Step Families: What You Need to Know About Becoming a Blended Family


Blending Step FamiliesWhen we get married, we take a big chance. We hope we will be happy together. Unfortunately, marriage doesn't always work out. But that doesn't stop us from dreaming about the possibility of a perfect companion and perfect family. Many of us decide to take a chance again.

Of course, we bring our past experiences with us into new relationships. If your new marriage partner already has children, you will be faced with becoming a step-parent. This can be more difficult than you might imagine. You may find your new situation exhausting and confusing. But being in love can make it all worthwhile.

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 a number of stages which have been described by Patricia Papernow in Becoming a Stepfamily.  Read on, or learn how to solve blended family problems here


The Step-Family Life Cycle

According to Papernow, “The stepfamily’s task is to move from a biological mini-family with a step-parent outsider to a family unified by a strong, cooperative couple.”

In the early stages, namely the first two to three years, the family remains divided along biological lines.  The closest relationships are between the children and the biological parent. In the middle stages, the family structure becomes more flexible and open to the possibility of change. The middle stages can be thought of as “rocking the boat versus jumping ship.” In the later stages, the new step-family becomes more solid, with reliable, nurturing step-relationships.  

Stage One: Fantasy, the Invisible Burden

Each person brings fantasies and wishes to the new family that result from:

•Previous losses.

•Past histories and experiences.

•Lack of accurate information about how families work.

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 fact, a child’s fantasy may be, “If I ignore him/her, maybe he/she will go away.” The step-parent will probably have a need to love the children and be loved by them. One step-parent has said, “We had planned this whole scenario of how I would meet his children and they would gradually get to know me and love me and think I was wonderful. And when Sam would say, ‘I’m going to marry her,’ they would jump for joy. I just knew they would love me to pieces. I mean, how could they not?”

The biological parent will have a strong desire to immediately “fix what was broken.” One biological parent has said, “It hurts so much remembering what my children and I didn’t get from their father. I really missed having a family during their childhood. When I remarried I really wanted to make the family my children never had. When my second husband and my kids didn’t get along, I was devastated.”

It is easy to see how fantasy can be a burden. In this first stage, each member of the family should be aware of his or her fantasies and wishes. Each person will need to learn to let go of unrealistic hopes. If fantasies and wishes harden into strict requirements, these become an invisible burden blocking the work of building the family.

Stage Two: Immersion, or Lost in Reality

One of the cruelest terms we have created for stepfamilies is the phrase, “blended family.” Most of us know they don’t “blend.” As a step-family begins living together, the reality of how the family will work begins to surface.

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.

For the step-parent, in contrast to the biological parent, step-family living can be painful. The happiness of a new marriage recedes as the step-parent tries to work on the couple relationship in the midst of a more intimate, enduring, and powerful parent-child relationship.

The step-parent feels like an outsider and can experience a range of negative feelings: jealousy, resentment, inadequacy, and loneliness. Step-parents in the immersion stage often feel confused. Many describe having a sense that “something’s not right here, but I can’t figure out what it is.” The “insider” position of the biological parent is usually more comfortable, so the step-parent concludes, “It must be me.”

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. The danger is that family members will sink into “shame,” or “blame,” and have feelings such as, “Something’s wrong here and it must be me,” or “Something’s wrong here and it must be you.” If shame and blame block effective communication, the step-family will become unable to move on to later stages of development.

Stage Three: 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.  

Step-parents begin to identify their painful feelings as well as understand their sources. “I feel jealous. And it’s not because I’m neurotic. It’s because when we’re finally alone late at night, in comes little Emily, and I have to sit there watching them cuddle.”

It is difficult for step-parents to move from “Something’s wrong here and it must be my fault,” to “Something’s wrong here and I don’t like it.” The biological parent needs to help the step-parent make that move.  The biological parent needs to listen, understand, and give support. “I understand why you’d feel jealous. I know I’d feel left out too.” “I did see that John turned his back when you came into the room. That would make me feel bad also.”

Providing this kind of support isn’t easy. The biological parent may want to believe everything is perfect in the new family situation. It is easy to want to deny that there is any basis for the step-parent’s negative feelings. When you yourself are experiencing powerful negative feelings, it’s hard to have enough emotional generosity to understand that your partner is in equal, but different, pain.

Each person in the step-family must try to accurately name his or her feeling 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.

Because family members may think their true feelings are shameful or dangerous, the task of awareness and exposure may be difficult. If family members have tightly held fantasies of an easily blended family, shame and blame may send the family back to the immersion stage.

Stage Four: Restructuring the Family

This period consists of major family reconstruction. The structure is changed from biological mini-families to a working stepfamily. 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 addition, it is possible to move to later stages on some issues and further back on other issues. In order to begin the 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 Five: Solidifying the Step-Family

By the time the family enters this stage, the biological ties have been loosened and new boundaries define step-relationships. At the end of this period, solid “middle ground” unites most members of the family, and a mature role for an “intimate outsider” has begun to emerge for each step-parent.

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. Progression through the step-family cycle is a difficult challenge, but the rewards are great. 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. Being in love can make all the effort worthwhile.

Click here for additional resources for blended family problems.

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