Lesson 7 of 7  - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Stepfamilies are Different
 Than Intact Biofamilies!

36 Stepfamily-merger Tasks

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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

    Updated  06/13/2015

      This is one of a series of Lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance 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 related stepparents and bioparents managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.        

      This article summarizes 36 common tasks adults must master as they form or expand a multi-home stepfamily. Typical intact biofamilies don't face most of these tasks, and few lay or professional people can name them all and what they mean, collectively - significant confusion, conflict, frustration, and possible overwhelm.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this non-profit Web site and the premises underlying it 

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 7

  • these stepfamily facts and Q&A items; and...

  • typical stepfamily structural differences from intact biofamilies

      This brief YouTube video previews what you'll read in this article:

 Why Read This Article?

      Any multi-generational family that includes one or more stepparents and stepkids is a stepfamily. Structurally, typical nuclear stepfamilies and intact-biofamilies are very different. These differences cause up to 30 unique adjustment tasks that first-marriers and their relatives don't face. To form realistic stepfamily expectations and avoid major stress, mates and kin need to learn these differences and tasks and what they mean. 

      Typical. societies hasn't grown clear norms to guide co-parents on how to do these alien tasks effectively. Many tasks are concurrent, and some recur more than once across the years if minor stepkids change residence and/or their other bioparent remarries, conceives new children, and/or redivorces.

       These 36 biofamily-merger tasks are in addition to normal daily life challenges that adults and their kids must accomplish. Typical stepfamily adults and many helping professionals are unaware of these tasks - they don't know what they don't know.
This puts them at risk of unrealistic family role and relationship expectations, which promotes escalating frustration and conflicts.

       This article summarizes these 36 unique stepfamily-building merger tasks. Check each task that you "know already" as you read. If you get over 20, you're really aware! 
Option: use this summary as a checklist as you combine and stabilize your biofamilies.

 Stepfamilies vs. Intact Biofamilies: Different Adjustment Tasks

Family Task

Average Multi-home Stepfamilies

Intact 1-home Biofamilies

1)  Couples negotiate courtship with existing kids and ex mate/s in the picture Required. Logistics, needs, and emotions are often far more complex than typical first-marriage courtship No equivalent task
2)  Courting adults each honestly answer three questions: "are these the right people to re/marry? Is this the right time?  Am I doing this for the right reasons? Far More Complex. The ~60% U.S. re/divorce rate implies that most couples don't evaluate these key questions well enough, and/or lack informed help to evaluate them.. Far Simpler. Couples have no children or ex mates to consider in answering these questions. They also have less experience!
3)   Co-parents make prenuptial-agreement decisions, and possibly sign a legal contract defining them More common. Wealthier re/marriers often want to guard against possible re/divorce asset-conflicts and losses. Such contracts may breed stepfamily members' distrust, hurt, and resentments Unusual. Most first-marriers aren't wealthy enough to worry about this, and don't believe divorce could happen to them. About 45% are wrong in America.
4)  Re/marriers plan and hold a commitment ceremony (usually a wedding) for "the family" and friends Far more complex. Who should attend? Who should "stand up"? No accepted social norms to guide, here. Often webs of concurrent membership, tradition (values), and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles arise. Simpler. Social norms are much clearer. Usually, fewer people - and no biokids, ex-mates, or ex-in-laws - are involved
5)  All adult and child members (a) clearly accept their identity: "Together, we're forming a normal nuclear stepfamily"; (b)  Members each decide "Who belongs (initially) in my stepfamily now?", and (c) resolve major differences over this. Required. All three or more co-parents must (a) learn and accept their version of the step-bio differences shown here, and (b) help other family members do the same. Stepfamily adults and kids usually have conflicting membership definitions. No equivalent task
6)  Co-parents (a) learn "what's normal in an average multi-home stepfamily?", and (b) teach key realities to important others Required. Avoiding this task greatly increases the odds of building inappropriate, conflictual biofamily-based expectations of each other No equivalent task. Typical biofamily members learn "what's normal" from birth
7All members identify and grieve prior tangible and invisible divorce and/or death (and later, re/marriage and cohabiting) losses (broken bonds) Required. Prior grieving styles and rules must be merged. Co-parents ignoring this vital task unknowingly promote stepfamily conflict and eventual re/divorce. No equivalent task
8)  Resolve biokids' (and some ex mate's) dreams of bioparent and birthfamily reunion. Logic doesn't count! Very common. If unresolved, this dream can block kids from accepting a stepparent and stress the co-parents' re/marriage. A bioparent's remarriage may shatter the dream, but not always… No equivalent task
9)  Bioparents, biokids, and often biogrand-parents really release prior-divorce hurts, confusions, guilts,  resentments, and shame. Required, unless the former mate/s died (~10% of U.S. stepfamilies). Failure at this task inevitably stresses re/marriages over time No equivalent task
10)  Co-parents and other family members (a) blend their styles of communicating and (b) develop effective problem-solving skills together. Required. Without mastering Lesson 2 early, all three or more related co-parents are greatly hampered in accomplishing all these other tasks in and between their related homes. Required, but fewer people and styles. Still, failure at this task contributes to most couples' first divorces

