The 5 Biggest Mistakes Stepfamilies Make
Ron L. Deal
It was a live national radio broadcast with Focus on the Family when Greg Smalley asked me a question. “Ron, what are the five biggest mistakes couples in stepfamilies make?” It was an excellent question.
Not having a blueprint for stepfamily success. Every home that is built begins with a blueprint, right. Many couples start to build their stepfamily home with someone else’s blueprint. They don’t realize it, of course, but in their head is a family blueprint based on the biological family. For example, they innocently assume that the role for a stepparent is the same as it is for a mom or dad—it isn’t. They assume that just as in a biological family children will be just as invested in the couple’s marital success as the couple is—they aren’t. They assume that what makes the couple happy (e.g., celebrating an anniversary) will also make the children happy—sometimes it doesn’t. And they assume that the joys of the new family will put to rest the sadness of the previous family that has been lost—not even close.
Success for stepfamilies comes by learning all you can about the new territory before arrival and then constantly making adjustments once you arrive. Seek out stepfamily answers to stepfamily questions and you’ll end up with a blueprint you can actually build.
No plan for parenting. In my book Dating and the Single Parent I reported that half to 75% of dating couples with children do not discuss parenting before the wedding. That stunned me, especially since I know that most of the stress stepfamilies experience is related to parenting, stepparenting, and co-parenting (with the other home) the children.
Couples must learn the limitations inherent to the stepparent’s role (The Smart Stepfamily explains this in great detail) and how to play to one another’s strengths. Understanding emotional attachment with children, how the past impacts kids, and what parents can do to set stepparents up for success are critical to stepfamily harmony.
Expecting too much, too soon. One consequence of not having a stepfamily blueprint is the expectation that because the couple is happy, children will be happy—and quickly. When this doesn’t occur (it rarely does) a parent and stepparent can become confused and bewildered. “What are we doing wrong? Maybe we shouldn’t have married.” The first statement casts blame, often in the wrong direction, and the second begins to unravel the couple’s commitment to the marriage. Rather, smart stepcouples realize that it often takes years for stepfamily harmony to develop. It’s not supposed to happen fast. What is not needed is blame or second-guessing; what is needed is perseverance, determination, and stepfamily answers to stepfamily questions.
Blendering. This is my made-up word for what couples do to force their family to blend. They think the way you cook a stepfamily is with a blender, after all, it is called a blended family, right? Blenders collide ingredients with intense force until they combine. That’s fine when making smoothies, but not so good when dealing with children. Blendering expects deep love and affection between stepfamily members quickly and then sets out to make it happen on the adult’s time frame. Rather, cook your stepfamily with a Crockpot. This attitude relaxes while ingredients slowly, slowly—did I say slowly?—slowly warm up to one another. The Crockpot stepparent, for example, does pursue relationship, but not with high expectations. Rather, they persistently engage children over time and connect more deeply as the child’s heart softens in trust. To learn more, read The Smart Stepmom or The Smart Stepdad.
Not managing fear. Sometimes, in spite of all the joy and celebration surrounding new romance, spouses can be paralyzed by the fear of another divorce or family dissolution. Being hurt once (or more) naturally causes us to fear it happening again. If not managed well, this fear then causes a couple to be guarded, easily defensive, and untrusting—which in turn erodes marital safety and commitment. In my therapy practice I find this dynamic to be most insidious to stepcouples. Take a good long look in the mirror and ask God to reveal your fears so you can, with his help, prevent them from sabotaging your marriage.
Roy H. Williams once said, “A smart man makes a mistake, learns from it, and never makes that mistake again. But a wise man finds a smart man and learns from him how to avoid the mistake altogether.” May you both learn from your own mistakes and from the mistakes of others.
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.