Step-families are different than traditional families. They come with baggage, and it’s important to understand the challenges you’ll face in forming a successful stepfamily. Awareness of the common stepfamily problems is the first step in avoiding them.
“In the fairy tales, the little girl is taken out into the deep dangerous forest where she is saved by a compassionate woodsman. In modern America, all the people stay together in the two households and life is ripe for conflict. In its early stages, the strife is not related to how nice or evil the stepmother is or to how well behaved or naughty the child is. The conflict is in the nature of the drama itself. There is one exalted king (the man), one princess (the child), one long and dark shadow (the ex wife), and one usurper (the stepmother), who quite rightly wants the opportunity to enjoy her marriage. Such dramas play out differently in different families but they are never without travail.”
– Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 274)
Many people make the mistake of assuming that so long as they’re nice to each other and go into the situation with good intentions that they’ll avoid the typical stepfamily conflict. But this is a rather naive way of looking at things. While a prosocial approach certainly helps, stepfamily problems don’t emerge because the stepparents are evil jerks and the stepkids devilish delinquents. These problems are built into the situation itself – jealousy issues, love triangles, spurned ex lovers, financial binds – stepfamilies can be a swelling storm of raw human needs and emotions competing for the same interests.
The Parenting Challenges in Stepfamilies
“In a second marriage, unlike a first, you and your spouse won’t be wrapped in a private cocoon for a few comfortable years prior to the arrival of children. The children are already there.”
– Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman (1993, p. 37)
Let’s start out with what is often the most disruptive force in a remarriage: Any pre-existing children. In second marriages with children, there is no honeymoon period, no opportunity for the two of you to catch your breath and enjoy some time alone together. You’ll be jumping into parenthood right off the bat, and things may not go smoothly. One of the most universally reported themes in stepfamily situations is that “stepchildren don’t do the same things before marriage as they do afterwards.” (ibid, p. 105) This is why happy courtships between couples don’t necessarily translate into happy marriages.
The children may be working against you
“In both nuclear families and stepfamilies, children often play one parent against the other. Yet, in a nuclear family, if a threat to the family occurs, these same children are likely to do everything in their power to keep the parents together. In stepfamilies, the situation is very different. The children often wish that the new marriage will break up.”
– Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman (1993, p. 109)
In stepfamily situations, the children are often playing for the opposing team. They have different interests than you have. Some children may entertain fantasies of their parents getting back together, and thus do everything in their power to disrupt your marriage. Others may simply not want to put in the time it would take to establish a working relationship just for the privilege of saddling themselves with another parent figure, and therefore would be happy to be rid of a stepparent. Whatever the case may be, it’s important to recognize that the kids might not be on the side of stepfamily success.
The theme of misbehaving stepchildren is such a common stepfamily scenario that they routinely make it into a movie. (You’ve seen Parent Trap, haven’t you?) In the movies the children’s antics are funny and hilarious and always end with one big loving family that lives happily ever after. In real life the antics aren’t always so funny, and the happy ending isn’t guaranteed by the stroke of a pen in the script.
Relationship Problems in Stepfamilies
In stepfamilies, relatives might give you problems
It isn’t just the children who might rally against success; there may be exes or extended family who would like to see you fail. Not everyone is as accepting of this new arrangement as you want them to be. Even when you’re ready and willing to invite these new people into your life, extended family may not always be so eager to do so. Grandparents and other relatives may not see a stepchild as a “real” child, and act as though they aren’t part of the family. This standoffishness can hurt the child and strain relationships. Like stepchildren, extended family may also do their best to try and sabotage your new stepfamily.
You’ll be haunted by the ghosts of relationships past
“A blended family’s foundation is built over the ashes of memories – some good, some bad – of another marriage.” – Elaine Shimberg (1999, p. 128)
Your new partner also carries baggage and complexes from the old relationship, and this can sometimes work as an impediment to the new one. For example, if a person’s last marriage ended with a lot of conflict, your new spouse may try to avoid anything that resembles a disagreement and instead repress their feelings while trying to pretend that everything is okay. Or if an illicit affair broke up the last marriage, a spouse may be hypersensitive towards this threat and carry these ghosts with them into the future.
“Many of us married images: images of men or women, images of family life. After marriage, we found ourselves living with ‘real’ people, people who were very different from the images we had pictured in our minds.”
– Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman (1993, p. 95)
Problems with the exes in stepfamilies
You’re marrying a system, not just a person. This system contains children from a previous relationship and all the relationships those children come with, including the other biological parent and his or her family. To say that these new relationships don’t always go well is perhaps the understatement of the century. Listen to how these stepparents describe their stepchildren’s ‘other’ family:
“I hate my husband’s ex and wish she were dead or seriously handicapped.”
– Nunette, 32, Iowa
“My husband’s ex-wife was a bad wife, a bad mother, and now she’s dead – thank goodness!”
– Diane, 42, New York (ibid)
There are certainly people who form positive friendships with exes and their family, but hostile relationships are quite common, and you’ll have to actively work at the situation to avoid this from becoming your fate.
Stability problems in stepfamilies
Stepfamilies are like Starbucks – there tends to be a lot of foot traffic with people coming and going more often. This constant transition makes it harder for anyone to ever feel relaxed or at home. In most stepfamilies at least 1 set of children are on some type of split custody or visitation schedule. They’re in for a week and then out for a couple days, or they split time between one home and the next. In some cases there are two sets of children, each on their own unique custody schedule. This can result in a home that seems like it’s always in flux, always in transition. This inconsistency makes it a lot harder to gel as a family.
Overcoming stepfamily challenges
These problems don’t make the dream of a happy stepfamily impossible, they just make it a lot harder to create a successful blended family. Overcoming these problems starts by having recognition of the challenges you’ll face.
The next step is going in prepared. Our e-book Successful Stepfamilies ($4.99; all proceeds go to helping kids in need) will give you the keys necessary for success.