Rules for Stepfamilies

The Divorce and StepFamily Statistics Are Staggering:

Divorce_Custody

One out of two marriages ends in divorce. Sixty percent of second marriages fail, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 66% of marriages and living together situations end in break up, when children are actively involved, according to Stepfamily Foundation statistics. It is predicted that 50% of children in the US will go through a divorce before they are 18. Approximately half of all Americans are currently involved in some form of step relationship. By the year 2000, according to the Census Bureau, more Americans will be living in step families than in nuclear families.

In his 1994 study, “The Changing Character of Stepfamilies,” Professor of Sociology Larry L. Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin challenges the common perception that the stepfamily is defined by marriage. His research states that:

  • About half of the 60 million children under the age of thirteen in this country are currently living with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner.
  • Nearly half of all women, not just mothers, are likely to live in a stepfamily relationship, when we include living-together families in our definition of the stepfamily.

Therefore, we have already become a nation of step-relating individuals.

However, most graduate schools of psychiatry, psychology, and social work provide no specific training in dealing with these particular dynamics of stepfamilies. Often, the methods and information appropriate to the nuclear family can be destructive . . . if applied to the highly specific dynamics of the stepfamily system.

According to Elizabeth Carter, ACSW, Family Institute of Westchester, “Our culture provides no guidelines . .. It is our experience that this is one of the most difficult transitions for families to negotiate.” Carter continues, “Our cultural forms, rituals and assumptions still relate chiefly to the intact, first marriage family, and the most ordinary event, such as filling out a form or celebrating a holiday, can become a source of acute embarrassment or discomfort for members of remarried families.”

 

Ten Steps for Steps


Step 1. Recognize that the stepfamily will not and can not function as does a natural family. It has its own special state of dynamics and behaviors. Once learned, these behaviors can become predictable and positive. Do not try to overlay the expectations and dynamics of the intact or natural family onto the stepfamily.
Step 2. Recognize the hard fact that the children are not yours and they never will be. We are stepparents, not replacement parents. Mother and father (no matter how AWFUL the natural parents) are sacred words and feelings. We are stepparents, a step removed, yet in this position can still play a significant role in the development of the child.
Step 3. Super stepparenting doesn’t work. Go slow. Don’t come on too strong.
Step 4. Discipline styles must be sorted out by the couple. The couple, ideally with the help of a Stepfamily Foundation trained professional, needs to immediately and specifically work out what the children’s duties and responsibilities are. What is acceptable behavior and what are the consequences when children misbehave? Generally, in the beginning, we suggest that the biological parent does the disciplining as much as is feasible. The couple together specifically works out jobs, expected behaviors and family etiquette.
Step 5. Establish clear job descriptions between the parent, stepparent and respective children. What specifically is the job of each one of us in this household? We need to be as detailed as we are in business.
Step 6. Know that unrealistic expectations beget rejections and resentments. There is no model for the step relationship except for the wicked stepchild and invariably cruel stepmother of fairy tales. Note the absence of myth around the stepfather. It is vital for the survival of the stepfather to be able to see and delineate expectations for each member of the family, especially the primary issues of upset in step: e.g., money, discipline, the prior spouse, visitation, authority, emotional support, territory and custody.
Step 7. There are no ex-parents . . . only ex-spouses. Begin to get information on how to best handle the prior spouse.
Step 8. Be prepared for conflicting pulls of sexual and biological energies within the step relationship. In the intact family, the couple comes together to have a child. The child is part of both parents, generally pulling the parents’ energy together for the well-being of the child. In step, blood and sexual ties can polarize a family in opposite energies and directions.
Step 9. The conflict of loyalties must be recognized right from the beginning. The conflict is particular to step and is a round robin of confused emotions. Often, just as the child in step begins to have warm feelings toward the stepparent, the child will pull away and negatively act out. He/she feels something like this: “If I love you, that means I do not love my real parent.” The feelings are normal and must be dealt with. The pulls of “Who am I loyal to first?” go all the way around in the stepfamily.
Step 10. Guard your sense of humor and use it. The step situation is filled with the unexpected. Sometimes we don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Try humor.

About The Author

Jeannette Lofas

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