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Smart Stepfamilies

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Don't Go Nuclear: The Cycles of a Stepfamily


guest article by Nancy Hoffmann, L.P.C., R.N.

The Center For Marriage and Family Studies,
John Brown University

The institution of marriage is on shaky ground. Presently, the marriage rate is in a 50-year decline. It has been estimated by the US Census Bureau that 52 – 62 % of all first marriages will eventually end in divorce. And that 75% of divorced persons will eventually remarry. This results in many step-relationships.

There are many challenges a stepfamily faces. The first is what do we call each other. Most stepfamilies call the new parent by their first name especially if the biological parent is still involved in the child’s life or if the child is older. Grandparents have to be renamed. If "grandpa" and "granddad" have been used then the alternatives of "Papa" or "Pop need to be looked at. Houses have to be renamed – there is Dad’s house, Mom’s house, and sometimes there is the old house, the new house. Couples have to learn to be couples in the midst of a stressed family. And children have to adapt to numerous things such as a new parent, a new home, the divorce of their biological parents, and their visitation schedules. This is a very confusing time for all.

Even pragmatic couples often expect their new stepfamily to function like a nuclear family and when it doesn’t they find themselves confused and disillusioned. Understanding more about stepfamilies will be the greatest help to make a stepfamily a success.

When I became a stepmom to my stepchildren (I like to call them my children, but for clarity sake I will call them my stepchildren) I had read books about stepfamilies and thought I was prepared for what was ahead of me. I was a family therapist who specialized in adolescent therapy, who better could do this job? The one thing I wasn’t prepared for was my feelings. When expectations and subjective feelings enter the situation a feeling of failure can occur and can lead toward the dissolving of another family. It is estimated that two out of three stepfamilies break up. Thus the children suffer loss of family once again.

Learning about the unique dynamics that are special to a stepfamily can be a very helpful tool when navigating the roads of being a stepfamily. Let me recapture the primary point: Stepfamilies don’t necessarily function like a nuclear family. That is, of course, in the beginning, but with time and cultivation they can grow to be great source of support and enjoyment for all. Bray in his book Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade states the stepfamily goes through three distinct cycles. First is the hope and expectations cycle, otherwise known as the turbulent first two years. This cycle is characterized by hope of something new, something better, yet the expectations are usually set too high. This time is noted by its high stress. Naturally during stress children will have increased acting out and couples lose their communication and conflict-resolution skills leaving the couple relationship a casualty.

The second cycle is more the golden period. The major issues that made years 1 and 2 so tumultuous are now resolved, or for the time being in a hiatus. This cycle is seen as a time of less stress, greater family cohesiveness and better child adjustment.

The final cycle in the establishing a stepfamily comes in the 5th year to 9th year. It is a paradoxical time. There is an increase in acting out and social problems among the children of stepfamilies during this time, due mostly to the children moving into their adolescent years. The most important and positive change in cycle 3 is evolving marital satisfaction and family identity. Keeping the couple first throughout the establishment of the stepfamily now has its payoffs and the couple is enjoying their hard work of maintaining and cultivating their relationship. Stepfamilies during this stage stop thinking of themselves as stepfamilies and just think of themselves as family.

Stepfamilies can become a great second chance for family if we as step-people remember just a few things: First, don’t go nuclear – allow stepfamilies to establish their own identities. Second, work on the couple relationship first and then cultivate all the other relationships in the new family and third, don’t rush it – allow time to build trust and create a new family.

Nancy Hoffmann, L.P.C., R.N.

Nancy Hoffmann is a Licensed Professional Counselor with PeopleCARE counseling center, a division of The Center For Marriage and Family Studies at John Brown University.  She specializes in working with women's issues, adolescents, remarriages and step-family issues. She enjoys conference speaking, and teaching groups addressing topics related to clinical experience. Nancy with her husband, Bob, is currently raising a stepfamily of four adolescent children. You can reach her at nhoffmann@jbu.edu.

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