- evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily
In a Stepfamily?
By Peter K.
NSRC Expert Council
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two-page article is
June 10, 2015
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This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles
on how to evolve 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
is meant to be printed and used with a printed copy of
Stepfamily Myths. The bracketed [ ]
numbers below refer to these
myths (unrealistic expectations). Several myths may be lumped together in one reality below.
items summarize what I've come to believe is real in typical U.S. stepfamilies,
after 36 years'
clinical work with over 1,000 typical stepfamily adults.
There are exceptions to these baseline stepfamily realities, so what
follows is a general profile, not absolute.
If any of your adults
feel skeptical about some of these realities, check them out with
veteran (i.e. re/married five+ years) stepparents and bioparents
and with other stepfamily authors.
my experience as a stepson, stepfather, and stepfamily researcher,
therapist, and educator since 1979, every one
of the 60 myths is
partly or completely untrue
in average multi-home stepfamilies!
Until they are corrected, these unrealistic expectations will cause
confusion, disappointment, frustration, hurt, anger, and guilt in
adults and kids, and inhibit healthy bonding.
Here's What's (Usually) REAL...
The online Lesson-7 articles provide more detail on each of these topics.
[ Myths 1 - 3 ] A
is a multi-generational, multi-home group of related adults and kids in which one or more adults
the of part-time or
full-time role of stepparent for their mate's prior kids. Thus,
bioparent seriously dating or committed to a new partner after a prior divorce or
their prior mate's death forms a stepfamily. This is true whether
they live together or not.
Re/married couples who
conceive a child together and/or whose prior kids are all
grown still form a
stepfamily. Couples with adult stepkids usually bypass stressful conflicts over
visitation, financial support, and custody.
do not bypass significant
stress from psychological wounds, unawareness, ex-mate
relations, incomplete grief, and conflicts over stepfamily identity, loyalty, membership,
parenting values, money, names, holidays, family priorities, and
[ Myth 4 ] An intact
(parents and dependent kids) normally lives in one home. Typical nuclear
(co-parents and visiting and custodial minor kids) live in two or more homes
bound together for years by child visitations, legal
agreements and responsibilities, genes, last names, history, finances, special events, and deep
The only stepfamily that lives in one home is one where all biokids or
non-custodial bioparents are dead or uninvolved. Even then, there are usually
emotional and other ties with the absent people, living ex in-laws, and with stepkin
living in other homes.
[ Myths 5 - 7 ] Because they are adults and kids
living and growing together, sharing concerns with work and school, health, pets, bills,
chores, church, friends, etc.,
intact ("traditional") biofamilies.
they also differ in
tasks, and norms in over 60 ways!
These differences usually combine to cause
unexpected confusion, frustrations, guilts, and conflicts for years. They often render "common
sense" biofamily rules ineffective or even
harmful to relationships and stepfamily bonding.
Myth 8 ] Co-parents' relatives and friends often
mistakenly expect the new household and kin to feel and act pretty much like their image
of a traditional intact biofamily. They also may secretly or openly disapprove of
prior divorces and/or the parent's new union. Therefore,
relatives may be startlingly unempathic and critical, and/or offer unrealistic (i.e. biofamily) suggestions
when co-parents run into unexpected
role and relationship
Myth 9 ] Divorce
and/or spouse death
end the primacy and legal and religious contracts of a marriage. They may
end the psychological bond between the former partners, specially if
they raised kids together. This is common if one mate didn't want
the divorce, and/or if either of them is
It's also common if any of these
to ex-mate harmony exist.
Myth 10 ] My clinical experience with over ~1,000 average stepfamily
adults suggests that
U.S. divorcing parents and stepfamily couples carry significant
from low-nurturance early-childhoods (e.g. neglect and
These wounds combine with up to four other widespread
(a) unwise courtship choices (b) escalating stepfamily stress, (c) eventual
re/divorce, and (d) passing on the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle. The online Break the Cycle! self-improvement
can help you prevent this.
