Subscribe to our newsletter

Save a Marriage Today

Connect with us

Talking Blended

Do you call yourself a stepfamily or a blended family?
By Ron L. Deal

Life seems to tuck us into categories. Are you young or old? Republican or Democrat? From the South or North? A student or a graduate? Employed or unemployed? The list goes on and on.

When it comes to family life, the questions seem pretty straightforward: Are you married or single, a parent or not? But for stepfamilies, this seemingly simple question gets complicated—fast. Perhaps because the terms used to define and describe the blended family experience vary from person to person.

Do you, for example, call yourself a stepfamily or a blended family? Or perhaps you’re like those who call themselves a merged family, combined family, an instant family (like coffee?), a reconstituted family (sounds like orange juice to me), a binuclear family (which originated from the child’s perspective of having two nuclear homes, but sounds like “stand back it’s going to blow!”), or a remarried family (but then, some stepfamily couples are in a first marriage, not a remarriage).

And while we’re at it, is it spelled stepfamily or step-family, or step family? It’s all so puzzling. 

Can we talk?

Language is a living organism. When and how we use words—and their meaning—changes with time and culture. That certainly is the case with blended families.

When I first started teaching and writing about stepfamilies the term “stepfamily” was the predominate term within the United States. Then, about decade ago, I noticed a change in my Google search results suggesting that “stepfamily” and “blended family” were used equally in the popular culture.

More recently, however, the term blended family has vastly overtaken the term stepfamily at a ratio of about 3 to 1—at least, in the U.S. If you live in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or the United Kingdom, the term stepfamily is still the predominant term.

So, clearly the term blended family is the most widely used term for those of us in the U.S., right? Not so fast. If you live in the South (states like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and parts of Tennessee and Arkansas) the term blended family may refer to a biracial couple that may or may not have any stepchildren.

And then there are the strong emotional reactions that the terms stepfamily or stepparent have within some people. They point out that the term “step” has many negative connotations to it and dislike being associated with it.

They’re right. The term step does come with a shadow over it. It comes from an old Anglo-Saxon term meaning “bereaved or orphaned child.” When a child’s parent died, the child was bereaved; when a new mother or father came into the child’s life that person became a step-parent (that is, a parent ushered down the aisle into marriage and parenting by grief).

If that wasn’t bad enough, dark and evil images of fairytale stepparents –like Cinderella’s stepmother—have embedded in our psyche even more negativity with the word step. (Incidentally, the original author of Cinderella cast the evil stepmother as an evil mother, but the Brothers Grimm didn’t think society would tolerate a story about a horrible mother. So, when they republished the stories, they changed the character to be a stepparent. Cinderella’s real mother would never have rejected one daughter in favor of the others, but a selfish, manipulative stepmother would have no problem doing so. That was a story people could fathom. And with that one simple change, presto, a villain and a legacy was born! No wonder stepmothers hate the term!)

So, again, to solve the problem just do away with the term stepparent, right? Not so fast. I’ve never met a child who took issue with the term stepparent. I only hear that from adults. It’s quite clear to kids who is and who is not their parent. The term stepparent fits exactly right.

Said another way, I’ve never heard a child introduce an adult saying, “This is my blended mom.” And there lies the rub.

Slow cooking

Children use terms that represent their current level of bondedness and feelings toward stepfamily members; adults use terms that represent their hopes and desires. Kids say, “You’re my stepmom/dad.” Adults say, “We’re a blended family.”

Given this difference, the wisdom for adults is not attempting to use terminology to force their agenda for family connection on a child when it doesn’t yet naturally exist. Children often bow their backs a little when adults try to force terms of endearment, and therefore, love, down their throat.

Blended families don’t blend just because you want them to; rather, they clearly start out as “stepfamilies” and cook very slowly until a blending of relationships, identities, traditions, purposes, and hearts occurs. No single term has the power to rush that, but a pressuring word can sure slow it down. No, it’s far wiser to let relationship determine labels rather than the other way around. (For more about this, read “How to Cook a Stepfamily.”) 

Now, if you’re wondering how to spell stepfamily, well, it can be spelled stepfamily, step-family, or step family. These words are all acceptable in the English language. For what it’s worth, the consensus among academic writers is to spell all “step” words as one word, thus stepfamily is the most recommended spelling. But, of course, blended family is two words. Now I’m confused again!

© 2012 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family. 

Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit and 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g.,,, in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.



Save a Marriage Today

Subscribe to our newsletter