Becoming a Step-Family

If you are going to be a step-parent, it may help you to know what other people have gone through as step-parents. You and your new family will pass through 5 stages, which have been described by Patricia L. Papernow in the book Becoming a Stepfamily

Stage 1: Fantasy, the invisible burden

Each person brings fantasies and wishes to the new family that result from previous losses, past histories and experiences, etc. The step-parent’s fantasy could be, “I love my new partner so much that I know I’ll love the kids.” The biological parent may be thinking, “It’s so wonderful to have a new father/mother for my children.” Neither the step-parent nor the biological parent is thinking about the possibility that the children may not be ready to accept the step-parent’s love. In this first stage, each member of the family should be aware of his or her fantasies and wishes. If fantasies and wishes harden into strict requirements, these become an invisible burden blocking the work of building the family.

Stage 2: Immersion, or lost in reality

Children who originally welcomed the idea of a step-parent feel upset and anxious when the person actually begins living in the home. Children see the new situation as one more “loss” over which they have no control. In addition, the married couple is often so eager to “blend” the family that they pressure the children to think of the step-parent as “Mom” or “Dad.” This places children in an unbearable loyalty bind. The task for the new step-parent is to keep going during this uncomfortable period. Unrealistic expectations, especially a conviction that step-families should function like first-time families, make minor problems feel like total failures. 

Stage 3: Awareness, or making sense out of things

This is the most critical stage for the successful completion of the step-family cycle. In this stage, family members explore their perceptions and needs. Clarity and self-acceptance finally begin to replace confusion and self-doubt. Each person in the step-family must try to accurately name his or her feelings and needs. In addition, each member of the family must understand the territory of others. The task is to maintain enough curiosity (“Tell me more”) and empathy (“That must be tough”) to withstand personal differences and disappointments.

Stage 4: Restructuring the family

This period consists of major family reconstruction. Conflicts are aired and resolved. Movement through the stages is not necessarily linear. Sometimes a trip back to the awareness stage helps the family to complete unfinished tasks. In order to begin restructuring, the family needs sufficient information and strong enough relationships to begin heavy negotiations about personal territory and to create fully shared agreements about how the step-family will function.

Stage 5: Solidifying the step-family

The couple within the step-family is now intimate and unified, even on “step” issues. The family is more accurately defined as “whole” rather than “blended” and can provide for all its members emotionally. Patience, realism, empathy, and flexibility are required of the members of a step-family. It is important to realize that it is not possible to recreate your own ideal of a perfect first-time family, but it is possible to create a happy, whole, supportive step-family.