[ Myth 11 ]
Typical courtships evoke
(a) extra politeness and
thoughtfulness, (b) reluctance to confront, and (c) high tolerance for values-differences and
irritating behavior - specially in the beloved-others' kids.
Partners' and adult-child
relationships often change dramatically after exchanging commitment vows and cohabiting.
Partners' committing to each other alters key roles: biomom's boyfriend turn into "stepfather;"
"your daughter" becomes "my stepdaughter;" "your
woman-friend" is now stepmothering my granddaughter, and is my new daughter-in-law;
your ex-spouse's delaying child support now affects our finances (vs. yours);
"your" nerdy (or cool) son becomes "my stepbrother"; etc.
concurrent - and often sudden - role changes often cause stepfamily members
to (a) unconsciously alter their expectations of themselves and each other ("Now
I must love you, and you must obey
me"), or to (b) feel suddenly confused on what to expect.
If all co-parents and kids
aren't expecting these overnight changes and a long period of confusion and readjustment
in and between their homes as normal, they can feel
stressed, self-doubtful, anxious, and disoriented.
| Bottom line:
courtship relationships and behaviors are often
reliable guide to what will happen after a commitment ceremony.
living together before exchanging vows probably won't accurately foretell
post-commitment harmony or strife. Expect the unexpected!
Myth 12 ] Legally and
socially, re/marriage or mate-commitment does create a new family. However,
it often takes four or more years
for most stepfamily households to begin to feel closeness, bonding, and
loyalty similar to a healthy intact biofamily. This is true even if one or more
"ours kids" are conceived by the new couple.
Because of the number of
adults, kids, relationships, and
complexity, it can take four or more annual cycles of birthdays,
holidays, visitations, vacations, etc. to forge and stabilize a new stepfamily
identity and a shared sense of "us-ness." The
the dissimilarity of customs and values in the several merging families, and the
co-parents' skill at
effective communication, the longer such
stabilizing can take.
identity-formation involves members' gradually clarifying and melding ideas
on who has what
roles and responsibilities in their family - including noncustodial bioparents, their new
spouses (if any), step/grandparents, ex-in-laws, and half siblings.
Conflicting traditions on managing
events need to be compromised: e.g. graduations or retirements; major
sicknesses; births, marriages, or deaths; altering wills and paying taxes; house moves or
redecorations; school, job, or church changes; acquiring pets; communions, baptisms, or
bar/bas mitzvahs; special anniversaries; reunions; etc. How to "do"
these "right" has to be renegotiated among all members of two or
these variables are so complex and/or the merging biofamilies'
values are so different, that
new stepfamily never fully bonds or grows a coherent identity or loyalties like a
high-nurturance biofamily. This
doesn't mean it can't be a viable family, it means it feels very
"different." Co-parents who define clear
stepfamily goals early on, and commit to working patiently toward them
as mutually-respectful teammates, often achieve the
most satisfying bonding over time.
Myth 13 ]
the difference between being accepted as a full member of some
group, and being a guest or outsider (non-member). Here
acceptance and inclusion mean "all other members of our family...
know who I am, and...
what my family
roles and titles
are, and they...
want to include me and my relatives
in important family decisions and activities, and they...
genuinely care about my needs, feelings, and opinions, as I care about
Partial or mixed inclusion happens when some family members include
a new person and others don't.
Significantly-wounded (unaware, needy) courting
co-parents often underestimate the difficulty of trying to get all members of a
nuclear stepfamily to fully accept
and include each other. This is specially likely if any adult or child in the existing
divorced or bereaved biofamily - including ex mates, minor and adult children,
and "close" relatives - isn't well along on grieving their many family
analysts suggest that it can take four or more years after co-committing (vs.
