Six Steps Forward, Not Looking Back
Ron L. Deal, President, Smart Stepfamilies
Family life is full of challenges and rewards. Stepfamily life is no different. Sarah knows just what I mean: “My first marriage to Jimmy was a battle from the day it started. I wanted romance and an intimate union; he wanted independence and freedom. He finally found it with another woman. But this marriage to Hector is everything I dreamed about. We laugh, share decisions, and have the same outlook on life. God is the center of our marriage. Things would be great if it was just Hector and I, but it’s not. When my kids are with their father for the weekend, Hector and I relax and enjoy each other. But when they’re here, the house is tense. And I feel guilty because of all the stress.”
It is estimated that 30% of all weddings in the US today form stepfamilies. Some follow the death of a spouse or a divorce; still others are formed when a marriage takes place after an out-of-wedlock birth. But no matter what preceded the union, stepfamilies—like all families—have unforeseen pressures and challenges that eventually give way to tremendous rewards. For Sarah, life may feel like two steps forward and one step back. But as long as they don’t look back, stepfamily success will come once they take these six steps forward.
Key Stepping Stones for the journey
- Perserverance- The first few years are often the most difficult. Set your mind to persevere until rewards come.
- Patience- The average stepfamily takes 7 years to integrate. Warm relationships might not come for many years, so be patient.
- Listening- Bio parents and stepparents experience their family differently, as do bio children and stepchildren. Learn to consider what it must be like to be another in your home so you can empathize with their concerns.
- Flexibility- Because stepfamilies are different than biological families in many ways, you will have to find creative solutions to many everyday issues. You can’t afford to be rigid.
- Humor- Humor—In the midst of a chaotic moment, humor is definitely the best medicine for stepfamilies. Humor helps you to step back from the crisis or circumstance and see it in a whole new light.
STEP UP to discover a God who loves and forgives those in stepfamilies. Stepfamilies are not always born from sinful behavior (as many Christians assume), but even “Biblically innocent” stepfamilies often feel unworthy of God’s full redemption since their family doesn’t match God’s ideal design for the home. That’s why many stepfamilies are relieved to realize that none of the Old Testament families were perfect, and most didn’t resemble God’s ideal family model. Still, God loved them and used them for his purposes. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David’s families—just to name a few—were all less than ideal. Yet God’s redemption applied to them as well. Stepfamilies don’t have to live in fear that their spiritual past will forever haunt them, for God’s grace is always available to restore hope.
STEP DOWN your expectations of how quickly your stepfamily will integrate. “Why won’t my son talk to his stepfather when he has a question about school?” one mother asked me. “Tim is a nice guy, and he’s a lot better at math than I am anyway,” she continued. Carol wanted so much for her son Jamie to feel just as comfortable with his stepfather as he did with her that she pressured Jamie to pursue a deeper relationship with Tim. Jamie and Tim got along already, just not as well as Carol had hoped.
Stepfamilies must be patient with the process of relationship building—sometimes called integration. The average stepfamily needs around seven years to really form a family identity. Furthermore, pressure from parents often creates resistance in children, which means a big step backward for the stepparent. Learning to accept and appreciate relationships as they are today, not worrying about tomorrow, contributes to a more relaxed family and greater harmony.
TWO STEP The marriage relationship is by far the most important earthly relationship in the stepfamily home, yet it is often the weakest. Parents and children have a bond forged by blood; the new couple’s bond is literally an add-on relationship. Making the marriage a relational priority is critical to family success. For biological parents, this means balancing time and energy given to children and the marriage, but it also means communicating to your children through actions that the marriage is unbreakable and that the couple will lead the home together. Children are often threatened by this change at first, but once they accept it, experience safety and security.
STEP IN LINE with all the adults (of both homes) who have parental influence with the children. Children in stepfamilies often have three to five (sometimes more!) adults who contribute to their daily care. Adults must strive to work in cooperation with as many of the other adults as possible. For example, initially stepparents must learn to borrow power from the biological parent in order to carry out and enforce discipline. They can’t stand on their own power until they have developed a trust-bond with the children; this can take many years, depending on the age of the child. Biological parents must show respect toward the stepparent and make them an equal partner in parenting decisions so that children also gain respect for the stepparent.
Children in stepfamilies frequently have another home to which they belong. Adults, especially ex-spouses, need to cooperate as the children move back and forth. However, strong negative emotions and a painful past make this level of cooperative co-parenting very difficult. Christian stepcouples need to demonstrate a significant amount of grace and forgiveness in these situations so that children aren’t caught in ongoing battles.
SIDE STEP common pitfalls. Without even knowing it, many adults overlook common struggles within their home. For example, children, who continue to be sad about the loss of previous relationships, need their grief acknowledged and should be granted permission to grieve. Connections to the past should be honored and respected, not shoved in the closet. In addition, traditions celebrating holidays and special days should be kept when appropriate while the new stepfamily creates some of their own unique traditions. This allows persons to carry their past with them while they connect with new relationships in the present.
STEP THROUGH the wilderness with trust and determination. Like Moses and the Israelites headed for the Promised Land, developing a healthy stepfamily is a journey—sometimes a long journey. Remaining dedicated to gradually forming a family identity is critical. Stepcouples attending my stepfamily conference often ask “So, where’s our honeymoon?” I’m quick to give them hope: “There is a honeymoon for stepcouples. But as for the Israelites, the ‘honeymoon’ comes at the end of the journey, not at the beginning!”
Stepfamilies—just like all families—can be places of warmth, love, and belonging. They can also be filled with many unforeseen challenges. But for stepfamilies that hold God’s hand, and trust Him to show the way, the journey to the Promised Land is worth the wait.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.