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Stepfamilies: The New Pioneers
By Barbara Perlmutter and Laureen Miki

Jamie woke up to the reality of stepfamily life on the morning of her honeymoon. “There I was, walking behind my husband and my 10-year old stepdaughter on our way to breakfast. The honeymoon was over before it started!” Another stepparent, Stephanie, recalled, “For me it was a first marriage. Even though I knew he had kids, I wasn’t prepared for how they would affect the romance in our relationship.”

There are many such surprises when people form a stepfamily. Most embark on the monumental task of combining families with great hope and enthusiasm, but with unrealistic expectations and little idea of what they're heading into. "I thought it would be fun," said Laura, "You know, the zoo, the aquarium…I had no idea."

Many assume their new family will follow the traditional model that most of us were raised with: two adults fall in love, set up house, learn to live with each other and later decide to have children. In this tradition, both adults become parents simultaneously and their children confer on both the authority and status of parent. When a conventional family is created, there is a bonding between members that, for better or worse, is rarely questioned.

All these components are different in remarried families. Those who expect stepfamilies to develop in a similar manner are likely to experience frustration at best and divorce at worst. Currently, the divorce rate among stepfamilies is even higher than for first-time marriages. This is because many well-intentioned remarrying couples fail to recognize or acknowledge that stepfamily relationships are unique and require a different approach. Unlike biological families, they are created out of loss - death, divorce, or abandonment. What's more, losses continue to occur after the remarriage. Job, home, friends, family, schools and lifestyles may undergo major changes. Husband and wife are challenged on emotional and financial fronts. Biological parents are unprepared for being caught trying to please the new spouse, the kids and their former mate. The stepparent often feels excluded and isolated. Many stepparents are startled to find that they lack the usual adult authority in the home. Another significant factor is the strain of supporting two homes financially. One stepmother complained, "I'm working full time and part of my paycheck goes to my husband's ex-wife who is living in a much nicer house than we could ever afford. It's very frustrating."

Another basic difference is that stepfamilies often involve parenting between or more adults who live in separate homes and frequently hold differing values. This can create conflict and tension for the adults as well as the children. In addition, there is no legal relationship between stepparent and stepchild and little community, government or societal support for this growing type of family. This can lead to a variety of additional stresses and challenges for all family members.

Children in stepfamilies may experience feeling conflicting loyalties between their step and biological parents. Additionally, birth order may change with the introduction of stepsiblings - the "baby" of the family may now find that there is someone else in his place. And to add insult to injury, children may be asked to confer parental status on an adult whom they have only recently met. Most children have not gained the maturity to come to terms with losing their original family and yet are asked to adapt to profound changes, which they did not want and which are out of their control.

And if all this isn't enough stress, new stepfamily members often find themselves competing with each one another for resources: attention, money, space and private time. In short, within a few days or months of its inception, the new stepfamily is frequently hit with a barrage of intense feelings for which no one was prepared. As one highly accomplished stepmother lamented, "There is nothing I have ever done in my life that could have prepared me for how hard starting my stepfamily was."


How can you create family in an atmosphere of resistance, loss, intensity and divided loyalties? How can new family build when it's members do not share the same history? How can a family form amidst competition, chaos and change?

Family is not simply a group of people living together. Family is a feeling. It cannot be created instantly. Quality relationships take time to build. Authentic commitment and trust only grow through shared experience. Healing from a major loss such as divorce or death is a process. It will take time. The advice of "mature" stepfamilies and experts alike is to go slowly. "Love is enough" expectations tend to limit the creative thinking that allows progress. Set your sights on a realistic roadmap, one that may have ups and downs, especially in the early years. Experts say that fully settling into stepfamily life can take five to seven years. Each family must find its own way, discovering what works for them and what is satisfying for each person.


  1. Start fresh. The emotional intensity involved in stepfamily life can be surprising. It is essential to first complete your emotional divorce.
  2. Temper optimism with reality. Let go of your fantasy of re-creating a nuclear family. At the outset, strive for flexibility not cohesion. Remember, the transition is challenging for everyone. In the long run, patience and understanding will pay off.
  3. Shift slowly. Keep some of each family's traditions and rituals and add some new ones. Change is never easy but is facilitated by an atmosphere of trust and acceptance. Developing shared values takes time and effort.
  4. Pay attention to your marriage. The satisfaction of the couple relationship is what determines stepfamily stability. Make it a priority to spend time together. Develop a shared vision of marriage and family life that involves defining (and, over time redefining) your roles as parent and stepparent.
  5. Find support. Educate yourself. Talk to others in stepfamilies, join a support group, take a class, and seek counseling, if necessary.

The going often seems tougher for stepfamilies because they are forging a new frontier rather than following an established trail. Maintaining an open-mind will maximize your chances for success. Make your goal to find what works for each family member. Remember, you are pioneers and new territory means new ways.

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