Author, Writer, Columnist
THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS
Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect.
Sample Chapter: Introduction
"Many people are married to people who
have been married to other people who are now married to still others to who the first parties may not have been married, but to who somebody has likely been married."
Lionel Tiger, "Omnigamy: The New Kinship System." Psychology Today
Almost 55 percent of first marriages in the United States end in divorce. Most divorced parents remarry (often more than once), and form (or join) blended or stepfamilies of which roughly 74 percent fail. Studies show that only 18 percent of re-married parents who have all of their children after the remarriage are happy; the rest see family life as mildly stressful to miserable. One reason is that within our society, there are no cultural scripts, no set of socially prescribed and understood guidelines for relating to each other or for defining responsibilities and obligations in these families. Although our society tends to broadly apply to second marriages the rules and assumptions of first marriages, these rules often ignore the complexities of stepfamilies.
Be aware that the term "blended family," currently popular and often used interchangeably with stepfamily, can also be confusing; you do not blend in the sense of losing the character and identity of your original family. Nor are families reconstituted or put back together. However, there is a difference between step- and blended-families in that in stepfamilies the child(ren) is of one co-parent; in a blended family, there are children from both co-parents. For the purpose of this book, both will be referred to as step, yet apply to both.
In blended and stepfamilies, although one biological parent lives elsewhere; virtually all family members have recently experienced a primary relationship loss; the children are members of more than one household; and one adult-the stepparent-is not legally related to the stepchild unless legally adopted. For children, the transition from one family structure to another, and another, creates a long period of upheaval and stress. Generally, children are forced to adjust first to a new single-parent household before adjusting again to the new two-parent stepfamily-two difficult transitions. And, more likely than not, a very tight, emotional bond developed in that single-parent household.
Children can also find it difficult to bond with their new stepfamily because there is a biological parent outside the new family unit. Remember, most of these children hold membership in two households, with two sets of rules. Additionally, role models for stepparents are poorly defined and blended/stepfamilies come together from diverse backgrounds, which means everybody needs to have (or develop) the ability to tolerate differences.
Relationships in blended/stepfamilies are new, untested, and not a given as they are in traditional families. Even when everyone is in tune, what is missing is the comfort of knowing that there is a bond taken for granted, a biological bond of caring and love. Now, outward signals and signs are continuously needed to show that caring and loving, or respect, really exist. Children in blended/stepfamilies also have at least one extra set of grandparents and extended family which can leave everyone on both sides confused about what to do.
Blended/stepfamilies come in all shapes and sizes. The simplest is one in which a divorced or widowed spouse with one child remarries a never-married childless spouse. In a more complicated case, both partners bring children in from previous marriages and also have a child together. If this marriage is followed by another divorce and remarriage, the new family gets even more complicated. Ex-spouses remarry, too, to people who have ex-spouses from previous marriages, and who then have children of their own. The result is an extraordinarily complicated network of family relationships in which your role can include that of parent, stepparent, spouse, ex-spouse, custodial parent, non-custodial parent, or absent parent.
Your children become siblings, residential stepsiblings, nonresidential stepsiblings, residential half-siblings, and nonresidential half-siblings. There are even two subtypes of half-sibling roles: those of children related by blood to only one of the adults, and the half-sibling role of the mutual child. Children also have step-grandparents and ex-step-grandparents.
Even though blended/stepfamilies are a large segment of the American families today, our language has not yet caught up with the proliferation of new family roles. As family members separate and join new families, the new kin do not so much replace as add to kin from the first marriage. What are the new relatives to be called? There may be stepparents, step-grandparents, and stepsiblings, but what, for instance does a child call the new wife that her or his non-custodial father has married? Or, if a child alternates between the two households in a joint-custody arrangement, where does he or she call "home," and where is his or her "family"? It takes the entire family working together to make the adjustment easier for everyone.
