Sexual Tension

An often taboo subject is the natural sexual tension than can occur between stepchildren and stepparents, stepchildren and step-aunts, step-uncles, step-cousins, and so on, and between stepsiblings. However, this is a common experience. Without knowing a child from its infancy, the likelihood of sexual feelings rises. Acting on those feelings is never appropriate however. Keeping these feelings a secret may increase their energy. Working with a stepfamily counselor or coach, you can put safeguards in place to prevent tensions from turning into actions. 

5. Loyalty Conflicts

Every person in a stepfamily is impacted by the need to make tough choices between biological family members and steps. For example, when a stepchild begins to care about a stepparent, the stepchild may lash out toward the stepparent or act out in another way. They feel afraid that loving the stepparent means not loving the "real" parent. This is one reason stepchildren talk about their parents when visiting the other parent. Much depends on how both biological (or adoptive) parents handle their child's concerns.

Adults also experience this inner conflict. Parents especially experience the opposing pulls. Simple situations in an intact family suddenly are wrought with fragile connections in a stepfamily. For example, a mother's children want to go hiking alone with her but she feels guilty and worries the stepparent will feel left out. A father feels sad during date night when his visiting children are at home without him. Such internal conflicts can happen in an intact family, but they do not often feel like “no-win” situations or "double binds". To succeed in a stepfamily, it is crucial to notice and plan for conflicts of loyalties.   

6. The Myth of Instant Love

It is natural to believe that loving each other will mean loving each other's children. However, it simply is not that easy, especially after moving in together or marriage. Stepparents and parents and their counselors often assume that the stepparent should try to love the stepchildren, but this backfires. The stepchildren typically will pull away or lash out when they feel the stepparent forced upon them. Over time, by treading carefully, love can grow, but it can more easily be crushed by stepping in too much too soon than by stepping back with open arms.  

7. The Hope of Becoming One Big Happy Family

This too is a myth. Just as the evil stepmother is a grossly exaggerated cultural myth, so is the Brady Bunch. When harmony does not occur, the couple blames each other and each other’s children, eventually hostility can mount and everyone can begin to behave wickedly. The unrealistic expectation is destructive. Stepfamilies who do succeed, typically do so over the course of 4-7 challenging years figuring things out, and become a type of "happy" that looks different from an intact family.

8. Blaming Others and Self Instead of the Stepfamily Dynamics

Most stepfamilies get lost in blame, in accusing a stepfamily member of causing the distress. In fact, stepfamily members are each facing tremendous challenges. Stepfamily life has 'hard' built into it. Each person may be behaving in ways that make perfect sense psychologically. The trick is to learn about these 25 stepfamily realities and understand how they influence everyone's behaviors. Over time, you will create a household that buffers these harsh realities and respects each person's situation. 

9. Children Pull the StepCouple Apart

This is the #1 cause of stepfamily break up, whereas for original families child rearing issues rank at #6 and lower. Only 34% of stepcouples make it. To survive, your partnership with your mate must be STRONG. This means that love is not enough. Facing these 25 stepfamily realities as a team is simply not optional. There are ways to communicate that help stepcouples work together better. 

10. Co-Parenting

Attitudes about the parent that does not live with you can make your stepfamily adjustment harder or easier. Criticising eachother in front of the children, visitation battles, controlling through the children, and money disputes boomerang back on the stepfamily.  

Everyone is empowered by the former partners recovering emotionally from the divorce and agreeing to disagree on certain issues. A good tip is to only communicate about their children’s well-being, not their relationship. Each heated discussion can send shockwaves through the stepfamily. Many prior spouses have become a positive part of the stepfamily dynamics, offering their support logistically, financially, and emotionally through their responsible care of their children. The benefits are worth the effort to get along. 

On another note, there is no such thing as a former parent, yet current studies indicate a lack of interest in children and parenting, while birth rates increase. This means that more stepcouples face the challenge of filling in for an absent parent. 

11. There is No Replacing the Biological Parent

Children have the ability to revere their parents, even unkind parents, yet despise stepparents who reach out with the best of intentions. This is natural. That said, many stepchildren also are grateful for the chance at a more stable home environment than the one provided by their biological parent. Very young stepchildren tend to make the adjustment more easily and bond with kind stepparents. In any case, the stepparent and stepchild form a relationship that is unique to stepfamily relations. 

12. Unrealistic Expectations Bring Rejection and Resentment

Expectations take many forms, whether it be the child expecting the new stepparent to be awful or wonderful; the stepfather stating, “Now I’m the father around this house and we can start running things properly,” the stepmother feeling that caring and working hard will cure everything or that she can be uninvolved with his kids with impunity, etc.. Realistically or unrealistically, everyone mysteriously feels short- changed. 

13. Super-Stepparenting Does Not Work

We see this most with the stepmother. She comes into the situation with caring- trying to please. Superwoman would be hard pressed to compete with this gal- she works, she’s a homemaker, and a stepmother as well. The super stepfather can come on too fast and too soon. He is often concerned with issues of discipline. He wants to teach the children what he feels they have missed. Both stepmother and stepfather can endeavor to buy the child’s affection with gifts and events. Biological parents are not exempt from this practice.   

