The Stepfamily Recipe – Inside the November 2015 Issue

stepfamily recipe
Inside the November 2015 Issue

The Stepfamily Recipe: Satisfy Your Stepfamily’s Needs by Recognizing Its Unique Ingredients by Dianne Martin, BSW, RSW

Many couples enter stepfamily life unaware of the monumental challenges they will encounter—challenges that often result from failing to appreciate the numerous structural and functional differences between first families and remarried families.

After all, the two have just about as much in common as apples and oranges.

Stepcouples frequently find themselves floundering in unfamiliar and unfriendly seas as they begin the process of merging two families. Understanding what to expect enables stepcouples to address the problems encountered along their journey.

The following material broadly outlines the critical differences between first families and stepfamilies—for smoother sailing. …To read the rest of this article, log in to your account and download the November 2015 issue. Don’t have an account? Click here to subscribe.


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  1. What’s Normal in a Typical Stepfamily

    A stepfamily is one where one or more adults are doing part-time or full-time parenting for their romantic partner’s biological child(ren). Thus, parental cohabitation with a new adult partner after divorce or a mate’s death forms a psychological stepfamily. Post-divorce stepfamilies have legal documents that further define them: property settlement decrees, and child custody, support, visitation, and sometimes stepfamily co-parenting agreements.

    Older remarrying couples whose kids are all grown still form a stepfamily. They do bypass many, but not all, of the stress of stepfamilies with dependent kids, e.g., child visitation, support, and custody conflicts. They still encounter some of the most serious common causes of stress, particularly stepfamily ignorance, unhealed childhood trauma, incomplete grief, and divisive loyalty conflicts around grandkids, wills and bequests, holidays, and key traditions.

    An intact nuclear (parents and kids) biological family normally lives in one home. Typical nuclear stepfamilies live in two or three stepfamily co-parenting homes woven tightly together by child visitations, legal agreements and responsibilities, genes, history, finances, and deep emotions. The only stepfamily that lives in one home is one where all biological kids or non-custodial biological parents are dead. Even then, there are usually emotional and other ties with living former in-laws and with step-kin living in other homes.

    Because stepfamilies are adults and children living and growing together, sharing concerns with work and school, pets, health, bills, chores, religion, friends, etc., they do share some average biological family traits. Yet, certain “common sense” biological family operating rules and values cannot only be ineffective, but even harmful.

    Some key differences:

    Unlike biological families, normal/typical stepfamilies…

    Live in two or three homes linked for a decade or more by genes, child visitation, support, and custody agreements; divorce decrees and obligations, history and mementos, and strong emotions.
    Always include one or more living or dead ex-spouses and their relatives, who are usually emotionally part of the family.

    Are always founded on two sets of major losses: divorce or death, and remarriage and cohabiting. All three generations on both sides need to grieve these abstract and physical losses well.
    Have up to thirty family roles (e.g., stepdaughter), compared to the fifteen roles in typical biological families. There are no schools or accepted social conventions for these extra fifteen roles, so they typically cause confusion and frustration in and between linked homes until a stepfamily-wide consensus evolves on them.

    Include many more people. Typical multi-home, three-generation stepfamilies have over sixty members.

    May have complex confusion over priorities, values, names, rules, holidays, inclusions, traditions, money, and loyalties.

    Have common social isolation, misunderstandings, and biases to deal with.
    Stepfamily adults usually have to master numerous major developmental tasks, many of which have no equivalent in biological families—with little preparation or social support.

    Because stepfamilies are so different from biological families, all remarrying adults and emotionally important kin, including their prior parenting partners, should study stepfamily basics, regardless of prior biological family experience. Note that growing up as a stepchild is probably not adequate preparation for being an effective stepfamily adult.

    Over time, all parenting households evolve hundreds of rules about child discipline, finances, holidays, names, privacy, money, pets, home chores, grooming, health, worship, etc. Some of these rules are unspoken while others are vocalized and clear. Because stepfamilies are so different, some “normal” biological family rules about co-living—and especially about parenting—can cause conflict rather than order. Other “normal” biological family rules about who’s in charge of the home, hygiene, privacy, interpersonal respect, clear communications, honesty, nutrition, and the like, are still relevant and applicable.

    Sometimes step-people are stressed by trying to force “normal” biological family priorities on their new household. For example, pushing step-kids to accept, respect, and like (or love) their new step-relatives quickly because “kids should respect (i.e., obey) their elders” can cause major resentment, guilt, and frustration.

    Brady Brunch notwithstanding, new love is usually not enough!

    Relatives and friends of remarried people often mistakenly expect the new household and kin to feel and act like a biological family. They also may not approve of either the prior divorce(s) or the remarriage. Therefore, friends and relatives may be startlingly un-empathic and critical, or offer unrealistic or inappropriate (i.e., biological family) suggestions if your new stepfamily runs into unexpected problems.

    Ex-Mate(s) Challenges

    Divorce and/or spouse death do end the physical and legal ties of a marriage, but they usually don’t end the emotional ties of a marriage. They also usually do not end the emotional ties between the partners, especially if they have raised kids together. Re-weddings, cohabiting, births of new children, stepchild adoptions, graduations, and other family events can trigger unexpected strong feelings, including sexual, in and between divorced biological parents, well after their parting.

    “Endless” ex-mate hostility and personal and legal battles over child custody, support, and visitation, or constant demands for personal attention or assistance can signal a marriage that is still emotionally alive. Other symptoms are a biological parent that is:

    Ceaselessly rehashing the good (or bad) old biological family or marital times.
    Forbidding their minor kid(s) to mention their stepparent, to obey them, or to call them “Stepmother” or, “Stepfather.”
    Steadily avoiding appropriate social or dating contacts.
    Refusing to accept their identity as a stepfamily member.
    Refusing to talk about (or with) their ex-mate, or to join them in normal stepfamily co-parenting responsibilities.
    Staying too close (a subjective judgment call) with their ex in-laws.
    Vehemently denying they are doing these things, or pooh-poohing them.

    Note also that grandparents and other in-laws can deny the reality of their child’s or kin’s divorce and show similar symptoms. So can biological kids. The two core issues here are: (1.) whether an ex-mate needs recovery from old childhood wounds, and (2.) whether all affected by a death or divorce—and remarriage—have grieved their losses well.

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