There is also a lack of legal definitions for the roles and relationship in blended/stepfamilies. Because family law assumes that all marriages are first marriages, there are no legal provisions for remarried-family problems, such as: balancing the husband's financial obligations to his spouses and children from current and previous marriages; defining a wife's obligations to husbands and children from new and old marriages; or, reconciling the competing claims of current and former spouses for shares of the estate of a deceased spouse. Not surprisingly, research suggests that remarried people may be reluctant to commit all of their economic resources to a second marriage, taking care to protect their individual interests and those of their biological children.
Legal regulations concerning incest are also inadequate. In all states, marriage and sexual relations are prohibited between people closely related by blood. Many states have found that these restrictions do not cover sexual relations or marriage between family members not related by blood-as between stepsiblings or between a child and a stepparent, for example-and have moved to modify their laws to protect children in remarried families from abuse. Incest taboos serve the important function of allowing children to develop affection for and identification with other family members without risking sexual exploitation.
In some states, a stepparent does not have the authority to see a stepchild's school records or to make medical decisions for them. The preservation of stepparent-stepchild relations when death or divorce severs the marital tie is also an issue. Visitation rights (and corresponding support obligation) of stepparents is only just beginning to be legally clarified. When a biological parent dies, the absence of custodial preference for stepparents over extended kin or even foster placement may result in children being removed from the home where they had close psychological ties to a stepparent-ties which may have taken a long time to develop.
In remarriages, stepchildren and finances present the greatest challenges to a successful remarriage. Many studies have found that children in blended/stepfamilies can be just as happy and well adjusted as children in traditional families, or nearly so. But, even though stepchildren may turn out to be happy and well adjusted, being a stepparent (or married to one) can bring its share of problems to any marriage.
About half of the women who remarry have a child, usually within two years after the wedding. This is most often the case when women have no children, or only one, from a previous marriage. Adding another child to your stepfamily is bound to be a complex adjustment. Even though these children bring none of the complications that come with expanding families across households, or the complex structure of family roles and relationships, the complication is from the viewpoint of the children from the previous marriage.
Stepsiblings may not get along because they resent sharing their room, their possessions, and their parent. Ties between your stepchild and their non-custodial parent may create a triangle effect that makes your spouse's previous marriage seem "more real" than this marriage. Children, upset after visits with their non-custodial parent, are forced to make major adjustments that make life difficult for everyone, and you might often feel caught between loyalties to your biological child and wanting to please your new spouse.
Three potential problem areas are financial burdens, role ambiguity, and the children's negative feelings when they don't want the new family to "work." Problems frequently begin with the previous divorce, particularly with regard to finances. Money problems tend to come up because of obligations left over from a first marriage. Remarried husbands may end up financially responsible for children from their first marriage and for their stepchildren. In many states an ex-wife's alimony (although not child support) automatically ends when she remarries. One study found that remarriage by a custodial mother can prompt sizable reductions in child support from her ex-husband. Blended/stepfamilies as a whole tend to have lower incomes than do other married couples.
Even though disproportionately more second wives are employed outside their homes than are first wives, husbands sometimes feel caught between the often impossible demands of their former family and their present one. Some second wives also feel resentful about the amount of income that goes to the husband's first wife to help support his children from that marriage. Or, a second wife may feel guilty about the burden of support her own children place on their stepfather.
The emotional impact of the previous divorce can also cause money problems. Some women stash money away in case of a second divorce, and some men refuse to revise their wills and insurance
policies for the same reason. For many couples, money is a sensitive issue that's not talked about. You are less likely to think and act in terms of "our" money.
Another basic problem is that legal roles of stepchild and stepparent are neither defined nor clearly understood. The role of stepparent can be precarious because the relationship between a stepparent and stepchild only exists in law as long as the biological parent and stepparent are married. If the biological parent dies, the stepparent instantly loses any legal claim to custody over his or her stepchild, and custody reverts back to the surviving biological parent. The only way to cement your legal ties to stepchildren is by adopting them, but this obviously requires the cooperation of the non-custodial parent, which may not be realistic.
Legally, the stepparent is a non-parent with no prescribed rights or duties. Tension, compromise, and confusion can rule when the role of parent is shared between a stepparent and the non-custodial natural parent. Some people still feel that stepparents aren't "real" parents, but our culture has no norms to suggest how they are different. Some studies point out that stepparents are less involved as parents and that spouses of stepparents expect this. Meanwhile, other studies find that biological mothers are dissatisfied when stepfathers are not very involved. Regardless, the less our roles are defined, the more unhappy we are as both parents and stepparents.
