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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
three or more stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home
Based on my clinical research since 1979 with over 1,000 typical
stepfamily members, This
article offers questions about stepfamilies that average
adults and their
supporters need to explore and discuss.
These Q&A items assume you're familiar with..
intro to this nonprofit Website, and the
stepfamily? What is a
2) Is it OK to call a
stepfamily a "blended family" or
some other non-step label?
3) How are typical stepfamilies
like (intact) biofamilies?
How are they
different, and what do these differences
What are the
benefits of being
in a (high-nurturance) stepfamily?
Are typical stepfamilies "as good as" intact
(a) Why is it vital that members accept their
identity as a stepfamily (vs. "We're just a
family")and learn what that identity usually means; and (b) how
can you tell if someone has accepted their step-identity?
8) What are the most common
myths about typical
stepfamilies, and what are the realities?
names and titles in
our new stepfamily. Are there any norms or guidelines?
35) What can
do if they feel significant favoritisms among their stepfamily's adults and
kids? See this article
Pause and reflect - how many typical courting couples do you think would seriously
research questions like these before making long-term
stepfamily commitments? My professional experience since 1979 is -
For more stepfamily perspective,
also see these Q&A articles on...
Q1) What is a
stepfamily? What is a
A stepfamily is an ancient kind of
normal social group in which one adult mate nurtures one or more kids
partner conceived with another person. The titles for their reciprocal family
roles are stepparent and
stepchild. The prefix "step-"
comes to us over 1,000 years from the middle-English root stoep-, which
meant "not related by blood (genes)."
Orphans and stepparents were common in (and long before) William the Conqueror's days because
of disease, ignorance, war, and unprotected intercourse. Stepfamilies have
probably been the global norm for thousands of years until
advances in medicine, law, sanitation, and political stability in the last several centuries.
From ancestral and social
modern stepfamilies are often viewed as nontraditional
and inferior. Because of this undeserved bias, many co-parents, kin, and
stepkids deny their stepfamily
Q2) Is it OK to call a
stepfamily a "blended family" or
some other label?
blended or "complex" stepfamily is one in which each mate has kids from a prior union, so
each partner is a bioparent and a stepparent.
Manypeopleassociate theprefix "step-" with
inferior, weird, abnormal, failure, second
best, and unnatural. (Do you?) Our unaware
media encourages this.
To avoid these uncomfortable associations, lay and
professional people use "family" adjectives like bi-nuclear,
co-, blended, bonus, reconstituted, non-traditional, special, reconstructed,
second, rem(arried), and serial
instead of "step-.".
such "feel-good" labels risks...
using unrealistic (biofamily) expectations
making up to
three unwise courtship
spreading the toxic delusion that
stepfamilies are abnormal, inferior, and deficient compared to intact biofamilies.
These factors combine to promote legal and psychological re/divorce and
psychological woundsto the next generation.
I have repeatedly observed that
avoiding "step-" titles and labels
usually indicates significant psychological
wounds and harmful
Q3) How are typical stepfamilies
like intact biofamilies?
Just as males and females
are the same in some ways (e.g. they both have ears) and different in others,
typical stepfamilies and intact biofamilies have
over 70 differences.If
stepfamily adults and supporters only focus on the similarities
and don't learn the differences and what they mean, they risk using inappropriate biofamily-based
role and relationship expectations as they
merge their several
need to separate these similarities from the
many structural and
dynamic differences (Q4 below) about multi-home stepfamilies,
learn and apply realistic expectations,
and educate their kids, kin, and
Lesson 7 can
help you do this.
Q4) How are
stepfamilies different, and what do these differences
multi-home stepfamiliesdiffer from
average intact biofamilies in two major ways. Can you name them?
are "built" differently than biofamilies in
35 ways (!) These
structural differences and the unique way stepfamilies begin (after death
or divorce) also cause...
developmental stages and up to 36
adjustment-tasks. Can you name at least 10 of them?
Adults who are aware of
most of these ~70 differences and what they
mean are most
likely to share realistic expectations and teach them to others.
Lesson 7 in this Web site focuses on learning
and discussing these
similarities and differences, what it
means to be in a stepfamily,and
their adults and kids can expect as they
and stabilize their several biofamilies over four or more years after
committing and cohabiting.
