You must understand the challenges of stepfamily living in order to make an informed choice about remarriage.
Ron L. Deal
Editor’s note: This article was originally published by Single Parent Family magazine (published by Focus on the Family) in December, 2000.
“We’re in love and we’re ready to get married,” they said. “Terrific,” I responded. “Are your children ready for you to get married?” It was the first session of pre-remarital counseling and already Angie and Mike were caught off guard.
“What do you mean?” Angie asked. “I’m sure our kids will have some adjustments to make, but that shouldn’t take long. Besides, my kids are really enjoying Mike at this point—what’s to be concerned about?” I could tell already that this couple was like most: They grossly underestimated the transition that remarriage has on the single-parent home. We had a lot of work to do.
Shelly’s opening question was much different from that of Angie and Mike. It had been five years since her divorce and she had made a concerted effort to work toward healing and create a stable home for her kids. As a result her home and children were functioning pretty well, despite some financial pressures. She met John about six months prior to our meeting and according to her it started out well. “I finally met a friend I could trust and confide in, not to mention someone who made me feel cared for. I had been craving that for some time. But now things are starting to progress and I’m afraid to remarry—not because I’m afraid to commit again—but because I know stepfamily life is very difficult and I don’t want my children to suffer any more. What should I do?” Shelly was keenly aware that most stepfamilies end in divorce and she didn’t want to become another statistic or put her children through more heartache. She needed some answers.
As I conduct stepfamily seminars around the country, the two most consistent questions I hear from single parents are: 1) “Should I remarry?” and 2) “When we get married, how do we help our kids and family to succeed?” I never tell couples whether they should remarry, but I do admonish them to step away from their remarriage fantasies and consider the realities of stepfamily life. In order to make a step in the right direction for you and your children, you first must understand the challenges of stepfamily living and then make an informed choice about remarriage.
Stepfamilies, sometimes called blended families, are unique in many ways. Unfortunately, The Brady Bunch disguised most of those differences and gave America an artificial security about stepfamily life. If you watched that show you probably assume stepfamilies are just like biological families. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are just a few factors for single parents to consider before stepping into a stepfamily.
1. Don’t begin the journey unless you’ve done your homework, counted the cost, and are willing to persevere until you reach the “Promised Land.” When the Israelites realized they were trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea, they cried out in fear and anger to Moses, wishing they had stayed in Egypt. Nearly every stepfamily, shortly after remarriage, experiences a painful pinch between the losses and hurts of their past and the sea of opposition that stands in their future. Children are often heard crying, “Mom, why did you marry this guy? We were so much better off when it was just us.” Truly, the journey to the Promised Land for most is not an easy one. But if you trust God and persevere, He will lead you through to better days.
2. Make sure you’re not still haunted by the “ghost of marriage past.” Emotional and spiritual healing from divorce or the death of a spouse takes time; in fact, the average person requires three to five years before they can be discerning about a new relationship. Don’t let the rebound-bug bite you where it hurts. After his wife died of cancer, Gary found himself lonely and feeling inadequate to care for his daughter. “I guess I needed a partner and I wanted a mother for my child,” he said. This emptiness lead him to rush into a new marriage that ended after just one year. Remember that time is your best friend, so slow down the dating process.
3. Realize that a parent’s relationship with his or her children will be an intimacy barrier to the new marriage. As I was writing this article a stepmother came to see me hoping I could help diminish the jealousy she feels toward her stepson. Five years into the marriage, she still feels like she plays second fiddle. Yet the solution is not as simple as telling the biological parent “just put your spouse first.” Biological parents can’t just switch their loyalties; it feels like they’re betraying their children. “After all,” said one mother, “my kids have suffered enough and I don’t want them to lose me, too.” Despite this struggle, the couple must learn to nurture their relationship and not get lost in the stepfamily shuffle.
4. Understand that cooking a stepfamily takes time. Every stepfamily has an assumed blending style (whether they know it or not) that drives how they treat one another. For example, a food processor mentality results in parents demanding that stepchildren call their stepparent “Dad” or “Mom” right away. In effect, the noncustodial biological parent gets chopped up in the process. A pressure cooker mentality is used when new family members are forced into spending time together. Usually the lid blows off the pot. And finally, the blender mentality assumes that everyone will love everyone else to the same degree. Not only does this set people up for conflict, it usually results in someone being creamed.
Instead, develop a crock-pot mentality that allows for time (the average stepfamily requires seven years to combine) and low heat to bring the various members of the family into relationship. For example, instead of forcing the family together, Brad and Julie spent Saturday afternoons each with their own children. Only after nearly two years did they begin to combine leisure activities. This low heat approach didn’t threaten the children’s relationship with their parents and made space for new relationships to develop.