cohabiting) to achieve stable-enough mutual inclusion. For perspective,
spans 16 categories of things, not
just "accepting a stepparent (the person)" or "stepsiblings liking each
sensitive inclusion arenas are between a new stepparent, each stepchild, and the
kids' "other bioparent," if living. If the stepparent has kids, they need to
accept their new stepparent and each stepsibling and "close"
expect full mutual inclusion to be a
multi-year process after (a) any commitment ceremony, and (b) after overcoming many significant
loyalty conflicts and
relationship triangles. Typically,
full inclusion after co-habiting without
formal re/marriage is even more complex. The most difficult inclusion scenario is new
co-parenting partners cohabiting before one or both are legally or
Myths 14 - 16 ]
bioparents to repeatedly choose between filling the needs of their new mate, one or more
biokids, and sometimes their ex mate. Over time, all adult and child members of
typical multi-home stepfamilies find themselves "caught in the middle"
of such conflicts. Repeated
stepfamily loyalty and
inclusion clashes are
inevitable for years.
They're often unexpectedly stressful for everyone.
families have loyalty conflicts. In them, one
member feels caught between the opposing needs of two or more others. However,
conflicts feel and sound very different in typical stepfamilies.
Instead of "You
want 'x' and our child wants 'y'," it's "You want (or your child
wants) 'x' and my child wants 'y'." Or "You want 'x', and my ex-mate
wants 'y'." Usually "x" and "y" are about child visitations, money, or parenting-values and/or priorities.
Loyalty conflicts in and
between stepfamily homes occur often in an average week, for years.
So can associated
decrease with time, if co-parents are consistently unified on identifying
and managing them cooperatively.
Myths 17 & 18 ]
Longing to build
(ideal) new (bio)family, typical
stepfamily mates and their relatives commonly
expect their family members to eventually exchange the equivalent of biofamily
love. This can happen, over time - especially if (a) stepchildren are very young,
(b) adults are minimally
(c) prior divorces were amicable
It also may
stress their kids and
each other by expecting them to
love their stepkin. Like respect, trust, and friendship, love
must be earned, not demanded
Even if a stepchild does feels warmly toward their
(wounded, insecure) bioparent/s may resent and/or fear such affection. That
biomom or dad may openly or subtly
criticize, manipulate, or discourage their genetic child/ren from feeling or openly expressing that
warmth. This puts their kids in a major
loyalty conflict, which
they usually don't know how to resolve.
reality is that some adults or stepsibs can't find a way to
like a particular stepchild (or vice versa), let alone love them. Despite hope, effort, and prayer,
their "chemistry" just doesn't mesh over time.
Experts advise making mutual
the first relationship goal for
stepparents, stepkids, and stepsibs.
Gradually, this may ripen into friendship, affection, and - with
luck - real love. If this doesn't happen,
it can't be helped - no one is wrong
Myth 19 ] Some stepkids steadily reject a
stepparent's genuine affection and support for no apparent reason. Perversely, the
nicer the stepparent is, the more hostile or indifferent the child may seem. Or a
stepparent can offer caring friendship, discipline and guidance to their stepchild/ren, to
find that their spouse disagrees with these or resents their
"interference" with their biochild. Both result in stressful
and relationship triangles. They may stem from
one or more of these:
Denied or overt sexual tension or attraction
Premature or inappropriately-strict stepparent discipline;
codependence on, and over-protectiveness
with, their child, and/or...
- The child's
normal testing of stepfamily
stability and safety ("Will this family bust up too?")
A confused (or
alert) stepchild may feel "If I show appreciation to my stepparent, my 'real'
(same-sex biological) parent will feel bad!" Their custodial biomom or biodad can feel
"If I side with your (the stepparent's) discipline of my child, my child (or my ex or
other kin) will resent, criticize, and reject me." If adults are unable
to admit and discuss these honestly, escalating stress is very likely.
| Bioparents and
bio-kin usually don't expect thanks from their kids for their
loving caregiving efforts
and sacrifices. Average
s do expect and need
acknowledgment from their mate and their stepkids for their co-parenting efforts.
Since typical minor stepkids didn't ask for
their parents' divorce and re/marriage or have a say in selecting their step-kin, they may
not appreciate even the kindest stepparent. This is specially likely if they
and their parents and siblings haven't progressed well on grieving their web
of family-adjustment losses (broken bonds). In the best case, stepparents may
hear sincere "thanks!" years after their stepkids have left home.
