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This YouTube clip previews what you'll read in this article:
This is one of a series of Lesson-7 articles
on howtoevolve a
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
stepparents and bioparents managing a multi-home
A complex multi-year task that all new-stepfamily members face is how to
merge their three or more multi-generational biofamilies over time. This
article identifies 16 things member must merge, and offers ideas on how to
minimize stress along the way. The article assumes you're familiar
A single-parent's serious dating triggers the blending of both
partners' biofamilies and the biofamily of their kids' "other
parent/s." If each courting partner has prior children, and each
of their kids' "other parents" re/marries, then
there are three couples and six merging multi-generational families related by
kids' genes and ancestry, memories and tokens, rituals, names, legal documents, history,
needs and emotions, and finances.
Do New-Stepfamily Members Merge?
1) Dwellings, physical possessions,
2) Communication, parenting, and conflict-resolution
15) Financial debts and assets, including insurances, investments, and
16) Ancestral family
"scripts" ("This is what our family must be." - e.g. rich,
prominent, successful, liberal, radical, religious, etc.)
Combining all these factors over
time is like three or more small
companies merging and negotiating new organizational roles, rules, common goals, and priorities
in an ever-changing world. Typically these complex
family mergers take five
years after courtship to really stabilize. Some
To make this concept more real, meet the McLean-Cohen-Tilmon
stepfamily. Sarah McLean and her 13 year old daughter moving into Jack Tilmonís home
after the adult's wedding triggered a series of complex changes rippling through their three
lives, and the lives of Pattys biofather Ted, Jacks two (non-custodial) kids,
and their biomom and stepfather. Other key relatives lives were significantly
affected too. In their many scattered homes, all of these people began to reorder and
rebalance hundreds of things, in groups, like...
Physical belongings: Jack and Sarah had to
their furniture, utensils, dishes, beds and linens, pictures, pets, vehicles, appliances,
toys, tools, books, clothes, etc. Because these are tangible and many items are used
often, theyre usually the first things that merging adults and kids negotiate about
("Your couch or mine, in the living room?")
Combining the sets of invisible assets in three or more co-parents
extended families is just as real and
potentially conflictual. For example
Customs and Traditions:
"Now that were a family, you all will join us in saying grace before we eat,
wont you?" "We never put uncovered food in the refrigerator, okay?" "I file every paid bill and cancelled check. I didnt know you throw all
yours out " "We always open presents the night before. Thats not a
problem, is it?" "Weve gone to the lake every summer for
all will love it!" "Weve always had salmon at Easter, since I was a kid.
Your mother and sister dont like salmon?"
"Were used to doing our work before playing, so I think you should do
your homework before TV, OK?" "Well, I think all of us eating together is more
important than your son making basketball practice." "My need to talk with our
lawyer on the phone outranks your sons need to jabber with the buddies he spent most
of the afternoon with!" "Youre so afraid your ex will sue for sole
custody that you let her blow off child support and walk all over you."
George DAmato and his clan are used to all talking at once, and expressing
anger, love, hurt, and frustration loud and clear. Family problem-solving
routinely involves arguing, interrupting,
demanding, threats, and sarcasm. Like their staid and stern German and
English ancestors, Margaret Friedrichs pre-teen daughters have been taught to be
quiet, respectful, and (fairly) unemotional, in public. Theyre used to debating
conflicts calmly, and "never fighting." The DAmatos and the Friedrichs are
about to get remarried, and all six will live in the Friedrichs home together...
Parenting Styles: Sarah Mclean was affectionate, warm, patient, and
easy-going with her custodial early-teen daughter Patty. They were used to
talking together about their lives and problems. Sarah often didn't follow
through with limits she set.
Sarah's new husband Jack was rigid, authoritarian, impatient, critical,
condescending, and punitive in disciplining his stepdaughter Patty. He
lectured, rather than discussed, and rarely talked about himself. Patty's
biofather was uninvolved, erratic, and he usually deferred problem-solving:
"Talk to your mother about that."
Jack's ex-wife and her new husband had a different parenting style than the
Tilmons - they favored natural consequences, listening to their three
kids, and compromising when their parenting values clashed.
"You discipline to teach, but I discipline to punish. Kids wont obey or respect
you, unless they feel some loving pain!" "No, your phone calls should stop at
10 P.M., period!" "Well I dont think its too much to expect
an apology from her ..." "Ned should have the support check here by the
the latest!" "Tommy, in this home, we dont eat dinner without shoes
on." "You guys put things off too often. Well all do better if we never
let the sun set on a problem, dont you see?"
things kids and adults must choose between as their multi-home stepfamily
evolves after (each) re/wedding:
Household and extended-family
roles and ranks: "But I've always carved the turkey!";
"I feel like a non-person when your son talks only to you at the dinner table!"; "I used to get the best grades,
but now my snotty stepsister does!";
"Since she remarried, my daughter doesnt call nearly as often.";
"Dad, do I have to buy a present for my step-cousin?"; "Could my son like his new stepfather better than me?"
