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Stepping into a Stepfamily – Things to Know Before Saying “I DO”

Happy Newlyweds

Research reveals that the stepfamily is fast approaching the status—if it hasn’t already—of being the most common family in America today. Therefore, it’s vitally important for a single person to understand what’s involved in forming a stepfamily. E. Mavis Hetherinton is the principal researcher of the Virginia Longitudinal Study of Divorce and Remarriage and author of the book For Better or Worse. She confirmed that the overall divorce rate for stepcouples in her study was between 65 to 70 percent. She went on to specify that when one partner brought a child into the marriage the divorce rate was 65 percent, but when both partners had children the rate rose to slightly more than 70 percent.

Preparing for the situations beforehand, rather than being ambushed by them afterward, is one of the keys to success.

Here are a few of the significant issues stepfamilies face.

1.     Stepfamilies are Formed Out of Loss. A stepfamily is created due to the death of a parent or a divorce. There may be lingering grief and sorrow for the adults and/or children over the loss of the biological family. One erroneous assumption is that kids accept a stepparent much more easily after the death of a parent. While divorce does present numerous complications, children who lose a parent to death battle many of the same stepparent issues as kids of divorce.

2.     The Body and Mind Need Time to Heal. Because grief is painful, many people attempt to rush the process. They deceive themselves into thinking “I’m over it,” and allow a new relationship to numb the wound. This prevents the body, mind and soul from taking the time required to heal. Imagine trying to run a marathon on a fractured leg. That’s what occurs when a person enters a remarriage without healing from the first one.

3.     Children Have a Different View. While the couple may be blissfully happy, it’s not uncommon for both adult and young children to view the remarriage as another loss. When that occurs, the stepparent is viewed as the intruder who is tainting the deceased parent’s image, or destroying the dream of a family reconciliation. Some children don’t reveal their disapproval until after the wedding. One stepmom shared, “I thought my stepdaughter was happy about our marriage. But she cried so loudly during the ceremony that it was embarrassing. She has been a nasty tyrant ever since. I don’t understand what happened.” It’s likely that during the ceremony the daughter was hit by the grief of losing her original family, and now views the stepmom as taking her daddy away.

4.  Kids are Fiercely Loyal. “My stepdaughter’s dad walked out of her life when she was 3. I raised her as if she were my own child. Recently, her father showed up saying he wants to make up for all the lost years. I couldn’t believe it. She instantly allowed him back into her life and started treating me like dirt. I’m furious.” What this stepdad didn’t realize is that even when a parent is unstable, neglectful or abusive, a child often remains loyal to them. This is because—at all costs—a child deeply craves the love, affection and admiration of a parent. Therefore, they will drop a stepparent—even one they deeply care about—in a heartbeat if it means jeopardizing the relationship with the biological parent.

5.  Stepfamilies Take Time to Bond. “The Brady Bunch” was a fantasy TV show where everyone got along. (Let’s be real—they had a housekeeper.) In real life, the average stepfamily takes at least seven years to bond. And each family member may move at a different pace toward accepting the new situation. Any attempt by the adults to rush the bonding typically backfires.

A common statement from stepfamilies is, “I had no idea this would be so complicated.” The goal in sharing these complexities isn’t to be discouraging or negative but rather to provide information so people will be informed, equipped and prepared.

StepMom Magazine Cover
StepMom Magazine

This article was written by Laura Petherbridge, Co-author of “The Smart Stepmom” and appears in the February 2011 issue of StepMom Magazine

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