[ Myths 20 - 21 ]
Even if all co-parents agree
that a stepparent has "authority" to discipline
stepchildren, the kids may not agree. Unless very young,
stepkids usually feel the new adult has to earn the right to tell them what to do.
Also, the kids' other bioparent or key bio-relatives may not acknowledge the
authority, and/or may dislike the stepparent's disciplinary "style"
(lax / harsh; consistent / inconsistent). This
traps the kids and co-parents into
repeated loyalty conflicts and relationship
triangles, often causing
the child/ren to resist and/or "get depressed."
A common error is people feeling new stepparents should share in
disciplining their stepkids right away.
will do most major disciplining for months after vowing commitments and
co-habiting. until the
new co-parent and stepkids have had a chance to build some mutual trust and
respect. If that's not practical,
the bioparent should authorize the to act for them in front of
22 - 24 ]
stepparents and relatives - specially some
idealistic and religiously-devout people
- believe "New
stepmoms and stepdads should (immediately) care about their stepchild/ren as much as
their own." This is unrealistic.
and stepkin may genuinely feel equal concern for biological and step kids,
after a long (e.g. five or more years) pre-re/marriage friendship or custodial stepfamily
history. Otherwise, the reality to accept
without guilt is: "I love my
(bio)kids more (or differently) than yours so far, and that's natural and
OK!" If a stepdad or mom is childless, the birth of an "ours"
child may activate this "mandatory fairness" myth well
after exchanging commitment vows.
Myths 25 - 26 ] Reality: my research since
1979 suggests that after child-related disputes, financial matters are the
most conflictual surface issues among typical stepfamily
adults (and adult kids). Typical
asset and debt
ownership - his, hers, and ours
style and responsibility
Disputes over each of these
cause recurring loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles in and
between stepfamily adults and home.
None of these are the
real problems. See this.
[ Myth 27 ]
Depending on state laws,
usually doesn't endow
stepparents with the
legal parental rights or responsibilities of bioparents. For example: unless authorized by a legal document cal-led "In
Loco Parentis" signed by both bioparents, typical stepmoms and dads can't legally
demand to see their stepkids' school or medical records, and don't qualify
as a legal guardian
in hospitalizing a minor stepchild.
If the most loving
stepparent dies without a will,
their assets will usually not go to their stepchildren. Specific rights and laws vary by state, so ask a local
family-law professional what pertains in your county - ideally
exchanging commitment vows!
[ Myth 28 ]
Studies suggest that
in about one of
three U.S. stepfamilies,
one or more minor kids will move from one
bioparent's house to the other's at some time. These moves may be well-planned and
harmonious, or unexpected and highly disruptive, emotionally, financially, and
logistically. Many things may
lead a stepchild to move in unexpectedly with their non-custodial
parent and stepparent, even years after their parent's re/wedding.
Even if well
planned, such moves and custody changes often send shock waves through
sending and receiving homes' routines, finances, holidays, space allocation, and
stepfamily co-parents in each home should expect
and plan for the possibility of kids' changing homes,
however initially unlikely.
[ Myths 29
& 30 ]
For personal and family health,
all stepfamily members need to thoroughly
mourn major personal
bonds) from (a) prior
divorce/s or death, and (b) stepfamily cohabiting and merging. Previously-single,
childless stepparents usually lose prized quiet, privacy, and home-control by choosing
to join an absent-parent family
with visiting or resident stepkids and "interfering" ex mates and kin.
The natural human
reflex to mourn broken bonds can be hindered or
low-nurturance family and
social environments. If a "loser" (one with losses) was taught
as a child to fear, numb, or self-medicate painful emotions, s/he'll have
trouble feeling and expressing the shock, confusion, rage, and sadness that
major life-losses evoke.