Consider investing in the unique
guidebook Stepfamily Courtship(Xlibris.com, 2002) for practical
information and suggestions before or after exchanging vows. It contains
much of the content in Lesson 7 here.
Q6) Are typical stepfamilies "as good as" intact
What is a good apple tree? A good armadillo? A
good family? Premise: families exist to fill the
needs of their members, so
(functional, high-nurturance) families fill most members' needs well enough,
most of the time.
From this view, "Are
stepfamilies as good as biofamilies?" really asks "Can typical stepfamilies
fill their members' needs as well as typical intact biofamilies?" There is no
inherent structural or social reason they can't. However, because of
widespread unawareness of
five hazards and what to
do about them,
many stepfamily kids and adults don't
get their normal developmental and unique
adjustment needs met well enough.
Perspective: if it's true that
over half of U.S. first-marriages divorce psychologically
or legally, most biofamilies aren't "as good as" high-nurturance
("functional") families of any sort. The
point is -
motivated adults in any family can learn to
and fill their
own and their kids' needs well enough, often enough. Typical
have more to learn (Q12 below) and
more tasks to master to accomplish that vital goal, over many
How would you describe what belonging to a group means? Not belonging?
At the least, belonging means an adult or child feels known, accepted, and
(ideally) valued for who they are, and what they bring to other group members.
Belonging can mean
that other family members...
have formed some degree of genuine
you (weak > strong), and merit you bonding with them to some degree. You
and they may or may not like each other, and members...
certain attitudes, values (like loyalty and respect), and behaviors from
are dutifully or genuinely
concerned about your feelings, needs, opinions, and welfare, compared to non-members.
Other family members spontaneously want to include you in normal rituals
and special events, and miss
you when you're absent more than non-members. Belonging can also mean feeling part of,
pride in, and
loyalty to, an ancestral chain, clan, and culture - e.g. "I have Scotch,
German, and Iroquois roots."
From this perspective, any adult or child who doesn't feel the things above -
or doesn't want them - is not a stepfamily member. Most members of newly-merging biofamilies have never met, and
have few shared experiences from which to form genuine (vs. polite) new bonds.
Typical stepfamily members
can feel obliged to include each other in celebrations and gatherings when they
really don't know or care much about each other. If chronic, such
pretenses (a) breed
anxieties, distrusts, guilts, avoidances, confusion, and superficial relationships;
and (b) suggest
wounded, unaware adults
This can cause "pseudo" membership, where people fake caring and closeness
from politeness, duty, and wanting to appear "normal" and
"sociable" (like happy biofamily members). Kids and ex
mates who resent or fear the losses
(broken bonds) that a re/marriage and/or cohabiting and merger may bring can reject
membership (inclusion) even if it's genuinely offered.
Stepfamily members vary in their degrees of caring and interest in each other,
so "membership" is
subjective. It changes over time, and ranges from "none" to "full"
depending on who's judging, what they need, and what criteria they use.
If a divorced parent re/marries,
is their ex mate a member of their stepfamily?
YES! Some stepfamily mates, relatives, and supporters
deny that ex mate/s are full members of their multi-home stepfamily (exclusion).
Conversely, some ex mates imply or declare they
don't want to be members
of the new stepfamily (rejection).
Family-membership exclusion and rejection
usually cause significant stress for
all adults and kids, long-term. Like it or not,
divorcing bioparents are bound together
historically, financially, and psychologically, until the last of their common
children dies - so yes,
are full stepfamily members.
What should we know about
stepfamilies before we commit to forming or joining one?
three wise decisions on whether to form or join a
stepfamily or not,
co-parents need to work patiently
together for many months at these seven crucial self-improvement
At the least, they need to discuss these common courtship
From one view, there is only one kind of stepfamily: a group of
related adults and kids building relationships, filling needs, and helping each other grow
through normal life phases.
Considering combinations of adults' prior
parenthood + children's ages, genders, and custody arrangements + prior
divorces or mate-deaths + other
factors, there are
over 100 structural types of normal stepfamily.