Another role ambiguity is that society seems to expect acquired parents and children to instantly love each other in much the same way as biological parents and their children do. In reality, however, this is often just not so. A stepparent might feel a tremendous amount of guilt about his or her lack of positive feelings (or even the presence of negative feelings) toward the spouse's children. Discipline might be a constant source of family conflict: You might, for example, think your ex-spouse isn't being strict enough, when in fact, most stepfathers and stepmothers think the real parent is not being strict enough.
As a stepparent, you might feel like an unbiased observer with a grudge because you're an outsider and the very thing that's making you "unbiased" is something you resent, biology. Stepchildren, as well, often don't react to their parent's new spouse as though he or she were the "real" parent. The irony of expecting instant "real" parent-child love is further complicated by the fact that stepparents are not generally expected to be "equal" in discipline or otherwise controlling their stepchildren.
Adding to the problem, adolescent stepchildren may have considerable family power. Children are a force to be reckoned with in any family, but in most stepfamilies, mothers have more power over both major and everyday decisions than either stepfathers or adolescents. In other stepfamilies, adolescents have more power than either parent, particularly in everyday decision-making. Active contact with the non-custodial parent also gives the adolescent an option-an alternative home, and so, more power to be wielded.
It helps when stepfathers have children of their own from a previous marriage. Perhaps experience with parenting makes a stepfather more effective and more authoritative. Adolescents also have less power in stepfamilies of greater longevity, reflecting either the breakup of the most troubled families or a gradual coming together of the new stepfamily over time. Nevertheless, children's attitudes as well as their power can have an impact on the new marriage.
The third reason for a difficult stepparent-child relationship might be that your child does not want this marriage to work, and so, acts out with hostility. Commonly children harbor fantasies that their biological parents will reunite. If children had reservations about or strongly disapproved of your divorce, they may sabotage your new relationships in the hope that you will get back together. Children who want their natural parents to remarry may feel that sabotaging the new relationship will get them back together. In
the case of remarriage after the death of a parent, children may have idealized, almost sacred memories of that parent and may not want another to take his or her place. Stepchildren can prove hostile adversaries, and this is especially true for adolescents.
For a young teenager, your new marriage may be more difficult to accept than was the divorce. At puberty, when children are discovering their own sexuality, it is remarkable how conservative they can expect their parents to be with regard to their sexuality. Adolescence can be a trying time for all, regardless of what's going on in the family. Teens tend to be impatient, self-centered, and argumentative. They can be especially distrustful, suspicious, and resentful toward a new stepparent, verbally critical of the stepparent's goals, values, or personal characteristics. Anger displacement may also play a part. Many adolescents blame their parents or themselves, or both, for the breakup of the first marriage, and the stepparent becomes a convenient scapegoat for their anger and hurt.
Although all stepchildren and stepparents are to some degree uncomfortable with some aspect of their new family role, certain difficulties are more likely to affect stepmothers, and others are more common to stepfathers. Conflicting expectations of a stepmother's role make it especially hard. As a stepparent, your best shot at happiness is to ignore the myths and negative images and to work to stay optimistic.
As a stepmother, your work is cut out for you. In fact, the role of stepmother is thought by some clinicians to be more difficult than that of stepfather. One important reason is that stepmother families, more than stepfather families, may be born of difficult custody battles and/or have a history of particularly troubled family relations. A remarried wife, seemingly out of left field, more often than a remarried husband, may suddenly be surprised to find herself a full-time stepmother.
Society also seems, on the one hand, to expect romantic, almost mythical loving relationships between stepmothers and children while, at the same time, portraying stepmothers as cruel, vain, selfish, competitive, and even abusive (Snow White, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel are just a few bedtime stories we are all familiar with). Stepmothers are also often accused of giving preferential treatment to their own children. As a result, a stepmother must be much better than just okay before she is considered acceptable. No matter how skillful and patient you are, all your actions are suspect. Is it any wonder that stepmothers tend to be more stressed, anxious, and depressed than other mothers and also more stressed than stepfathers?