Our profit-seeking media emphasizes
speed, excitement, sex, and pleasure - which distracts us from the healthy
discomfort of grieving. This increases major personal, family, and societal
stress and illness.
online self-improvement course focuses on
[ Myth 31 ]
of the 1,000+ typical Midwestern
stepfamily adults I've worked with
this quiz about
They used various lose-lose
instead of win-win
which promote family stress and re/divorce.
ancestors, they were unable to model and teach their descendents these essential life
skills - and they didn't know that
or what it meant. Lesson 2 in this self-improvement course will teach you what you need to know about
Myth 32 ]
it's essential for
divorcing bioparents to explain to each minor
or grown child why their family
is dis-integrating, in age-appropriate language. If
the kids are to grieve well and have a chance to build healthy relationships with
new step-kin, parents' helping them to make clear sense out of the chaos of their
biofamily reorganization is vital.
mean each bioparent should blame and smear their former partner or themselves.
It means each father and mother should work toward...
understanding what caused their divorce, including the possibility
one or both mates were significantly
needy, wounded, and
unaware, and made up to three unwise courtship choices;
Forgiving themselves and each other;
Sketching the main reasons for their divorce objectively, in
age-appropriate terms, to each child; and...
Listening to the kids' reactions empathically, without judgment,
guilt, or defensiveness.
Unless in personal
often have a hard time doing these
divorce-explanation steps. Not doing them risks chronic bitterness and hostility between ex-mates; bewilderment, confused loyalties, high shame and guilt in
their biokids; and growing frustration in new mates.
[ Myths 33 - 34 ]
parental divorce, typical minor or grown stepkids have two to three dozen
adjustment needs that peers in healthy
have. If kids are...
high-nurturance stepfamily; and...
each of their co-parents are
their wounds and ignorance; and...
each co-parent knows the
family-adjustment needs, and they...
teammates to provide
effective help filling these needs (nurturing), then...
... there is
no inherent reason that
stepchildren won't "turn out" just as well as kids in healthy
intact biofamilies. However, because typical co-parents can't
meet all these criteria, average stepkids are at risk of
inheriting the toxic [wounds + unawareness] cycle.
Myth 35 ] -
and social training, some co-parents - specially women - may feel
very responsible for "making a happy home." Because divorce and
stepfamily co-habiting inevitably cause significant hurts, frustrations, disappointments, losses, and conflicts for years,
"keeping everyone happy" is an
unrealistic, toxic expectation. Over time, it can promote significant
guilts, lower self respect, increase daily anxiety and frustration, and
stress a re/marriage - i.e. it can lower your
home's and family's
Co-parents who "can't help" feeling over-responsible are usually dominated by
a protective "false self." self-improvement
Lesson 1 (sfhelp.org/gwc/guide1.htm) provides
an effective way to enable a co-parent's
true Self to
guide and harmonize their personality and reduce excessive shame,
guilt, and fears to normal levels.
[ Myths 36 - 37
] Typical stepparents'
caregiving goals are usually the same as bioparents - to nurture and enjoy resident and visiting (step)kids. However,
social environments around
typical stepparents can differ from bioparenting environments in up to 40 simultaneous ways. One major
difference is that typical minor stepkids have 20 or more concurrent
to fill that kids in intact biofamilies don't have.
These environmental differences can combine with concurrent
stepfamily-merger tasks to make caring
for stepkids feel very alien, frustrating, and confusing. This is
true even if a stepparent was raised in a stepfamily.
Folktales and widespread public ignorance about stepfamily
realities have given typical stepparents a bad reputation. They're
usually caring, well-meaning women and men optimistically undertaking a
complex, high-stress role that they and
other family members are very
and stepdads are...
in real (vs. pseudo)
accept their stepfamily
identity and what it
stay clear on - and act on - their
patiently at understanding and adapting to their alien environment; and...
informed empathy and
loving support from their mate, kin, and friends; then...
...they can gain great satisfaction from nurturing the
young people in their lives.
Restated: average stepparents can
learn to be "just as
wholistically-healthy, informed bioparents!
Myth 38 ]
People who feel "stepfamilies
'aren't as good as' traditional biofamilies" probably mean...
