By Ron L. Deal, President, Smart Stepfamilies
Before taking a trip to a far-away country, you might want to make a check-list of key survival tips. Consider the following your survival companion for the early years of stepfamily life.
1. Consult a Travel Agent. Before going to a foreign land, find out as much as you can about the culture, social expectations, spirituality, relationship rules, and expectations of those who live there. Keep in mind that you will not be “visitor” but a new citizen so you will need to understand life as it is. Read The Smart Stepfamily, listen to a CD series, watch a video, and/or read the many articles found on this site so you can learn all you can about stepfamily living! The more you know, the better you’ll be able to navigate the terrain.
2. Keep Perspective. Traveling to a foreign country will require emotional adjustment and many transitions on your part. And, you will find yourself in unfamiliar territory many times.
· Expect to feel lost and don’t panic when you do!
· Learn to find your way around even when anxious, ask lots of questions, and listen to the replies of those traveling with you. Remember, they are not your enemies (even though you may be traveling in different directions at times). Learn how to cook a stepfamily!
· Eat slowly. Foreign foods often make your tummy upset. Don’t expect perfection from your family; do expect burps in your home life. Try not to overreact.
3. Nurture your Marriage. All stress in a stepfamily, even if it begins with ex-spouses or children from another home, eventually ends up in your marriage. The key antidotes for stress are:
· Take a communication and conflict-management skills course in your church or community. The largest study of couples in stepfamilies conducted by myself with Dr. David Olson found that communication and conflict resolution skills are the number two and three (respectively) predictors of highly satisfied couples. Make this aspect of your marriage work in your favor and you build a shield against divorce and distress!
· Keep having fun! Make sure you keep the fun-factor alive in your marriage. A healthy leisure component in marriage is the number five predictor of a great marriage in stepfamilies.
4. Connect In. Focus on activities that build relationship between “insiders and outsiders” (steprelationships). Be sure to take advantage of the natural connecting points (e.g., interests and activities) that people share.
5. Connect Out. Don’t become isolated from outside support:
· Keep old friends and social connections alive.
· As a couple create new friendships with other married couples.
· Be part of a family of faith. Reconnect, if necessary, to church and stepfamilies on a similar journey.
· Find a mentor couple or educational group that can encourage you along the way with words of wisdom.
6. Tradition, Tradition, Tradition. Keep some old ones (for the sake of the kids) and create a few new ones over time (to give the family a new sense of identity).
7. Help the Kids.
· Biological parents should spend one-on-one time (even if just 15 minutes) with their children weekly the first year and monthly thereafter.
· Tell children to expect to feel a variety of emotions—from anger to fondness—and help them to articulate them to you. Be a resource to them; don’t make them afraid to tell you how they feel. Remember, they are in foreign territory, too.
· Talk about what terms you will use to refer to one another. Agree how you will introduce each other in public (see The Name Game).
· Read Life in a Blender together and discuss the following:
a. What stood out to you most in the booklet?
b. What did you learn that you wish someone would have told you before now?
c. What part would you like for me to read to understand you better?
· Be patient with them. This was your idea, remember!
8. Be a Team. Parents and stepparents should find consensus in family rules and how they will work together. This will require many ongoing conversations.
· Have lots of “pow-wows” to become a united front.
· Stepparents—focus your efforts the first few years on building relationship with the children, not in trying to become their authority. Be sure to move at the child’s pace. See Smart Stepparenting.
9. Meanwhile, back at the other home… Be considerate in how you deal with the other home. They are part of your expanded stepfamily system so when you attack them, you attack yourself. Learn more about co-parenting.
· Keep visitation schedules for children consistent; try not to make radical changes after the wedding.
· Stepparents should communicate the “No-threat” message to the biological parent in the other home. The purpose is to reduce the amount of fear they have toward you, and therefore, the amount of animosity they throw at you. Here’s a brief script: “Hi Tom/Betty. I just wanted you to know that I realize that I am not your child’s parent—you are. I will never try to take your place (and couldn’t even if I wanted to). You hold a very special place in your child’s heart and I will always honor that. I am simply an added adult-figure in your child’s life. I will try to bring good things to their life and offer guidance as would one of their teachers or coaches. If you ever have any questions, please let me know. Thank you for your time.”
10. Buy a Souvenir. Purchase something as a family that marks your new identity and begins building memories. It could be a new house, a new pet, or a new dining room table (where people will sit frequently while enjoying meals together). Find something you can call “ours.”
11. Take the Couple Checkup. Like a GPS, this CPS or Couple Positioning System™ helps you identity where you are, how you can develop more intimacy in your marriage, and then maps how to get there. A small price of time and money will reward you with personal insights and direction that will last well into the future. Take it here.
Ron L. Deal is President of Smart Stepfamilies and author of The Smart Stepfamily. Find conference locations here.