Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

When an Ex-mate Re/marries

Expect and manage major
stepfamily changes together

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/co/reweds.htm

Updated  July 18, 2015

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      If your or your mate's ex spouse is about to commit to a new partner, how can you prepare for and manage all the changes that will happen to you and your kids? This article explores your options.

      This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance (functional) stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both bioparents, or any of the related stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Website, and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1-7 here;

  • Q&A about ex-mate relations. and..

  • options for improving ex-mate relations; .

  About Changes

      After significant changes (like re/marriage and cohabiting), adults and kids  instinctively strive to rebalance their routines, relationships, and expectations to regain stability and security. Some of us are faster than others at restoring those prizes - i.e. at "adapting." Can you think of people who "adapted well" to major life changes? How do you judge that? Recall others whom you feel have had major trouble in adjusting to new life circumstances.

      When a child's second bioparent re/marries after divorce, their new stepparent's presence, values, goals, and needs, will cause webs of minor and major changes in the whole stepfamily system - specially if the new person has kids.

      Many factors determine how impactful an ex-mate's choosing a new partner is - e.g....

The degree of psychological wounding in each of your family adults. Typical false selves are apt to resist or overreact to environmental change, and have the hardest time restabilizing.

How much advance warning everyone had of the new couple's commitment (more is better); and ...

How many people comprise your nuclear stepfamily (fewer is easier); and ...

The harmony or conflict among the ex mates and their kids and relatives; and...

The progress that kids and adults have made grieving their losses from parental divorce and re/marriage and/or cohabiting; and ...

How much time has elapsed since the child's first bioparent chose a new partner (more is better); and...

Who has custody of which kids, and how stable visitations, child support, parenting agreements, and legal custody status are; and ...

The communication and problem-solving effectiveness among the co-parents and kids in the nuclear stepfamily; and ...

How much progress has been made in stabilizing their complex stepfamily merger to date.

      When your child(ren)'s other bioparent commits to a new partner, everyone will experience significant changes over the ensuing months.

 What Will Change?

      Depending on the factors above, adding a new co-parent and their biofamily to your multi-generational stepfamily may shift many facets of your lives:

Where the new couple and any custodial kids live. They may relocate to a new city, move across town, or make no dwelling change - for now. If they move, any custodial kids may need to change schools, churches, and socializing patterns with relatives and friends.

Your co-parenting financial arrangements. The new adult brings her or his own assets, debts, and values. S/he may or may not approve of your child-support agreements - i.e. who pays who how much, how often, and what the money is used for. S/He may be passive or active in accepting or changing your present arrangement - including child allowances, insurance coverages, special-activity expenses, and wills;  

Your child-visitation rituals. The new adult has needs, priorities, and opinions that may cause the frequency, duration, and quality of visitations to change - specially if s/he has kids too.

      And adding a new nuclear-stepfamily co-parent will change ...

Your religious and holiday rituals like birthdays, christenings, bar and  bas mitzvahs, worship, vacations, and national and ethnic celebrations. S/He may enrich your stepfamily with new religious and ethnic customs, or adopt your existing ones.

      Adding this adult's relatives to your holidays will complicate who goes to who's house, when, for how long. It will also add a period of confusion about who expects gifts, calls, visits, or cards from whom, when, and why.

      A sure change to expect is in...

Your co-parenting communication sequences and patterns. Over time, this new co-parent will improve or degrade the general effectiveness of child-raising discussions and problem-solving in and between your (step)child's two homes. And...

Your co-parenting "division of labor" and responsibilities will shift. This new adult (and any kids they bring) will cause significant changes in the caregiving roles and rules in their house - including who provides what nurturance to which child(ren), how, and how often. For instance s/he may take on the responsibility of tutoring a stepchild faltering in school, or may initiate flute lessons or little league participation.

            More changes to expect when a new co-parent joins your stepfamily...

Your stepfamily's identity and structure will shift. The re/commitment of your or your partner's ex mate brings a new biofamily into your multi-generational stepfamily. All of you accepting, ignoring, or rejecting all of them, and being accepted or rejected by all of them, will cause minor to major membership, values, and loyalty conflicts and associated relationship- triangle stresses for everyone. And prepare for...