"stepfamilies don't feel or
act the same," and/or...
"stepfamilies aren't as 'normal'
(common) as (intact,
Both observations are currently true. Stepfamilies
"different" because there are about
between the two family types, and they
Though U.S. Census data doesn't confirm this, U.S. stepfamily re/marriages may
legally or psychologically more often than typical biofamilies.
multi-home stepfamilies are
normal, if not the current "standard." They're estimated to
be 15-20% of U.S. families now. I know of no credible evidence to
support the popular claim that stepfamilies will outnumber American intact
biofamilies in the near future.
true that steppeople, specially kids, can't get the same nurturing,
support, and appreciation that biofamily members can. There are more stepfamily
merger-adjustment tasks which may limit these.
Reality: If all stepfamily adults are
aware, informed, and recovering
from any significant psychological wounds and committed to building a
high-nurturance multi-home stepfamily
over the years, it "work" (nurture, comfort, protect) just as well as a
Myth 39 ]
Healthy adults raising children
from infancy seems to naturally inhibit sexual attraction between them.
The instinctual incest taboo is
weaker in typical stepfamilies.
Attraction and sexual behavior between a stepparent
and an alluring stepteen or between
adolescent stepsibs isn't
probable, but is more likely than in a typical healthy
intact biofamily. Recent research suggests that American girls under 18 are four times more likely to
abused by a male step-relative than a male bio-relative.
co-parental modeling, sexual guidance, and enforcement of personal modesty and privacy rules
are specially important in nuclear-stepfamily homes. Note:
co-parents and supporters can get distracted or conflicted by debating what
the provocative word incest means -
in general, or in their stepfamily.
See this for more perspective.
[ Myth 40 ]
may agree intellectually that
their mate "should" spend alone-time with their biokids, but unconsciously resent
internal values conflict).
This is specially likely when:
The stepparent is
childless and/or dominated by false selves
Courtship activities usually
excluded the stepkids;
primary relationship is
often feels unappreciated and "second-best" in
her or his spousal and co-parental roles;
and/or their other bioparent is strongly discounting or rejecting the stepparent,
The spouses choose too little quality couple-time, and/or
have ineffective communications.
pre-teen kids need times alone with
their bioparents, specially after major life changes (i.e. losses).
Healthy teens need
alone-time with bioparents too, though more selectively. Healthy bioparents have similar
relationship needs. Ideally, a new stepparent
won't view this as "being shut out," but as a natural part of the
bioparent-biochild relationship that can promote stepfamily strength and
A co-parent who
believes "We're a (bio)family, so we should do everything together"
(denies their stepfamily
identity) risks eroding stepfamily bonding over time. To
avoid resentments, it helps if co-parents talk about the situation
This includes each bioparent periodically asking their partner "How're
you feeling about my time alone with (my kid/s) recently"?
The reciprocal option is the
stepparent telling their mate clearly and non-blamefully of any growing resentment,
so they can problem-solve together. .
Myth 41 ]
kids to call stepparents "Mom" or "Dad" or take a stepfather's
name risks major home and family conflict. Unless this is a free
and all affected members' reactions have been polled and equally considered, such demands
can cause major
loyalty conflicts and
Successful stepfamilies experiment
with first and last names and
role titles over time, and
avoid imposing them. The "right" way to
title stepparents, stepkids, and step-relatives promotes harmony and
all members, and everyone accepting their stepfamily identity
Myth 42 ]
the normal emotion that occurs
in healthy adults and kids when we feel we've "been bad" - i.e. we've broken an important rule
- a should (not), must
(not), ought (not), or have to.
Guilt feels like shame, but has
different roots and is reduced differently.
There are lots of
reasons why each member of a typical new multi-home stepfamily may feel
significant guilts as they
merge their several biofamilies. For
"I should love my stepfather, but I don't"
"I'm closer to my own daughter Susan than to my husband's
girl (and I shouldn't be)."
"I like my son's first wife better than
his new one, though she's very sweet."
