Stepfamilies: Blending families

I am planning to marry a man with two kids. I have two young children too. Do you have any advice on "blending" families?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Not only are there good reading materials, but there is a National Stepfamily Association, which can be reached by calling 1-800-735-0329 for information and resources. John and Emily Vischer's book, "How to Win as a Stepfamily" (Dembner books) may also be helpful.

In the year 2000 it is estimated that there were more stepfamilies than any other kinds of families in the U.S. Half of Americans have been or will be in a stepfamily constellation at some point in their lifetime. About half of remarried spouses procreate a mutual child in addition to children from one or both former marriages, while the remaining 50 percent of stepfamilies fall into the categories of stepfather families, stepmother families or complex families in which both spouses bring children from another marriage into their new union.

If the joining of two individuals in marriage is comparable to blending two different cultures, as many a family therapist has suggested, then the joining of two individuals with histories of past marriages, divorce and children must be the joining of two different galaxies!

Previous loyalties and relationship loss which predates the new marriage can play major havoc on well meant intentions in stepfamilies, along with other stressors. It is illuminating knowledge to couples at the helm of these families, that family researchers have identified the best predictor of stepfamily happiness to be the quality of the relationship that develops between the stepparent and children. Like any transition, timing can be one of the most important factors in favor of healthy adjustment. The next most important factor in stepfamily adjustment, as in any family is the strength and quality of the couples' bond. These two very important variables are obviously related, as any natural parent will attest, who feels "torn" between his/her children and spouse. And any stepparent can relate the awkwardness of finding his/her place as a family member and as a parent in a maze of relationships and shared history established prior to his/her arrival.

So, the task itself is fraught with paradoxes. It is often painful and difficult for the stepparent to find a place in an already established system that grieves the loss of a person you may have never met, including being the person who children "test" to see if you are "good" enough to earn membership. It is also important to remember that one of the developmental tasks of a family is to raise and nurture its' young to adulthood in the best way possible. It is important to remember that as a stepparent, you had a choice in the situation while the children did not. As the adult your responsibility must encompass an understanding that you will be expected to be concerned and involved in caring for these children and ensuring their sense of security in traveling through this transition of adding you to their family! If the job is too big -- Don't sign up for it! Remember you are the adult and you made the choice to marry a spouse who came with children. Very often stepparents suffer from unrealistic expectations regarding the transition of blending families, resulting in feelings of helplessness and victimization.

And very often natural parents share fantasies of the perfect family union, pressuring spouses to love children they do not even really know yet, or expecting a stepparent to discipline a child before an appropriate affection has grown between the two. Natural parents can play an important role in supporting the stepparent appropriately, including being understanding of the frustration this role can hold, particularly in the first two years of the new marriage. Pacing the role that a stepparent takes on in the family to match realistically with the development of the relationship between stepparent and child will go along way towards developing a positive relationship.

Because more than 50 percent of remarriages end in divorce, we can assume that information about the very complex process of blending families is not well known. Being able to identify common pitfalls, predictable feelings, and characteristics of successful remarried families will elucidate a more viable and realistic vision.

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