Some researchers have found that stepmothers behave more negatively toward stepchildren than do stepfathers, and children in stepmother families seem to do less well in terms of their behavior. In fact, the relationship between stepmother and stepdaughter is often the most difficult. Yet, other studies indicate that stepmothers can have a positive impact on stepchildren. Because stepmothers are much more
likely to play an active part in the lives of children than stepfathers, perhaps there is simply more to go wrong.
Still, some step-mothering situations can make this role especially complicated. You may, for example, be a part-time or weekend stepmother if you are married to a non-custodial father who sees his children regularly. You may try with all your heart to establish a loving relationship with your husband's children, only to be openly rejected, or you may feel left out of part of his life because of his relationship with his children. In addition, a part-time stepmother can feel left out by her husband's relationship with his ex-wife; for example, non-custodial fathers need to spend time communicating with their ex-wives about their children's school problems, orthodontia, illnesses, and even household maintenance and repairs.
Men who marry women with children come to their new responsibilities with a mixed bag of emotions. Your motivations may be far different from those that make a man assume responsibility for his biological children. As a new husband you might react to your "instant" family with feelings which range from admiration to fright to contempt. You might even see yourself as less effective than a biological father.
A new stepfather typically enters a household headed by a mother. When a mother and her children make up a single-parent family, she tends to learn autonomy and self-confidence, and her children do more work around the house and take more responsibility in family decisions than do children in two-parent households. These are good things, but to enter such a family, you must work your way into a closed group. For one thing, mom and kids share a common history, one that does not yet include you.
Moving into your wife's house can make you feel like the "odd man out." It might be months before you feel comfortable and at home. In truth, initially, stepfathers do have less power relative to stepchildren, particular adolescents, when they move into the mother-child home.
You might feel out of place because of a different background or because you have a different perspective on what family life is all about. After years of living as a single-parent family, for instance, both mom and kids are likely to have evolved a fair chore allocation system. As a newcomer, especially if you assume the traditional male role in a two-earner remarriage, you may draw complaints that you are not contributing enough. Or, while you think it helpful not to interfere, your behavior might be seen as an unwillingness to contribute.
The hidden agenda is one of the first difficulties a stepfather runs into: The mother or her children, or both, may have expectations about what you will do, but may not give you a clear picture of what those expectations are. You may also have a hidden agenda of your own. You may see your new stepchildren as spoiled and unruly and decide they need discipline. Or you may find that after years of privacy, a bustling house full of children disrupts your routine.
A part of the stepchildren's hidden agenda is the extent to which they will let you play the father. Children can be adamant in their distaste for, or jealousy of, their stepfather, or they may be ready and anxious to accept you as a "new daddy." This last is particularly true of young children.
Stepfathers tend to be more distant and detached than stepmothers, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some detachment might be just what's needed in order to have a workable relationship with your stepchildren, especially during the early years of your marriage. Teenagers may be mature enough to think of you primarily as their mother's husband rather than as a stepfather. Teens, and younger children, may be unwilling to go back to being "children"-that is, dependent on and subject to adult direction. To you, they may seem spoiled and undisciplined rather than mature. Try to keep in mind that as part of a single-parent family, their responsibilities and participation in decisions were probably encouraged. The hidden agendas of mom, children, and you may be over simple matters of everyday living, things like food preferences, personal space, and the division of labor.
Discipline is likely to be particularly tricky for everyone. Two parents rather than one now establish house rules and influence the children's behavior, but you and your spouse may not agree. A second problem can be the influence of the biological father. To you, there may sometimes seem to be three parents instead of two-especially if the non-custodial father sees the children regularly-with the biological father wielding more influence than you, the stepfather. The key is for everyone to work together.
You might react to all of this in one of four ways. First, you might be driven away. Second, you might take control, establishing yourself as undisputed head of the household, and force the former single-parent family to accommodate your preferences. Third, you might assimilate into a family headed by a mother and have relatively little influence on the way things are done. And fourth, you, your new wife, your stepchildren, and their non-custodial biological father can all negotiate new ways of doing things by taking to heart and incorporating the information you are about to learn-the most positive alternative for everyone.