14. Job Descriptions are Crucial

Most couples in step do not establish clear job descriptions neither for themselves nor for the children involved. This lack of step management can result in upsetting consequences. Most who live in step are not clear with each other regarding the contributions and responsibilities that they expect. Often the notion of the contributions and responsibilities are based upon that of the intact family. Even more often, expectations are undelineated. *** Some of the work we do at the Stepfamily Foundation is defining exactly what the job descriptions are for each member of the household and each child whether visiting or permanent. For example, how living spaces are kept, how meals and cleanup are handled. Household etiquette should be defined, e.g. in this house we say “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you,” etc.. It is the role of the male and female head of the household to draw up job descriptions, agree, and then to present them in a positive way with room for feedback for children.  

15. Discipline

Discipline is one of the most important issues in step. Discipline does not just mean punishment. Discipline is also guidance and direction. All of us were raised with different styles of discipline. In an intact family, the couple has had time to decide on the modes and methods of discipline. In step, we must quickly and consciously decide and define how we will order our households. Discipline and structure equal caring and love. 

16. Visitation

Visitation is something that is generally upsetting to everyone in a nuclear and extended stepfamily. Each time the child goes between homes, the feelings related to the trauma and upset of the divorce can reoccur. The grownups involved often do not recognize that the difficulties and uncertainties of visitation can negatively impact all. *** Visitation is best when clearly defined, planned, and anticipated both coming and going.   

17. Fear of Loss of Territory and Position

Step is borne of loss. Step comes into being out of death, the death of the intact family and a failed marriage. Each person in the nuclear and extended stepfamily may have suffered a loss of position and territory. Many who live in step feel that their position is constantly threatened. Just as you have found your seat in the stepfamily someone else is sitting in it. Wanting to come first and vying for position reverberates throughout step… be it that of a wife, husband, Daddy’s girl, Mommy’s boy, first born, or baby. The urgency to establish position and turf pulls heavily. The single parent who focused only on the children must now divide her time between the children and her new partner. “Whose questions do I answer first?” “Who would be attended to first in a lifeboat situation?” The intact family did not prepare us for this. Each asks the question, where do I fit in? Where do I rank? *** As adults we must establish this order or we will create a problem which we label as “Position Hunger.”   

18. Feeling Invaded and Like An Outsider

In step, everyone feels like an outsider. The insiders become outsiders and the outsiders become insiders. Everyone can feel intruded upon. The man works all week and wants to be alone with his wife. Her children are there and his children will be visiting. She feels as though she has no relationship with her husband when his kids come over. Sometimes she may even resent her own children. The children see the new spouse as an intruder and outsider and taking away from the relationship with their parent.   

19. Guilt

In general, the absent biological father suffers the greatest degree of guilt. He may feel that he never sees his child enough to make a difference. He failed at the marriage. His payments are never enough. His child is being raised by a woman he no longer can influence nor cares for. HE frequently feels he only gets the bills and not the blessings. He feels the mother, his former spouse, may be poisoning the child against him. He suffers under the dreaded fear of losing his children. The truth is that a great percentage of absent biological parents actually do, for all intents and purposes, lose their relationship with their children. His fear have substance. In addition, his present wife blames him for being controlled by the former wife. She complains that he turns into a wimp every time his “ex” calls.

The woman can feel guilty about giving her attentions to the new man in her life and away from her children. Now, a new form of guilty female abounds in the land. She works- she is successful, she has little time to have easy, loving, unstructured, caring, female time with her children. She never does enough at her job, for her children, or for her man.  

20. Money

Money equals love in this culture. Money equals who you are and who you are not. We all too often relate our worth to the allocation of money. No matter how much money there is in the step situation, it repeatedly becomes an issue. Financially, many second wives believe they have become second best. She wonders why he must give the children money, in excess of the agreement… they haven’t had a vacation in years. The first wife and the children may also think they are not getting enough. He may feel he is not only supporting his children, but his wife’s children as well. Everyone wants more and thinks that they deserve more. She works hard and part of her money supplants the money he doesn’t have to put into their relationship due to alimony and child support payments. She pays for his kids and then feels like the maid (which they cannot afford) when his kids visit. The children perceive that Mom does not have enough money and that Dad and his new wife have more. The children can be resentful that Dad’s new family is taking away money that is rightfully theirs. Wills and insurance policies can become major weapons of war in step. Everyone can be wronged. Monetarily, adults may no t know what is the “right thing” in a step situation. Due to this complexity and confusion, money matters often end up being handled through avoidance or lack of disclosure. Generally, should the relationship break up, the law does not compensate stepparents for what could be years of service. It seems as though no matter what you do vis a vis money in step, somebody gets hurt. *** As difficult as it may be, it is important for step couples, prior to marriage, to carefully discuss and plan financial obligations and allocations. Prenuptial agreements are in order. In fact, we advocate the delineation of a postnuptial agreement concerning disbursements of time, energy, and money. 