"It's too weird - I'm really turned on by my stepbrother!"
"I don't see my (non-custodial) son as often as I
it's bittersweet when I do..."
"I shouldn't compare my new husband to Jack, but I
"I really love my new wife, but I
confess I think she's not such a
"It's dishonest not to say this is my second marriage, but I'm
"I can't stand my step-grandson. I should at least
There are many other examples.
adults and kids don't...
accept their stepfamily
learn how their
stepfamily differs from a typical intact
intentionally identify and
convert their stepfamily
myths into realities (e.g. this article)...
step-people may validate and empathize with the guilts you feel.
Non-stepfamily people - including family-support professionals - may
understand intellectually but can't really empathize
they lack similar life experience.
significant stepfamily guilts are normal.
They usually subside if co-parents help each other and their kids to heal any
psychological wounds (Lesson 1). and learn
to use stepfamily
norms and these realities as
they evolve their alien
new roles and
(Lesson 7). See
this for ideas on managing significant
Myth 43 ] -
If a family is defined as
"people bonded by genetic, legal, and psycho-social ties," then
each stepchild's other bioparent is
always a full member of their stepfamily. Even if their
noncustodial Mom or Dad is distant and/or
inactive, typical kids will surely include
them in drawing a family
unaware custodial co-parents
may want to exclude their (step)kids' other bioparent/s from
membership. They minimize or ignore the needs,
rights, dignity, and opinions of the
ex and any new partner and stepkids in making family decisions.
their kids in the middle of major
loyalty conflicts they didn't cause, and can't negotiate or control. It also sets up webs of
triangles, as step-relatives
take sides (or don't). These stressors increase
barriers to vital
teamwork and lower the stepfamily's
Even if invited
"in," stepkids' other bioparents may exclude
themselves from the
stepfamily. Co-grandparents and other relatives have their own definitions
membership, depending on many factors.
Membership exclusions and rejections often occur because adults aren't clear
on, or renounce, their
identity as a
or dead, stepkids' absent bioparents and their
new partners and
(step)kids have major psychological + genetic + legal + usually financial
impacts on stepfamily functioning for many years - including the
life-quality and nurturance of biological and step-grandkids. There are no comparable prior-conflict
ex-mate inclusion tasks in typical intact biofamilies.
Myths 44 - 50 ] The reality that well over 1,000
divorcing-family and stepfamily adults
have taught me since 1981 is: average co-parents should
the unexpected. My clinical case notes are speckled with stepkids and their "other bioparent" making major
behavioral or situational
significantly impacted all their
nuclear-stepfamily members and close
, important family events like births; graduations; job, asset, and
housing changes; disabilities; adoptions; marriages; retirements; and deaths can trigger
unexpected reactions in all stepfamily members, including kids' other
co-parents and ex
An ex mate
remarrying or co-habiting with a new stepparent will promote complex
inter-home adjustments to
visitations, finances, holidays, vacations,
responsibilities and perhaps
odds of a
startling, stressful change in an ex mate's behavior or lifestyle can be
minimized by inviting them to be an
equal co-parent in your stepfamily, and working
reduce any teamwork
Easy to say,
and usually hard
to do - specially if s/he doesn't want inclusion. If ex-spouses remain
despite your best attempts to include them, appealing to them to try post-divorce
counseling for the kids' sake may yield long-term payoffs.
Myths 51 & 52 ] Legal adoption
is usually the only way a stepparent can gain legal rights and responsibilities for their stepchild/ren.
Stepchild adoption is usually a highly emotional and complex step-family-wide decision. It normally
requires the informed consent of both living bioparents. Typically, far
people's lives and feelings are significantly affected by it than in a biofamily adoption.
is most common when a noncustodial bioparent has died, or been long out of contact. It's
often motivated by overt or covert wishes to be "more like a real (bio)family"
and/or wanting to demonstrate the stepparent's commitment.