One Day at a Time
Okay. So now you have a pretty good feel for what everyone is going through. How do you start to make it better? How can you give yourself breathing space-time to catch your breath while your new family begins to come together emotionally and learns how to work together, a process that can take years? First you must be very clear about what you want and expect from this marriage and the individuals involved, including yourself. What are you willing to do? What do you need from your spouse in order to feel supported physically and emotionally? In a loving and positive way, now is the time to articulate, negotiate, and come to an agreement on your expectations and about how you and your partner will behave.
The best marriages are flexible marriages, but how can you be flexible if you do not know where you, your spouse, and the children stand and what everyone needs right now. And, this may change over time, so there must be room for that to happen as well because the truth is that people change and promises will not prevent change. People who vow never to change often try to hide their personal growth from each other, and the result, of course, is lost intimacy. People that are not flexible, that cannot change, may be left with a permanent, but stale, relationship.
In flexible marriages partners are freer to reveal their changing selves and the parts of themselves that no longer fit into their old established patterns. You and your partner must continue to be in touch at a deep emotional level even when the outer framework of your lives changes. The more you know, the more you grow. You couldn't possibly have known at the beginning of your new family what you know now and will learn later. Flexibility in your relationships will enable growth rather than tearing them apart.
Begin today by working with this book. Get in touch with your expectations and encourage every family member to do the same so that you can compare and negotiate the differences. Your goal, and your partner's, are to actively begin to define and built a healthy, supportive relationship. Talk over specific problems. Just because you were unable to predict some of the problems, don't let that stand in the way of dealing with them now.
It is not uncommon for people who marry again to feel reluctant to fully commit themselves emotionally, even though they want the marriage to work. The struggles of your first marriage and divorce can leave scars. When not openly acknowledged and healed, past failure, rejection, loss, and guilt can undermine a new intimate relationship without either of you understanding what is happening. One way to release these feelings is to share them, and to make it safe for your partner to do the same. Each of you needs to feel secure, respected, positive about yourself, and as comfortable as possible in your new family unit.
You may feel the "conflict taboo" even more than in your first marriage. It is understandable that you want to make this marriage work. You might feel too "battle-scarred" to open "a can of worms." And so, you gloss over differences that need airing and resolution-differences over which you may not have hesitated to wage war in your first marriage. Avoiding airing your differences is a serious mistake. It is important for you to understand your own and your partner's needs because society hasn't a clue how stepfamilies should work. Unless you talk about your expectations, they are likely to be unrealistic.
Legal issues have to be aired. One important topic often swept under the rug is inheritance. Do you want your money and property to go to your new spouse or your children? What does the law in your state have to say about this? As a custodial parent, you may want your new spouse to adopt the children. This generally involves a waiver of parental rights by the biological parent, for many an unrealistic expectation. Recent court cases have addressed this issue and such termination of parental rights is extremely rare. Further, children above a certain age, perhaps 14, may or must give their own consent to stepparent adoption in some states.
Rights of stepparents to visitation or even custody of a stepchild in the event of the biological parent's death or divorce from that biological parent is a crucial issue because so many people become closely attached to stepchildren. Case law and legislation in this area are rapidly changing. Although it seems unlikely-and with reason-that stepparents will legally replace biological parents, it is important to indicate in a will or other statement that the biological parent would like his or her children's relationship with a stepparent preserved through visitation, if that is the case.
Your chance for a stable, happy marriage is greatest when you have strong social support, good communication skills, a positive attitude about the marriage, and low role ambiguity, and when you are able to dismiss negative stereotypes and myths about remarriages or stepfamilies. Open communication and flexibility can help to establish support, understanding, and stability where few social norms exist.
Blended/stepfamilies are an ancient, normal kind of human family unit. They have been around as long as our human ancestors have lived in communal groups. Anthropologists define this ancient human institution as characterized by non-DNA related adults nurturing and protecting immature youngsters who have survived the death, divorce, or absence of a parent. Unlike foster parents, stepparents are emotionally (and perhaps financially and legally) bonded to a child's biological parent.