Privacy and space:
"I used to have my ownroom, but now I have to share it with my new sister
Paula." "You mean I cant have my own bathroom in their (vs.
our) house?" "But wherell I park my car?"
"Looks like well have to combine your home-office and mine in
here." "I know youre used to coming into your Moms room any time,
but we need our privacy, Nina, so please respect our closed door now unless its an
And so on...
Each of the 16 merger categories has
scores of individual items that
new-steppeople must sort out, rank, and compromise on over time, for harmony and stability
in and between their related homes. Consider this three-generational
stepfamily diagram. Now imagine groups of adults and kids in
stepfamily map working to blend and stabilize these 16 groups of things
pioneers Emily and John Visher suggested "In 8
(years after re/wedding) itíll be great!" - i.e. your
combined biofamilies will probably be pretty stable. Typical
new-stepfamily mates assume
rosily "Things will settle down in several months." Wrong. Their
expectation is usually based on the far simpler two-family merger that average
childless first-marriers work at.
This complex multi-year merger inevitably causes conflicts within and
between stepfamily members. The adults' shared challenge is to
learn to resolve many
conflicts over values, resources, and priorities or
effectively together, in ways that leave everyone involved feeling good enough.
A key part of this challenge usually involves
divorcing parents resolving major
barriers between themselves, and their kids and relatives.
Couples who have progressed well on
Lesson 1 (assess for and
psychological wounds) and
Lesson 2 (learn and use
seven thinking/communicating skills) are the most effective at
resolving their merger conflicts. Average co-parents haven't
progressed on these and other vital
In America, over half of them eventually re/divorce psychologically or legally, despite prior breakups.
If you're considering forming or joining a stepfamily, your adults can
minimize merger stress and confusion by...
1) Discussing the
[wounds + unawareness]
and it's relevance to you all and your descendants. Taking the cycle
seriously will provide motivation to...
2) Study and discuss
Lessons 1-6. Atthe least, help each other identify and reduce any
psychological wounds (Lesson 1), learn to
(Lesson 2), and learn stepfamily basics (Lesson 7). If you don't, the
following suggestions probably won't help you avoid merger stress.
Agree on an attitude of
teamwork and a long-term vision.
Acknowledge that you're all partners in a complex, challenging
family-building enterprise with a common goal:
to evolve a
stepfamily, and guard your descendents against
ancestral wounds and ignorance. Option - evolve and use
Help each other stay aware that this merger project is one of up to 30
concurrent tasks that your members will
need to do together over many years. This
task requires divorcing parents to commit to reducing any major
for their kids' sakes.
4) Co-parents agree that to put dependent
long term, family adults
must often rank their kids' needs below co-parents' (a)
and (b) marital health.That protects kids from psychological
re/divorce trauma. Adults who
discount or disagree with this, are probably psychologically wounded, and may have
avoided grieving some major losses (broken bonds).
all family adults and older kids to read and discuss this article, to
prepare for making a merger plan. This combats the
powerful re/divorce hazard of
More suggestions to minimize merger stress...
your stepfamily members' communication
as needed. You're probably ready to resolve merger
conflicts well together if each adult can...
answer _ these communication-basics
questions and _ this related quiz.
describe at least ten of the ~30 common
blocks to effective interpersonal communication (more is
better), and what to
do about them.
My experience counseling over
1,000 typical stepfamily co-parents and supporters since 1981 is that
very few typical adults can
meet even half of these requisites. This plus U.S. public apathy
promote low family nurturance ("dysfunction"), divorce, and the
lethal [wounds + unawareness]
cycle. See self-improvement
a merger plan together. Stepfamily
leaders agree on what you want your 16-level, multi-family merger
to look like when you're "done" - e.g. -
"We'll be 'done' when all
our adults and kids honestly feel we've really resolved all significant
conflicts over our merged multi-home stepfamily roles
(responsibilities), rules, rituals, goals, priorities, membership,
assets and liabilities, names, titles, and expectations."
Once you agree enough on your merger goals,
then intentionally forge co-operative strategies to achieve them.
This requires co-parents to admit merger conflicts promptly without
blame; and to evolve a way to resolve conflicts effectively - e.g. by
seven skills. That hinges on all adults wanting to help each other heal any
wounds (Lesson 1).
strategies clearly answer questions like these:
When one of us identifies a values or loyalty
conflict and/or a relationship triangle in or between our stepfamily
homes, what should we do?
If we adults can't agree on what we should do (a
values conflict), what
do we do?