21. OverIndulgence - The Need to Play Catch Up By Absent Biological Parent

The complaint of many women in step is that he overindulges his children on visitation. The issue here is a difficult one for many women to understand. The custodial mother has the notion that her children will always be close. She seldom thinks of losing them. Somehow her biological bonding allows her little understanding of the fears of the absent male biological parent. His children, on a daily basis, are being raised by someone, of whom he may no longer approve. He often feels the need to “play catch up” regarding love, influence, education, etc.. Should he discipline them? Reprimand them? Even see their negative behaviors??? If he does, he unconsciously may fear that they won’t want to come back. He is also concerned that his prior spouse will prompt the children and embellish any negativity- past, present, or future. 

We are now seeing more and more women giving up custody or sharing custody with their husbands. All of the above fears, overindulgences, and compensating behaviors now hold true for these women as well as men. Absent biological parents can and do lose touch with their children. Their concerns are well founded. When custody is shared, children are now offered the opportunity to play both parents against each other, further heightening the tendency to overindulge. The overindulged child can later have difficulties in a society which expects duties, contributions, and responsibilities. There are those who say that the whole crisis concerning the productive worker relates directly to the lack of parenting, loving discipline, and structure in the home. The increasing divorce rate, coupled with guilt about working compounds the overindulgence factor with children.

Overindulgence is not just a mistake made by absent biological parents. Today we see numerous single parents who are working hard and do not see their children often enough. Many tend to fall short of on the basics of disciplining. Beds do not have to be made, clothes do not have to be hung up. The children do not have to help with the meals but watch television instead while Mother does all the work.   

22. Stress and Step

We live in a stressful world. The resources to cope which were available in the 1950’s and the 1960’s are gone. An extended family, household help, the wife at home, even an affordable home, for many families are no longer possible. The new stresses currently placed on individuals are enormous: Male/female issues, high divorce rate, decline of buying power and the ever increasing demands of the work place- difficult in the intact family- are compounded in step. Many men must support two families- help their new wives with the household and additionally act as mother and father to their own children on weekends. 

Financially and domestically, the woman must carry her workload. Studies show that women still perform a far greater percentage of the housework. Children are impacted by the unrecognized stresses of visitation. They are further stressed by the lack of structure and the uncertain expectations of adults. Many children feel as though they are “Citizens of Nowhere.” For much of the time no one is home for them. Television is their constant companion. In addition, children are often asked to assume the responsibility of becoming the parent’s confidante regarding issues of money, dating, and personal problems. We often unthinkingly load up the child with the negatives of our lives. What a child needs most is a sense of security, belonging, and positivity. The child of today does not have enough caring human resources upon which he or she can rely.  

23. Sex and Step

Again and again spouses complain that, “when the children are here… our sex life isn’t.” Many adults become nervous and concerned when their children visit. There can be a tendency to focus their attentions on the children and withdraw their interest from their sexual partner. For the woman upset can occur when she perceives that he has been unfair to her children. This may cause her to pull away from him sexually. Sexuality can be a problem for the single parent. Long term relationships may be accepted by children. However, when long term relationships break up, the children once again suffer a loss. Casual encounters, the arrivals and departures of a variety of sexual partners may be detrimental to children, according to a number of studies.

The child’s sexual development can become confused in step situations. The Oedipal desires, i.e. the son wanting to have a Mommy all to himself and the daughter wanting all of Daddy’s attentions can take place in a divorce and become further conflicted in step situations. The boy may become Mommy’s little man. The girl may become Daddy’s little girl. When a stepparent is involved even the normal adolescent plying up to Daddy or protecting Mommy can become a cause for major upset in step. The family incest taboo must be addressed in step- not only between parent and child but also between step siblings as well.  

24. The Reluctant Stepparent

We are seeing a growing number of people both males and females who no longer “wish to be involved.” This has increased over the last decade. The causes are numerous. People have become involved in step and failed, draining their energies, emotions, and taxing their career. More women are working and devoting their time to the market place as opposed to the parent place. Should the relationship end in divorce, the adults involved are frequently reluctant to commit to any relationship involving children. We are seeing a greater number of people abstaining from serious involvements, having casual relationships, and sometimes no relationships at all.

We are also seeing a growing number of women who have never parented, who have been or are involved in relationships where there are children, deciding never to have a baby because of their negative experience of step. The ultimate stepparent is an ex-stepmother or an ex-stepfather. So often they are dissolved from their prior stepchildren's lives after years of involvement and caring. 

25. The Positive Dynamics

The above dynamics are generally negative and classic to step. They must be seen and dealt with. Not to be forgotten are the many “good news” stories in step. The well functioning stepfamily provides the child with many more people resources. The children are exposed to a variety of lifestyles, points of view, and experiences. Adults gain the love, admiration, and respect of another child. History is filled with great men and women who have had stepmothers and stepfathers who became powerful and positive influences upon them.

Now that You Know the Reality, Learn How to Help Your Stepfamily

*Many thanks to Jeannette Lofas, Ph.D., LCSW of The Stepfamily Foundation whose groundbreaking work in this field has brought these dynamics to light. Her observations are based on working with over 5,000 stepfamilies since the 1970's and have also been revealed in hundreds of studies by other researchers and clinicians.

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