Until about 1950, about 90 percent of American blended/stepfamilies were founded after the death of a child's biological parent. Since the "sexual revolution," about 90 percent of U.S. stepfamilies now follow the divorce of a child's biological parents. One implication of this swift shift is that our culture has not had time to produce, distribute, and widely accept any norms for people in prior divorce-based stepfamilies to follow. Another implication is that both biological parents are now alive and often maintain contact, about child support, visitations, holidays, education, and myriad other stepfamily co-parenting topics. If both biological parents eventually remarry, their biological kid(s) may have four stepfamily adults in two homes telling them how to eat, brush their teeth, and do their homework.
On one level, stepfamilies are "just like" conventional biological families: adult couples, usually of different genders, and one or more minor kids living and growing together, and doing "family things" together. Step-people and biological people both pay bills, go to work and school, have holidays and cavities, pets, problems, and triumphs.
One another level, typical two- or three-home stepfamilies differ from one-home biological families in over 60 ways which are discussed later in the book. These combined differences cause most step-homes to feel and act as different from a "normal" biological family as a poodle differs from a rhino.
Because of these many unexpected dynamic and structural family differences, and the lack of social norms and support, typical newly remarried people soon become uneasy with what they bought into. Rosy romantic visions tarnish as stepfamily realities set in, and original shared expectations prove unrealistic. Resident and visiting step-kids are confronted with several dozen unique adjustment tasks, many of which their stepfamily adults aren't aware of, or cannot empathize with. Relatives-untrained in the dynamics and uniqueness of stepfamily life-are unrealistically critical or unfairly judgmental, automatically using biological family yardsticks.
The kaleidoscope of unexpected and alien stepfamily stress can often turn the hopes and romance-based confidence of remarried couples into mounting adult confusion, resentment, distrust, and anxieties. When troubled remarried couples look for professional help, they discover to their frustration that there is little or none.
Ultimately, the unexpected complexities, confusion, disillusionment, and lack of accessible, informed help combine to crack and ultimately destroy 50 percent or more of typical U.S. blended/stepfamilies. In stunned disbelief, previously-divorced biological parents and their minor (and grown) kids find themselves re-experiencing the horrors, agony, and financial and social convulsions of family breakup and divorce-again. The personal and social impact of this stepfamily re-divorce epidemic is tragic and incalculable.
This book is for women and men who are considering forming a new stepfamily; those who already have, and are finding it more challenging than they thought; well-meaning relatives; and professionals (clergy, counselors, educators, doctors, and family lawyers and judges) who want to support these couples. This book is as much for single, non-custodial divorced biological parents as it is for their remarrying mates and new stepfamily adult partners. Indirectly, this book is really for our country's millions of struggling step-kids who depend on their three or four stepfamily adults to provide them with the stable, safe, comforting, nurturing home(s) that they did not have the first time around, despite their parents' best efforts. Their parents very much wanted to do just that, but, without awareness, determination, and education, truly did not know how.
It is my hope that this book will bring you a fresh-and useful-view of the complex, challenging, and often alien world of multi-home stepfamilies. More to the point, that you find here validation (of your impressions and, perhaps, confusion); clarification of what is probably going on with and among your (many) family members; and, the inspiration and knowledge needed to not only set your stepfamily course together, but to navigate safely through the coming storms and years.
You will find, throughout this book, the word "enough," which signifies that while perfection might be attempted, not quite reaching it must not be viewed as failure or as an excuse to just give up. You are asked only for an awareness, a strong heart, and repeated attempts in the right direction.
Well-run by knowledgeable, confidant stepfamily adult teams (not just couples), this modern version of an ancient family form can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security-and often (not always) the love-that we adults and kids all long for.
Benign ignorance, altered mind-states, unresolved childhood issues, and incomplete grief will derail your journey if you choose to keep them hidden. You know what your life has been like keeping them underground. Here are the tools you need for positive change. The choice is yours.
THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family
of Support and Respect.