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Stepfamilies Are Different … and the Same

I’ve been a therapist working with stepfamilies for over two decades, and I often can’t get couples to understand one simple truth: Stepfamilies are different from biological families. Many couples…

I’ve been a therapist working with stepfamilies for over two decades, and I often can’t get couples to understand one simple truth: Stepfamilies are different from biological families.

Many couples think that their blended family will flow and function like a biological family, only with different people involved. But the interactions among the different stepfamily members is much more complicated. Future stepparents often fail to understand how helpless and frustrating the experience may actually be for most of them, and then they get discouraged when they experience reality.

The good news, however, is that stepfamilies and biological families do share one major similarity: God’s principles for living still apply and still hold promise for a healthy home, no matter how that home came together.

Let’s consider, then, just a few ways that stepfamilies are different and yet the same from biological families.

What is different?

Stepfamilies have outsiders. In a biological family everyone is an “insider,” meaning they have instant belonging and the rights and privileges of being part of the family. This naturally invites cooperation. Children, for example, naturally respect their parents’ authority, and they inherently trust them unless something happens to inhibit that trust.

However, in blended families someone is always an outsider. At first, stepsiblings are outsiders to each other and stepparents are outsiders to children. This makes a stepparent’s authority ambiguous and easily challenged by a child, which affects the process of parenting dramatically. Merging outsiders with insiders is a key task of becoming a healthy stepfamily.

Stress divides. During times of stress, insiders in biological families tend to move toward one another, while outsiders in stepfamilies become more distant. Insiders grant each other forgiveness more quickly and trust the good will of other insiders, but they look at outsiders with suspicion and doubt. This makes overcoming conflict more difficult and bonding between insiders and outsiders more challenging, but not impossible.

Parental roles are unclear. In biological families, the role of parents is clear, and society and the legal system support those roles. Stepparents have an unclear role and line of authority that must be defined and negotiated over time by family members. This is why it’s so important for the biological parent in a stepfamily to back up the stepparent. In so doing, one clear authority elevates the status of the unclear authority.

Born out of loss. A biological family is born out of romance (the dating couple), while a stepfamily is born out of loss. Every stepfamily has a loss narrative just below the surface that impacts and influences every aspect of family life.

For a child whose father died, for example, embracing a stepdad can feel like an act of betrayal or like burying his father all over again. Therefore, sadness impacts bonding. In another example, given his parents’ divorce, a child may view one parent falling in love with someone new as the permanent loss of family reconciliation. This makes welcoming a parent’s new marriage and the new stepfamily difficult.

Relationships are moving in different directions. Family members of biological families are all moving in the same relational direction. That is, what supports one relationship also supports another. For example, when a husband and wife love each other, their biological children feel comfortable and safe at home under the umbrella of that love.

But in stepfamilies, relationships are often moving in two different directions. So when a parent and stepparent love each other or spend time together, the biological children can feel in competition with their stepparent and may feel pushed aside. Thus, the marriage is moving in one direction while the parent-child relationship is moving in another. This naturally pits stepfamily members against each other, all while outsiders are trying to gain membership as insiders.

What’s the same?

While the structure and emotional process of being a stepfamily is very different from a biological family, the application of God’s principles for healthy living are still effective. That part never changes.

Everyone is valuable. Galatians 4:6-7 says, “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

We are all adopted children of God, and therefore members of a spiritual stepfamily, and yet God has treated us like His very own children, where we can eat at His table and partake of His inheritance. With God as our example, those in a blended family must make one another feel appreciated, valued, and worthwhile. Look for the potential in each member of the family, and draw it out.

We all need mercy and forgiveness. Grace is an essential part of family living, no matter what kind of family you are in. People are going to hurt you, and as Christians, we need to extend the same mercy and forgiveness that we want extended to us.

For example, ex-spouses who have caused hurt need to be forgiven (Colossians 3:12-14)—not just for your sake, but for the sake of the children you have together. Another example is how you must forgive painful words used by stepchildren to show their anger or resentment. You will be living with each other for the rest of your lives, and extending forgiveness will bring healing long into the future.

Respect. While it can be awkward and challenging to do so, children must still choose to respect stepparents (Ephesians 6:1-2). And in strengthening their relationships with children, stepparents can apply patience, gentleness, and self-control to their parenting responses (Galatians 5:22). Respect goes both ways, and a stepchild can more likely respect a stepparent who treats that child like a person with worth, potential, and feelings.

Compassion. Stepfamilies are built on broken foundations, so each person has experienced some kind of grief. Jesus taught us to be compassionate for the hurting. In John 11:35, He wept with those He loved over their lost family member. Stepfamily members should put on compassion for the sadness each person carries.

Love and kindness. Finally, to help overcome their differences, stepfamilies should strive for the virtues of kindness and love, which binds all good things together (Colossians 3:14). All of us as Christians are in the same family, and Jesus tells us that we should love one another: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

Sometimes loving your stepfamily means overlooking petty comments, keeping your mouth closed when you want to speak, or doing something kind for others even when they don’t appreciate it. And you’ll be amazed at what will result in the future from these seeds of love.

What matters most

Clearly, some things in stepfamilies are different. But what matters most is the same in all families. With all the differences, there will be a lot of hard work. It isn’t easy to love those who despise you or overlook grievances. But when you look deep into the heart of the members of your stepfamily, you can find compassion for the commonalities that you do have.

When things are just too hard to handle on your own, remember that you’re not alone. You have the Holy Spirit to guide you. Get out the Bible and get on your knees, and have faith that the good works you do in the early years of your stepfamily life will pay off with great dividends in the end.