The high majority of the hundreds of
typical American stepparents I've met did not adopt
proposal or process of stepchild adoption may cause a series of major stepfamily-wide
loyalty conflicts unless
all affected adults and kids have talked
together thoroughly about their true feelings and needs.
Last names; bequests and estate
planning; and stepfamily roles, member loyalties, and prior legal
parenting agreements may all change because of a stepchild's adoption.
qualified professional help to facilitate this complex, impactful process can
be a high-return long-term investment.
For more perspective on stepchild adoption
Myths 53 - 55 ]
Conceiving an "ours" child is a complex decision that affects
of a nuclear step-family and concerned relatives for many years.
It can strengthen a
true Selves make the decision; and...
they began discussing their respective conception
needs and values honestly and thoroughly during courtship; and...
have thoroughly evaluated the possible impact on all existing children
and relations with ex mates, and...
they have planned carefully how to help each other
master the major changes in their schedules, finances, space, responsibilities, and priorities
that a newborn would require; and...
their relationship is solid and thriving,
and neither mate expects having a baby to save their marriage from major
If any of these conditions are
not clearly true, the odds rise that conceiving an "ours" baby will increase
If a courting partner wants children and
assumes that their partner will too, they may discover a severe
after exchanging vows and tokens
- "I thought you knew that I don't want another
child!" Even if both mates want to conceive, adults and kids can be stressed by
loyalty conflicts when parental attention shifts to a newborn, and unexpected favoritisms erupt -
specially with a previously-childless stepparent.
are unique in some ways, and can range from compatible to indifferent to antagonistic.
Paradoxically, the birth of a child causes everyone some significant
losses that must be
Well-planned and discussed, conceiving one or more "ours" children truly can
delight and unify stepfamily members if their many
and relationships are stable and they've forged a high
See this for more perspective.
Myths 56 - 57 ]
Typical stepfamily adults find there is
little knowledgeable support available
in their communities and the media. Typical clergy, counselors, teachers,
attorneys, journalists, and law-enforcement and medical professionals lack
informed training in
stepfamily facts, norms,
realities, differences, and
what to do about core
(e.g. study, discuss, and apply Lesson 7)
services may be ineffective or even harmful to new and
troubled stepfamily members. Your community probably offers no effective
support groups or
classes for co-parents
professional family-systems therapist and researcher, I've read over 40 lay and
professional books and several hundred articles about stepfamilies since
1979. Most are anecdotal, superficial, and misleading. That's
why I created Lesson 7.
Myths 58 - 60 ]
Recent estimates suggest that almost
half of U.S. first marriages end in legal divorce. Uncounted
millions more rural and
urban families suffer
from psychological divorce. Though recent Census data doesn't validate
this, many authors and researchers estimate that
well over half of American re/marriages - with or without
prior children - fail within 10 years.
Whatever the percentage,
needy, unaware, love-dazed
stepfamily couples appear to be at significant risk of committing to the
for the wrong
reasons, at the wrong
Few have the
insight and courage to admit this until their and their kids' pain forces
them to do so.
36 years' profession research, I
divorcing-family and stepfamily
stress comes from
up to five interactive
co-parents can overcome four of these
hazards by working patiently together at this self-improvement
If they don't work to overcome the hazards, they risk passing on the
lethal [wounds + unawareness]
to their descendents.
Across eras and cultures, stepfamilies have
formed to fill adults' deep needs for procreation, refuge, nurturance,
comfort, and companionship. They can nurture members as well as healthy
intact biofamilies if co-parents accept their stepfamily
identity and what it
means; and then work
together at some version of
Lesson 7 over several years. In the best case, this protects vulnerable
descendants from the lethal bequest of unawareness and psychological wounds.
This page complements this summary of 60
common stepfamily myths. Based on
36 years' clinical research, this
page provides brief summaries of typical realities for each myth.
If steppeople and their
supporters don't identify and correct their unrealistic expectations,
they risk escalating frustration, hurt, anger, disappointment, and
possible re/divorce. This adds to the
psychological wounds inherited by their kids, and slows or blocks
healthy development toward stable adult independence.
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