Getting Married – Building Healthy Step-families
If your family is a “remarried family” or a “step-family” then you’re in good company. The experience of building a remarried or stepfamily is a common experience, not only for recovering people, but for the general population as well. There are lots of difficulties involved in putting together a stepfamily. One of the major difficulties is in the perception that a step-family is something less than desirable. Stepfamilies can be healthy.
There are some issues that are unique to stepfamilies that must be worked through to develop healthy stepfamilies. That doesn’t make stepfamilies necessarily problematic or pathological.
When we continue to hang on to the nuclear family as the “appropriate” family model, we use it to measure all families against it as the standard. When this is the case, we may emulate nuclear family attributes, behaviors, expectations that do not apply or are not appropriate for blended families. Without adequate information about effectively forming and nurturing step families, the dynamics of those new, and sometimes fragile families set them up for dissolution.
If we know that it is not typical that one’s new spouse automatically loves our child, then we may not expect that, and give him/her time to get to know and form attachments and bonding with that child. When we realize that we come from different family culture, we may be able to challenge our own notions that there is only one way to do things, and to allow for negotiation and development of new methods and traditions. When we know that children need to know a new step parent as a friend before they will accept them as a parent, we grant them to emotional room to do that and smooth the transition of blending those families. If we know that if we push them too hard and expect them to fall right into line, we may be setting them up to have conflicts with that spouse for the rest of their time in the family home.
Part of the problem is in not knowing that there is something to know. We may believe that since we were previously married, and previously parenting, that that is all we need to know. This is the biggest blunder of all. Knowing what to expect in combining families can be monumentally helpful. There is an information base from which to draw upon. “Normal” processes for forming remarried families have been described and defined. An example is that it is “normal” for ambiguous boundaries and membership issues to be present in forming step families.
Culturally, we haven’t had established patterns, rituals, or norms to help us negotiate the complex relationships involved in building remarried families. However, there are books, tapes, and counseling services available to help you negotiate these dangerous waters.
Just putting the two families together and hoping for the best is not the best approach. Denial of the probability of problems, is part of the difficulty in building remarried families.
Other major problems can occur when remarried families hold tight to the roles and rules of the old family. For example, some families draw a tight boundary around the new family, like a wagon train circling the wagons for protection against perceived threats from without. In a nuclear family the boundaries are clearer about who is part of the family and who is not. In a stepfamily a child’s non-custodial parent is still family to that child, as are all the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins connected to that side of the family. Attempts by remarried families, to cut out biological parents and other extended family members is not only unrealistic but potentially damaging to the kids. Similar potential problems develop when competition between the step-parent and the step-kids occur over affection from the spouse/biological parent.
Some helpful solutions are offered by remarried families on the front line, who are negotiating, renegotiating, defining, refining, and constructing remarried family structures that work. The have the expectation that there will not be immediate love between the step-parent and step-kids. These families foster flexibility of family boundaries. Confusion and divided loyalties from the kids are expected. They understand the importance of adults behaving cooperatively in raising kids. Permeable, flexible boundaries smooth the transition into “stepfamilyhood”. Allowing kids to come and go between the households of the biological parent and step-families as agreed upon in visitation and custody (with minimal conflict) also helps to reduce the divided loyalties that kids naturally have with divorce and remarriage.
The sense of “belonging” may take three to five years to develop fully in most of the members of the family and longer if teenagers are involved. But a new family identity can emerge.
Gender roles can be revised to effect a smoother transition. Such gender roles place responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family onto women. This can pit step-mother against step-daughter, and wife against ex-wife. Role revision can involve each parent, along with their ex-spouse taking primary responsibility for raising or disciplining their own kids.
Healthy step-families anticipate the “belonging” questions involved in blending the two families. Children want to know how they are related to these new people, who their real family members are, how they will spend time with each party, whether they will still be loved with new people to share that love, and who is “really” in charge here? These issues must be continually discussed, to provide security and comfort throughout the transition. When children express their feelings, adults respond not in defensive ways, but in open, accepting, and supportive ways–even when they feel guilty or other uncomfortable feelings. In healthy step-families children are not expected to make adult decisions, especially about where they will live, custody, visitation, or remarriage.
While developing remarried families is difficult, the transitions can be made smoother by developing realistic expectation, befriending the children before attempting to parent them, and keeping in mind that there’s enough love to go around.