This guarantees that people in
a stepfamily will never meet another one composed like theirs. This can
cause a sense of alienation and aloneness that intact-biofamily members
seldom feel. This helps to explain why many people ignore, minimize, or reject
Q14) Do most clergy, counselors,
lawyers, and educators get adequate stepfamily training? How can we pick an
effective stepfamily counselor?
From researching and working professionally with stepfamilies since 1979,my impression is that
schools that train clergy, attorneys, teachers, judges, coaches or
therapists, doctors, social and welfare workers, mediators, and
law-enforcement professionals aren't
aware yet of the vital need for basic stepfamily training. I suspect related
professional standards and licensing organizations aren't either.
knowledge, there are now no U.S. organizations that provide
comprehensive stepfamily training for
human-service professionals. The National Stepfamily Resource Center (NSRC) offers periodic partial training.
Reality check: ask
any family professionals you know if they received any formal education in stepfamily
needs, dynamics, norms, and stressors.
When typical stepfamily adults need factual, empathic professional advice, they
often don't know how to evaluate
service providers. If they do, they can't find any who know basics like
these. This contributes to our unremarked U.S.
For specific suggestions on how to pick an effective stepfamily
counselor or therapist, see this article.
values conflicts occur when two or more peoplehold different preferences or faith-based beliefs (you eat red meat,
I'm a vegetarian), They range from minor to intense.
loyalty conflicts occur when an adult or child feels s/he must choose between
supporting one of two or more people s/he values; and...
relationship triangles occur when three or more people unconsciously adopt combative
Persecutor, Victim, and Rescuer relationship
If a bioparent must choose whether to fill their child's needs or their new
partner's needs, is there a "right" choice? Are stepparents wrong to expect
their mate to put them first in such conflicts which have no acceptable
Can a typical re/marriage last if a
stepparent feels "second" (or less) too often? In my experience,
confusion and conflict over these inevitable stepfamily questions are a
reason for our unremarked re/divorce epidemic.
Typical intact biofamilies have up to 15 traditional
(mother, son, uncle, cousin, grandmother, etc.)
Typical stepfamilies have these and up to 15 alien
new roles. There is no social consensus yet on how to "do" these step-roles and
associated relationships "right," so each stepfamily must invent their own
rules and guidelines by trial and error.
Typical stepfamilies are composed of
three or more multi-generational biofamilies. They have many
more members and
than average intact biofamilies, which promotes confusion, frustrations, unrealistic expectations, and concurrent
conflicts and relationship
that high-nurturance biofamilies don't experience.
These many differences combine to create significant stress for unaware
adults and kids as they
biofamily systems and stabilize their new family system
over many years. So
it's vital that adults in typical divorcing families and stepfamilies study,
discuss, and apply these
- ideally starting in courtship.
this for 70 specific biofamily-stepfamily
differences and related tasks.
Q21) Should stepfamily
members (expect to) love each other like genetic relatives do?
Most stepfamily experts advise "Strive
respect and friendship
over some years, not love."
For perspective, think of one or more adults and kids you love, and
try to describe what that is. Try describing the difference between loving,
liking, respecting, needing, and admiring out loud as though to a pre-teen.
For more perspective, think of several adults or kids you may like or care
about, but don't love. What causes the difference?
Relations among average biofamily adults and kids range between
strong bonding and deep
love > friendship > indifference (no bonding), numbness, or codependence >
disrespect and dislike > "hate."
Feeling mutual love is probably not our national norm, tho
many people mindlessly say "Of course I love my family members."
A more practical question is "Should
typical stepfamily kids and adults (expect to) feel the same degree of
interest in, caring for, loyalty to, and bonding, as healthy genetic
relatives do? My opinion is "No," because typical stepfamilies
differ from intact biofamilies in over 70 structural and developmental ways!
Progressing from "we're strangers" to "acquaintances" to "friends" to
"bonded, loving family members" takes...
years of shared experiences, and...
a lucky combination of personality traits,
values, and common interests ("good chemistry").
Do you agree? Think of several important relationships in your life and
reality-test this idea.
Adults and kids who (a)
reject their stepfamily
or (b) accept it but don't know stepfamily
risk heartache, hurt, and frustration by expecting to love each other like
people in (ideal) biofamilies.
