Stepfamily Living: Not for Wimps

Remarriage with children is challenging! Ask anyone living in a stepfamily. Or ask professionals who work with these complex and vulnerable families.

Yet most adults enter the world of stepfamily living woefully unprepared, as evidenced by the 60 percent remarriage divorce rate in America. While not all those divorces involve stepfamilies, most do, touching the lives of many children. Already, the re-organization of their families—by death, divorce, single-parent living, or remarriage–has created much loss and change for children. Eager to start anew, many adults become too close, too soon. Or they get involved with someone with whom they are out of sync; one person has been single for some time and is ready to move on; the other is barely out of the marriage, some not even legally. Usually these scenarios set up formulas failure as they attempt to work two processes at the same time—goodbyes and hellos.

Using time wisely between relationships is used is the most important investment individuals can make. A successful stepfamily depends upon how well adults prepare themselves and their children, so the courtship becomes far more complex the second—or third—time around. Yet unaware and uninformed adults spend more time choosing dresses, flowers, and the food for the wedding “event” but fail to focus on what’s really important—the marriage and future family they’ll create.

If I ran the world, people would have to meet strong requirements before they could marry or have children—the hardest jobs ever. Because of the stepfamily’s inherent challenges, these mandates would become more stringent before remarriage.  Adults would take classes on communication, child-rearing, family commitment, and stepfamily living because, after all, these folks provide the foundation for our most important institution—the family. Rather than pursuing politics with such an unpopular agenda, my life’s passion is as a marriage and family therapist and teacher–a skills builder to help strengthen stepfamilies. They could better master the challenges if they’d prepare more wisely—and that includes helping their children complete their grief about their changed families.

Resolved endings are important for new beginnings. Divorce counseling helps couples work through anger and guilt to achieve an “emotional divorce” so parents can better support their children. The powerful processes of meditation and collaborative law guide adults through non-adversarial divorce in ways they allow them to maintain self-respect–and respect for the other parent of their children. This investment ultimately provides the foundation for a healthy new stepfamily.

Four tasks exist to the remarriage preparation process: Resolving, rebuilding, re-linking, and remarrying. Because they involve healing an important loss, however a relationship ends, the first two are crucial. It is also the hardest. Research shows that death and divorce undeniably affect children throughout their lives.  Even if adults have the wisdom to seek counseling, many don’t include their children in the safe environment of family therapy where, together, everyone starts to process the changes their family is experiencing.

The “Rebuilding” stage” creates a paradox. Adults must become independent from a former spouse yet share co-parenting their children in a positive way. While friendship and compromise in parenting are a noble goal, not all divorced people can cooperate; but the resulting bitterness from horrendous court battles and unresolved feelings makes living in a new stepfamily even harder for children. When they feel caught between the two parents they love, such loyalty conflicts make it more difficult for children to build bonds with new stepparents. If I learn to like my new stepmom, they worry, will my mother be jealous?  Insecure, angry, or sad?

As adults consider remarriage, it’s time for both partners to check on unfinished business. While hidden agendas, unrealistic expectations, unresolved grief, and uninformed adults are among most the stepfamily’s serious stumbling blocks, the greatest challenge is dealing with discipline. Yet how many couples consider a parenting class during courtship? Or couple’s counseling to examine personal patterns or unresolved family of origin issues?  Could they improve communication skills as they interact with a new partner? True, classes and counseling don’t sound very romantic; but for those stepfamilies who intend to beat the statistics, love alone is simply not enough.

Ministers and members of faith communities have a special responsibility to support these vulnerable families by creating awareness and providing skills support before conducting ceremonies. After all, we want remarriages to work because they offer great strengths. Stepfamilies can succeed but they require strong, emotionally healed people with good skills and who have studied the “trail map” for their Stepfamily Journey ahead. Wimps need not apply!

Elizabeth Einstein, MA/LMFT is a Marriage & Family Therapist in Ithaca, NY. As one of America’s leaders in stepfamily education, she has written books and training programs to strengthen stepfamilies. Her newest book, Strengthening Your Stepfamily was released last year. This month her new video-based “teach out of the box” Active Parenting for Stepfamilies, co-authored with Dr. Michael Popkin, a parenting expert is to be released February 2007 (Active Parenting). She was on the founding Board of the Stepfamily Association of America, now the National Stepfamily Resource Center.

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I definitely agree that many divorced singles rush into a new relationship hoping that will fix emotional issues. However, I’m not sure that a plethora of classes and workshops is the answer for everyone. Or, better yet, maybe it is the answer for EVERYONE, married and unmarried alike. Poor communication, inconsistent parenting, and self-centeredness do not discriminate against divorced couples only. Thanks for the post…..

One thing that I have found over the years is the lack of support and to a certain degree information that is available for stepparents.

We have found that if adequate support is in place stepfamily can be successful.

John Faulkner

Stepfamily Zone

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