The new family, the new normal

I asked my 97 year old grandmother to describe to me what it was like during the great depression.  She was 14 years old when the infamous events of black Tuesday unfolded.  I expected to hear horrific tales of hunger and pain.  Instead she began to describe a period of time marked by community and sacrifice.   Her family would not have been considered well off even before the financial fall.  They were simple people who lived on a farm in rural Alabama.  She is able to recall that each family in the area shared what they had and made sure everyone had something.  The adversity actually created a stronger bond within the family.  She made a statement that holds great wisdom.  She said “We adjusted to our circumstances”.

As I was considering this powerful statement from this little lady I began to apply it to life today.  So many families today find themselves in new and unanticipated circumstances.    According to the nationwide  Pew Research Center 2010 study more than four-in-ten American adults have at least one step relative in their family – either a stepparent, a step or half sibling or a stepchild.  As the divorce rate hovers somewhere around the 50% mark for first marriages (depending on what statistic you look at) families are increasingly finding life taking them down a different road than what was previously mapped out.

As society changes so do the questions we ask.  How do I create one family out of two?  How do I act lovingly toward my new spouse’s children?  What does discipline look like with a step child?  What are the goals of this new unit?  How long will this melding process take?  As therapists we see more and more stepfamilies being created.  We are going to look at three key areas that may hold the answers as to why some stepfamilies have more success than others.  As with any issue concerning human behavior many variables are at play.  These three provide a general guideline to creating positive, healthy family dynamics within the newly created stepfamily.

Give it time

One of the biggest misconceptions when creating a step family is that this process will take a year or so and after a transition period things will “settle down.”   Ron Deal author of The Smart Stepfamily  compares creating a stepfamily to cooking in a crockpot.  His analogy helps us understand that time and low heat are critical for long term success. He warns against putting pressure on the family to become one.  He writes that “Stepfamilies need time to adjust to new living conditions, new parenting styles, rules, and responsibilities.  They need time to experience one another and develop trust, commitment and a shared history.  They need time to find a sense of belonging and an identity as a family unit.  None of these things can be rushed.”  This process likely will take years to achieve.  Just like the tortoise in Aesop’s fable the creation of a stepfamily is slow and steady!

Focus on the marriage

When a marriage begins with children from one or both spouses the impact can be dramatic.  The focus can easily shift to the children which can leave little time for working on the marriage.  Newlyweds tend to have the mindset that “if my kids are happy I’ll be happy.”  While the well-being of children does create satisfaction for parents it is no substitute for a meaningful, loving marriage.  Marriages, especially second or third marriages, have many pitfalls that if not addressed on a regular basis can leave spouses feeling disconnected and alone.  Marriage must be nurtured through regular date nights, alone time, and ongoing honest communication.  A marriage that is not nurtured can become like a garden than is left unattended.  The weeds soon outnumber the fruit.  If regularly maintained the marriage can become a source of stability within the stepfamily and produce fruit which will nourish the children and create a loving environment where the children can thrive.

Discipline Dilemmas in a Step Family

The most common argument that I hear from stepfamily parents is disagreements on discipline.  This can cause the most loving and well-meaning parents to stumble.  The first thing to remember is that you and your spouse are a team.    Lines can be drawn very quickly in a stepfamily separating his kids from her kids.  This dynamic must be recognized and dealt with as it occurs.  The stronger the marriage unit the better chance that this dynamic will fade away.  In my experience it seems to work better, at least in the beginning, for the biological parent to discipline their own children.  This gives the stepparent time to gain respect and develop a relationship with their stepchild.  Strong discipline from a new stepparent can often sabotage efforts to build relationships.  The stepparent can play a supportive role in discipline but the lead role must be played by the biological parent.

Stepfamilies are a wonderful opportunity to learn how to adjust to new and changing circumstances in our lives.  The Pew Study mentioned above went on to say that 70% of adults within the study reported being very satisfied with their family life.  Stepfamilies give us a sense of hope and new beginnings.  While the challenges are many and the journey can be long the reward can be even greater.  Stepfamilies are a beautiful picture of God’s love and grace in our lives.  Many stepfamilies after several years no longer use the term “step.”  They grow to see themselves simply as family.  Children learn to love each other and begin to see both parents as powerful forces of good in their lives.  The two families becoming one over time can create very strong relationships that can weather adversity.  Above all the ability and willingness to adjust to new circumstances is vital to creating a successful stepfamily.

This can also be a great time to engage with a counselor to help see these ideas through… there are few things tougher than the step-family situation!  We are here to help.