In most cases, this is unlikely.There are exceptions with stepparents who have known stepkids since
infancy and/or who have "good chemistry"
and pain from divorce or the death of a loved one, many steppeople long for the ideal loving family
they never had. When this (usually) doesn't materialize per courtship dreams
and hopes, adults and kids need to...
accept that they
can attain real benefits from
stepfamily membership, but probably not all that they had hoped
for (a significant loss), and...
grieve their lost hopes expectations, and many other things.
co-parents work at these things, they can help kids and other family adults
build realistic relationship expectations - i.e.
they can all grow some bonding, respect, and friendship together over
time, and avoid disappointment, hurt, and frustration from expecting
(idealized) biofamily-like love.
"No, Melissa, you don't
your stepsister (or stepparent or step-grandparent), and she doesn't
love you. You two can enjoy becoming friends and stepsisters,
When real stepfamily bonds and love
do grow over some years, they're a priceless bonus! For
more perspective, see this
article on stepparent-stepchild love.
Q23) Why are many
stepfamily relationships stressful, and what can be done
to minimize that stress?
one or more adults are
and don't (want to) know that, what it
or what to
few adults and no kids know
how to communicate and problem-solve
most adults aren't aware of stepfamily
norms and realities,
and have unrealistic role and relationship
expectations which cause everyone ongoing
or escalating frustration, confusion, guilts, and conflict;
most stepfamilies have many concurrent
and typical adults and supporters don't know how to avoid or
many typical stepfamily members haven't
(broken bonds), and don't know how to
that, what it
means, or what to
many minor and grown stepkids have up
several dozen concurrent
and adjustment needs that they need
informed adult help with - and get little or none;
the divorced parents of many stepkids have
conflicts over kids and money, which polarize homes and family members into
opposing camps - specially if parents initiate costly, draining court
often, needy, wounded, unaware stepfamily
couples made up to three unwise
which breed multiple
surface problems after their romantic idealism inevitably fades;
adults can find little
with their problems in their community or the media.
The tragic result of all these
combined factors is that a high percentage of stepfamilies endure
significant stress in and among their related homes when partners and
co-parenting ex mates are approaching or in middle age. See this
example of a real stepfamily.
Stepfamily couples can minimize these stressors for all members by
committing to help each other progress on these essential
24) How long does it take for
typical stepfamily relatives to
bond, stabilize, and
feel like a
This depends on many variables, and ranges from
a year or more from serious
co-parental courtship to never. Each pair of relationships in a new
stepfamily will have it's own "bonding profile" from weak to strong.
Key variables are...
whether each adult and child
involved accepts their identity as a stepfamily;
the adults are in each of the merging biofamilies (minor > major), and
whether they're healing or not;
how well adults and kids are
able to grieve the many losses they've each experienced from family
breakup and merger; (poorly > well)
the relationship/s between
former mates (hostile > cordial);
Q25) I'm less
interested in nurturing a certain stepfamily relationship than s/he is, and
I feel guilty. What are my options?
Guilt is the normal response to believing you have broken an important
should (not), cannot, or have to. Ifyou
feel guilty about not reciprocating interest in a family relationship, one
or more subselves that direct your
feel you're breaking some important rules, like..
mustlike or love each other."
"It's rude (disrespectful) to reject another person's
interest and friendship, and I
hurt other people's feelings, so I shouldpretend
interest even if I don't feel it."
should always be
genuine, honest, and polite with other people."
should make other
people happy, or I'm selfish and
"I shouldalways obey
Rules like these
are often inherited in childhood, and unquestioned.
They may not apply to
your stepfamily situation.
it's your rule, not someone
else's, like a childhood caregiver or authority.
Authorize yourself to update any
behavioral rules to fit your values as a unique adult, and revise the
"broken" rule/s as needed - e.g. "I
shouldrespect everyone in my stepfamily, and I don't
have to like or love them
even if that hurts their feelings."
to see if you're in a
with this person. If so, invite her or him to reduce it with you.
See if any of these
are contributing to the problem. If so, click on "More detail" in the
graphic and look for useful options.
Q27) What do typical new stepfamily
members need to know?
A major cause of stepfamily stress and divorce is adults' lack of accurate
knowledge about their ancient type of family.