How do we know when we need professional help with
our merger conflicts and triangles? How can we find
qualified professional help
8) Be alert for
and trying to convert new step-kin to your standards and values ("Our
way is better than your way.") Mutual respect and negotiating win-win
compromises will minimize stress.
9) Learn how to
distinguish changes (no broken bonds) from
(broken bonds). Then help each other be aware of - and talk
about - the losses that your adults and kids will experience as
10) Teach your kids stepfamily realities and your
merger goals and plans in age-appropriate language. Help them learn how
to talk about how the merger is affecting them. Finally...
Suggestion 11) Enjoy affirming each other (including kids!) as you
all merge and stabilize your biofamilies over
several years! If you're part of a co-parent support group, consider introducing participants to the ideas here.
what does all this mean to most stepfamily co-parents and kids?
Step back from the details, and consider the big picture.
Note several things about the overall multi-year task of merging and
stabilizing your biofamilies:
As your stepfamily members merge these many
things, most kids and adults will
losses (broken bonds).
They'll need to admit and
these losses over many months or years to regain their emotional balance. If
adults have done their homework on Lesson 3, they'll have
started to evolve and use a
''Good Grief'' policy in your homes to guide and support
everyone as they mourn.
Merger losses add to those from (a) childhood trauma, (b) transition to
adulthood, (c) marriages an child births, and (d) family divorce or
mate/parent death. If any of
your adults or kids hasnt had enough time to mourn their prior losses enough,
they can feel emotionally
overloaded and "act out" (i.e.
"rage outbursts," "crying jags,"
addictions, (including overeating), illness, etc.
and values conflicts + losses
from combining these 16 categories of things are
suggests the value of adults' co-operatively sorting, ranking, and focusing,
as they resolve each conflict. Co-parents dominated by
false selves can lack the self-discipline, concentration, and
empathy to do this effectively. They may be impatient to gain the ideal
family they long for.
minimize stress, new-stepfamily
adults should be aware of how fast they're changing things in
their homes and family: they should watch for signs of
overwhelm in their kids and wounded
adults. Signs can include "depression," anger
outbursts and belligerence, isolation, apathy, illness, addiction,
rebellion, sullenness, etc. If you see signs like these, s-l-o-w
minor kids in a new environment instinctively need totest and
retestuntil they learn...
they rank in their new stepfamily (important > unimportant),
new roles and rules in and between their parents' homes,
happens if they (the kids) break the rules,
makes therules and any consequences, and...
much power they have in each co-parenting home.
"acting out" may be symptoms of this normal testing and local overwhelm
from all the merger changes in kids' lives. New and older teens
are specially vulnerable to this as they evolve toward adult independence and sexual maturity
merger conflicts and losses that are very stressful for a child may feel
trivial to family adults, or vice versa:
e.g. "We had to give away my cat Midnight
because my wimpy stepbrother is allergic!" So adult empathy, compassion, and mutual respects are priceless assets in
this multi-year merger process.
survivors of low-nurturance childhoods
often lack these traits
merger factor to be aware of is...
Most lay and
professional supporters are unaware of stepfamily realities, and won't empathize with the scope
of this long, complex, biofamily merger. Unawareness, media distortions, biases, and
lack of stepfamily experience and realistic training all hinder their ability to empathize
with new stepfamily members. This suggests the value of starting to build an
informedsupport network together and
About the Merger!
New-stepfamily members can...
Ignore their stepfamily
("Naw, we're just 'a family'") and minimize or ignore their merger
process (other than obvious
physical things); or ...
new identity but dont talk about the merger process; and/or
adults' and kids' merger needs, thoughts and feelings;
Minimize or deny merger conflicts and loss-impacts on themselves and
promote effective problem-solving and grieving and reduce personal and
family stress, talk about
the merger process, changes, conflicts, and compromises together as you go:
(merging) is tougher than we realized. How do other step people get through this?"
each other congratulate family members who find
win-win compromises, and console your
kids and adults suffering broken emotional bonds: "Itís really hard
having to change all your friends and teachers and go to a strange new school, isnt
it? Im so proud of the way youre being sad and angry about all these
tough changes, Maria! Doing those good-grief things will help you feel better, and enjoy
your new friends and school, after a while."
This article identifies 16 groups of things that typical new-stepfamily
members must merge over several years after a single parent starts to
date seriously. It adds common implications of this complex multi-year
biofamily-merger process, and offers specific suggestions to minimize
stress from it.
The complexity, scope, and importance of this process suggests the
high value of courting co-parents
and their relatives starting to
evolve a merger planbefore re/wedding. These
hazards and relationship
barriers usually inhibit this.Sharedawareness is the key!
Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what
you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what
do you need?
Is there anyone you want to
discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these
questions - your wise resident
true Self, or