Lesson 7 of 8  - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

The Pros and Cons of
Being in a Stepfamily

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member, NSRC Experts Council


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

Updated  05/31/2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily. These articles augment other qualified professional help. 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 three or more related stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily. 

      Man stepfamily commentators focus on how to avoid and resolve stepfamily problems, rather than the potential benefits of belonging to a healthy stepfamily. This article explores common advantages and disadvantages of being in a typical stepfamily, compared to normal intact and two-home biofamilies. 

       This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site, and the premises underlying it;

  • self-study Lessons 1 thru 7

  • stepfamily Q&A items and facts

  • biofamily and stepfamily similarities and differences

 This brief YouTube video sets the stage for what you're about to read:


      High-nurturance ("functional") families of any sort consistently fill the primary needs of their members. Low-nurturance families don't. Typical stepfamilies have more people, roles, relationships, and developmental tasks than average intact biofamilies, so it's harder to fill everyone's needs well enough, often enough. Because prior divorce suggests psychological wounding and unawareness in both mates, stepfamily mates are apt to be significantly wounded.

Factor Stepfamily Pro Stepfamily Con
Mates' satisfaction Initially higher, vs. being single Apt to decay, due to psychological wounds and many concurrent stressors
Parenting effectiveness More adults to help More chances for complex conflicts
Minor kids' development May be healthier than in a single-parent family May be hindered because of many adjustment tasks and stresses
Grandparents' satisfaction May be higher than if their child is single  Probably lower, due to alien stepfamily roles and compound stressors
Siblings Only-children can gain one or more sisters or brothers Loyalty conflicts and competitions more likely, 
Financial security Probably higher than a single-parent family More problems likely (e.g. child support and values conflicts)
Family support May be higher than single-parenting because more relatives May be less if relatives conflict and/or disapprove

Try a "Benefit Hunt"

      To make this subject more real and less abstract, consider doing some form of this exercise the next time you gather with your (step)family members:

  • Pick a comfortable place with few distractions, and allot enough time to do this experience;

  • Give a brief introduction as to what you're about to do and why;

  • Offer some safety guidelines, like "you can observe and say 'I pass' if you need to, without guilt;"

  • Illustrate some common stepfamily benefits like those above; and then...

  • Invite each willing person to identify (a) one or more benefits they feel your stepfamily provides them recently or long-term, and (b) what former family environment they're comparing to. If useful, help people get started by inviting them to complete sentences like...

    •  What I appreciate about our stepfamily recently is..."

    • This family feels better to me than (another family) because..."

    • Something our stepfamily offers me that I never had before is..."

    • If we lost our stepfamily, I'd really miss..."

    • "When I'm old, I'll probably be glad that our stepfamily..."

    • "Something my friends like about our stepfamily is..."

    • "Compared to other families, we..."

    • (your choice)

  • Encourage comments and discussion, and when you feel "done," encourage awareness and feedback by asking people to reflect and comment on "What are you aware of now?"; or "How was this exercise for you?"; or "What, if anything, did you just learn about us?

  • Consider doing a similar exercise in identifying your stepfamily's strengths. Use this multi-part worksheet as a guide or resource.

Key Factors

      Which stepfamily benefits seem significant to each child and adult at a given time will depend on a mix of factors like these:

  • the person's basic attitude toward life: glass half full, or half empty? This is strongly influenced by whether the person's personality is guided by her or his true Self or a protective Skeptic / Pessimist subself;

  • where the stepfamily is on their developmental path. Those early in their development are often beset by the most simultaneous problems  which can eclipse benefits like those above. A key developmental factor is how each member is progressing at grieving their prior and new losses (broken bonds);

  • how aware and informed the stepfamily's adults and key supporters are about key topics. Less aware and informed usually means more concurrent role and relationship problems, and less odds of appreciating current and long-term benefits;

  • how effective co-parents and supporters are at communicating and resolving their primary problems together;

  • whether stepfamily mates chose the right people to commit to, at the right time, for the right reasons. Those who did are more likely to experience and appreciate the great potential benefits of co-creating a stepfamily;

  • how successful co-parents are at overcoming their teamwork barriers together. This largely depends their combined motivation to help each other progress on these seven Lessons over time; and...

  • who's really in charge of the multi-home nuclear stepfamily: wholistically-healthy, well-informed co-parents, forceful (needy) wounded kids or relatives, or "no one."

Stepfamily Courtship      Each stepfamily will have a unique mix of factors like these which determine if and how often they help each other affirm their benefits and strengths. Which factors are most important in your stepfamily now?

      Perspective: Millions of average U.S. stepfamilies eventually divorce legally or psychologically. Their hopes, commitments, and set of benefits succumb to their mix of core stressors. This hilights how essential it is for courting co-parents to do these Lessons together to make three wise stepfamily-commitment choices. The guidebook for this adventure is Stepfamily Courtship (Xlibris Corp, 2002).


      Adults and kids get benefits and stresses from belonging to their unique family. Some benefits only become apparent in middle or later life. ("I really loved our bi-annual hayride reunions in Colorado!") Stepfamily complexity and stressors make it specially important - and difficult - for co-parents and kids affirm their unique benefits and strengths together while they're mastering significant problems.

      This Lesson 7 article...

  • Hilights some common benefits for kids, co-parents, and relatives living in a healthy stepfamily,

  • proposes a way you can identify your stepfamily benefits together, and...

  • illustrates key factors that shape how often and how well the adults and kids appreciate the good things they enjoy from stepfamily life.

      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 'someone else'?

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