To evolve a stable,
they need to study
Lessons 1 thru 7 - ideally starting before courting co-parents commit and cohabit.
Q29) What if a divorced
parent's relatives want to keep an
active relationship with his or her ex mate and/or
If the ex mates and relatives are mutually respectful, then their staying
connected is a stepfamily asset. Otherwise, ongoing
conflicts are likely - specially if these people don't know and accept
and/or don't know how to
Q32) After re/marriage,
is there a best way to plan family events?
Yes. Well-planned gatherings are fruitful ways of "stepfamily-building."
Start by all family adults adopting a long-range view and committing to
family together. Note that establishing and stabilizing stepfamily bonds
(relationships) usually takes four or more years from cohabiting and
Next, family adults and supporters need to accept their identity a stepfamily
learn and then discuss (at least) the topics in
Q27 above. That prepares you all
to tailor these options to fit your situation...
Consider evolving a consensual family
to guide and inspire you all across the years.
Invite all family adults and supporters to
at least scan this article on stepfamily
development with your living and future young people in mind.
Draw a stepfamily
to identify who is included in their multi-generational ("extended")
Note any people who don't want to be included in the stepfamily,
despite genetic and marital bonds and links;
Then (a) use the diagram to identify and
discuss any significant membership confusions or conflicts, and (b)
apply these options to reduce them.
Also use the genogram to identify any
among various family adults and kids, and choose among these
options to reduce them over
I'm confused about names and titles in our new stepfamily. Are there any
norms or guidelines?
Two of many
differences between typical
intact biofamilies and multi-home stepfamilies
first and last
stepsisters are both named Anne," or "My son and your ex are both Roberto,");
role-titles ("Are you 'my stepmom,' or 'Donna,' or 'Dad's new wife'?")
A major mistake that some well-meaning
step-adults who deny or ignore their
stepfamily identity make is to expect everyone
to use biofamily name and title conventions ("We don't use 'step' here."
"No, Marie's not your step-grandmother, she's your Nana.")
Doing this promotes unrealistic (biofamily-based) expectations.
Options for avoiding and reducing
your adults and kids accept
identity as a normal multi-home
stepfamily, and learn what that
means. Option: as a group exercise, have everyone
draw a map or
genogram of your stepfamily, and use it
to clarify memberships, roles, relationships, and names. Expect some people to
exclude others, and see what that feels
Accept thatbiofamily naming-conventions may not apply. Where there's confusion,
ask each person what they would
like to be called, rather than dictate a name. ("We'll call you 'Little
Jack'"). If this creates conflicts,
dig down to uncover who
really needs what - if your
true Selves are
sensitive to how children may
feel if their Mom takes their stepfather's last name. Kids may feel
abandoned, victimized, confused about their identity, and resentful that their
Mom now has the same last name as their stepsiblings (if true).
pretending to be "just a (bio)family," kids feeling these things are apt to
privately feel "weird" and
them how they feel and what they need - and then listen!
usually better to let role-titles evolve,
vs. someone dictating them. Each child and adult has their
own comfort level and preferences. Once again, ask. If some people
aren't sure, experiment over time, and check everyone's comfort levels.
Adults and kids with a strong
aversion to "step-" titles are often psychologically
and haven't finished
accepted their new step-realities. They may also misunderstand what a
demanding that kids call a stepparent "Mom" or "Dad,"
or a step-senior "Grandma" or "Grandpa." Kids already
have a living or dead same-gender parent and grandparent, and this new
person is not an ancestor, no matter how warm and caring they are.
It can help
to say something like "your stepmom likes to do mothering (or nurturing
or caregiving) things for and with you." Help everyone stay
clear that "step parent / mother / brother / father / sister (etc)" describes a family
role, not the person who's chosen (or had to
accept) the role...
for family members using
adjectives like real, natural, regular, and normal when discussing
biofamilies and stepfamilies ("My real father knows how to make shirred
eggs!"). These are inherently demeaning words which raise the odds your
members will feel privately and/or socially ashamed of who you all seem to be
just as real, natural, and normal as intact biofamilies. They have probably
been the global norm for millennia until recent social, medical, and dietary advances in the last two centuries!Finally...