Confusions and conflicts over first and last names and stepfamily role-titles - e.g. "Dad wants me to call his new wife 'Mom' - do I have to?" After re/marriage, kids may suddenly have a different last name than their mother, and/or they or their co-parents may have the same first name as a new stepsibling or step-relative. And...

This couple's re/marriage and/or cohabiting will complicate and lengthen your stepfamily merger. It will probably take several years - and scores of discussions, confrontations, conflict resolutions, and compromises - to restabilize.

      Every stepfamily will have a unique web of things like these that change when a second divorced parent commits to a new partner. Some changes will be triggered by "serious dating." Others will erupt when the couple cohabits, and others if and when they re/marry. The resulting series of emotional, logistic, financial, legal, relationship, and structural changes will affect each other and may take years to stabilize.

      So what? These many overlapping changes cause losses for all stepfamily members, and temporarily lower everyone's home and family stability and security. How long "temporarily" lasts depends on many factors.

      Your adults can be passive and react to these many changes as they occur, or you can actively prepare everyone for your new environment.

      Prepare how?


      A vital first step is all your adults reaffirming that you and your kids comprise a normal multi-home stepfamily. Then affirm what that means to you all - i.e. acknowledge that you all need to help each other master common problems like these. 

      Let everyone know when dating a potential new stepparent "gets serious." Keeping this a secret from anyone is a symptom of psychological wounds (e.g. distrust and fear).

      If you haven't already, assess the ex mate for psychological wounds. If s/he seems wounded, s/he'll probably pick a wounded new partner. Two (more?) wounded co-parents are likely to mean more stress among your co-parents and kids. This adds incentive to...

  • continue reducing your own wounds, and any of these relationship barriers with the ex mate. Their effects may amplify because of the new partner.

  • expect significant new membership, loyalty, and values conflicts and divisive relationship triangles, and refresh yourselves on how to minimize and resolve them.

  • review your biofamily- merger plan. It will have to expand to accommodate the new co-parent and her or his kids (if any) and relatives. Ideally, you'll be able to discuss the plan with the new couple and get their help with revising it.

  • learn if the new person has any knowledge of stepfamily realities. If not, invite him or her to...

    • take this quiz, and...

    • study these basics, Q&A items, and realities; and...

    • this article on effective stepparenting. Better still...

    • invite the couple to study at least Lesson 7 and discuss it with you.

      More change-preparations you co-parents can make...

      Option: Try out the interesting, non-competitive Ungame together - specially if the new co-parent has kids. This provides a safe way for kids and adults (in any family!) to learn about themselves and each other.

      If you have drafted a stepfamily mission statement, give the new co-parent a copy, and invite their thoughtful reactions. If you've drafted co-parent job descriptions based on your mission statement, share copies of those too. 

      The purpose of this is information-sharing and exploration, not competition or demands. By the way, help each other stay clear that stepmother, stepfather, stepson, stepdaughter, stepbrother, and stepsister are roles, not people!

      If the new couple decides to get engaged, invite them to draw their version of your stepfamily's genogram (map), and compare it with your own. The goals are to...

  • recognize how complex and conflictual your stepfamily membership-decisions can be - specially for minor and grown kids; and to...

  • begin to resolve them together as teammates.

      After your choices among all these change-preparation steps...

      Options like these can minimize problems with integrating a new co-parent's biofamily into your stepfamily system. If you still encounter role or relationship problems, suspect that these universal hazards are hindering you. Use this to identify what such problems are, and these options to resolve them.


      New stepfamilies form when a single parent starts seriously dating a new partner. One divorced parent usually recommits well before their ex mate does. When a child's other bioparent chooses a new partner, s/he has two bioparents and two stepparents. The new stepparent and their kids and relatives must be integrated into the multi-generational stepfamily system over time, which often causes cascades of adjustment conflicts

      This article hilights typical stepfamily changes to expect when a child's "other bioparent" starts to date seriously. It proposes that preparing for these changes is better than passively reacting to them, and offers specific change-planning options to choose from.

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      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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