5. Accept the fact that remarriage is a gain for the adults and a loss for the kids. What they really want is for mom and dad to reunite, so for them the remarriage is a loss. When you add that to the list of the hundreds of other losses they’ve already experienced, you can see why children have mixed feelings about the new family. Furthermore, loss always brings the fear of more loss. When persons start protecting themselves from more loss, walls are built. “I’m afraid my kids and new husband will turn against each other. It would be just another failure,” said one mom. Her teenage son echoed her fear, “I’m afraid of getting close to anyone. With all I’ve had to live through I keep waiting for it to happen all over again.”
6. Dating is important, but true stepfamily relationships start with the wedding. Children are sometimes tolerant, even encouraging, of their parent’s new romance, but they frequently change their tune when real stepfamily life begins. Mike called me the day after he and Carrie married. After dating for two years, they spent three months in pre-remarital counseling with me trying to work through issues from the past and anticipating the needs of her children. Even though much had been accomplished, on the day of the wedding, Carrie’s 16- and 19-year-old daughters began badgering their mother. They had appeared supportive of her decision, but now that Mike was really moving in, they berated Carrie over her decision to divorce their father and remarry. Carrie spent her wedding night in tears.
7. Discuss and develop a plan for your parenting roles. For the first couple years after remarriage it’s generally best for the biological parent to remain the main source of nurturance, affection, and discipline. The stepparents role may evolve from a “babysitter” role (where they borrow power from the biological parent and enforce “their” rules), to an “uncle or aunt” (where the children consider the stepparent extended family, but not a parent), to a “parental role model” with a considerable measure of authority. This gradual progression gives the stepparent and stepchildren time and space to develop a relationship before power battles come into play.
8. Develop a working relationship with your ex-spouse. Susie thought her negative relationship with her ex-husband could never change. She learned, however, that seeking to forgive him and avoiding pushing his hot buttons helped to diminish their negative interaction. Gradually their co-parenting relationship improved and their children became more cooperative in each household. This in turn opened the door for Susie’s new husband to interact with her kids and gradually build a relationship.
9. Loyalties, left unattended, will divide and conquer a stepfamily. Allow children to love both biological parents and don’t force a relationship with the stepparent(s). Let children set the pace for their new step-relationships and don’t worry if they aren’t “warming up” as quickly as you’d like. Dave worked very hard to win the heart of his 12-year-old stepdaughter. But after only four months he gave up because she didn’t seem to be returning any of the effort. With a crock-pot mentality Dave would have understood that relationship building takes years, not months.
10. Consider the potential for sexual pressures within the home. The incidence of stepfamily incest is eight times greater than in biological families. Stepsiblings in particular are often confronted with sexual thoughts that lead to shame or inappropriate behavior. Darrell and his wife of 10 years approached me at a recent seminar after her 13-year-old son admitted to sneaking into his 14-year-old stepsister’s room to fondle her. They had been living in the same house for 10 years, yet the lack of blood relations left the door open for abuse. Sexual indiscretions in stepfamilies are real and must be guarded against.
Making the decision to step forward
Because stepfamily life presents these and other challenges, it’s important to invest in pre-remarital counseling. Be sure to find a Christian therapist or minister who understands stepfamily peculiarities. Unfortunately, this can be very difficult as clergy are just now beginning to wake up to the needs of stepfamilies, and most counselors don’t have much stepfamily training either. If a qualified counselor is not available in your area, purchase a book or attend a seminar for stepfamilies. Make sure you look in every direction before you leap, otherwise you might spend a lot of time wandering around the wilderness.
Stepfamily life is not impossible. Indeed there is a “Promised Land” of marital fulfillment, family stability, and shared spirituality. But for most stepfamilies finding these rewards requires intentional effort and a keen understanding of how stepfamilies work best. Making the decision to begin the long journey from Egypt to Canaan needs to be an informed one.
After a lot of exploration, Angie and Mike decided that remarriage was workable for their two families. And they were willing to accept the risks. Four years into the marriage the couple reports managing their initial adjustments fairly well. Recently, however, Mike’s 15-year-old son unexpectedly decided to come live with them. New challenges are now confronting them, but they are seeking help from a local support group.
Shelly has decided to focus her energies on her children. She explained to her boyfriend that she’d like to continue seeing him on a casual basis and hopes that some day they can take the relationship further. But for now, not complicating her single-parent family with a remarriage seems best. His willingness to wait remains to be seen.
Ron L. Deal is President of Smart Stepfamilies, an expert in remarriage and stepfamily relationships, and author of a series of DVDs and books for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily and The Remarriage Checkup. Receive Ron’s free e-magazine at www.SmartStepfamilies.com.