Family Task

Average Multi-home

Intact 1-home Biofamilies

11)  All stepfamily members adjust to kids', ex mate/s', and ex in-laws' reactions to re/marriage and cohabiting Required. Some kids, ex mates, and/or kin can be hostile, rejecting, and/or intrusive - specially if some adults are Grown Wounded Children, and/or prior divorces or deaths aren't well-mourned. No equivalent task
12)  Make harmonious dwelling, furnishing, decorating, and space-allocation (e.g. bedroom) decisions. Merge and stabilize sets of physical and financial assets, debts, goals, traditions, priorities, rituals, and values Required : "Your home, mine, or a new one?" More people are affected by the answer, so these and related choices are usually far more complex and conflictual for adults and kids. Required. The dwelling is usually new to both mates. Far fewer be-longings and assets to choose among, and no kids' attachments to consider
13)  Members resolve personal name and family role-title confusions': "What should we call each other?" Required. This is often confusing, stressful, and frustrating, in and between linked homes and with kin and friends No equivalent task
14)  Cope with a co-parenting ex mate, child, or key relative who won't accept the divorce, re/marriage, and/or the new stepparent and/or any stepsiblings.. Frequent. When present, usually the ex felt abandoned and abused, and has denied major childhood nurturance deprivations and resulting inner wounds. No equivalent task
15)  Minor kids' test to learn clearly "Am I safe in this family, or will it break up too?" and "Who's really in charge of this home?" (see task  #19) Required if stepkids experienced prior parental divorce/s. Appropriate testing is often (wrongly) seen as "acting out," and the kids are shamed and/or punished for assessing their and siblings' safety No equivalent task, but it can develop with time in a significantly low-nurturance (unsafe) bio-home
16) Non-custodial stepparents cope with frequent guilt, resentment, and sadness that they're co-raising others' kids instead of their own Probable, if bioparent-child visitations and communications are infrequent, unsatisfying, and/or blocked by others; and/or if the bioparent's divorce grief is incomplete. . No equivalent task
17)  Non-custodial bioparents accept that they are missing much of their kids' growing-up events, and that another adult with different values (i.e. a stepparent) is co-raising their child/ ren part or full time. Required, unless the bioparent is an unrecovering Grown Wounded Child. Then the child may face feelings of parental abandonment and shame. No equivalent task
18)  New mates decide "Shall we conceive one or more kids?" Possible, Mates are older; higher odds that one mate says "No, I have enough kids"; the decision is far more complex. If "Yes," new births often cause many (three-generational) priority and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles. Probable; much simpler decision. Mates are younger and have far fewer money issues and other affected people - e.g. no existing stepkids, ex mates, and ex in-laws
19) Family adults learn and help dependent kids fill over 30 complex, unique adjustment needs in addition to the kids' normal developmental tasks Required. Stepfamily-identity denials and adult ignorance of these stepchild tasks, often hinder effective nurturing, raising everyone's distress and wounding minor kids No equivalent task.
20) Co-parents evolve effective, compatible role definitions (who does what?), and agree on co-parenting responsibilities and priorities for each dependent child Required; far more complex, because there are three or more co-parents and often more kids involved. Post-divorce hostilities and distrusts, ineffective communication skills, and adults' unawareness of step norms and unique stepchild tasks (#19) often interfere. This task normally takes years after vowing mutual commitment. Required, but simpler: only two co-parents, and fewer kids and kin, so lower odds of conflict. Bioparenting norms are common and far clearer. They're learned over years before the wedding from parents, kin, the media, and society
21)  All members effectively resolve a stream of values and priority (loyalty or inclusion) conflicts in and between their many linked homes Required. Rewedded bioparents must choose their mate second often enough (after personal health and dignity), vs. ranking biokids, kin, or work higher. Otherwise the stepparent grows resentful and eventually may re/divorce Uncommon unless one or both adults have not matured. Often, biokids and parenting values are not the key marital conflict
22)  Mates consistently make (vs. "find') enough quality couple-times to nourish their relationship Often (much) harder, due to more people in the home and stepfamily, and more concurrent adult and child tasks. Easier, unless one or both mates shun intimacy. Fewer people and tasks compete for time.
23) Resolve family relationship problems between new and prior (co-parenting) mates, stepsibs, and/or step and "ex" in-laws Required. Common surface conflicts: money; parenting values, responsibilities, and priorities; child visitations and custody; religion; authority (control); time; holidays; loyalty; family membership, and possessions. These are symptoms of underlying primary problems. Some of the same conflicts among fewer people.

Family Task

Average Multi-home

Intact 1-home Biofamilies

24)  Financial decisions: shall I include your child/ren in my will? In my health and/or life insurance? Shall I help pay for your kids' education and special needs? How much? Do I expect anything in return? Required. Stepparents' choices here can cause warmth, gratitude, and bonding; or resentments, guilts, and angers; in and between members' homes. No equivalent tasks. Biomoms and dads are concerned with our child's expenses and bequests vs. mine and yours
25) All co-parents agree enough on child-support amounts, allocations, and timing. Resolve conflicts co-operatively, without putting kids or others in the middle. Required. This is an ongoing complex, conflictual task requiring all three or more co- parents' (a) harmony on priorities, roles, and goals; (b) forgiveness of old prior-family wounds; and (c) effective negotiating skills No equivalent task
26) Spouses (a) evolve a harmonious way of managing operating funds, investments, and savings plans; and (b) agree on legal asset titles (e.g. car and home) and debt ownerships. Required. Common options: separate his, hers, and ours checking accounts, or one "common-pot" account; your and my savings and investments, or ours. Requires mutual trust and effective communication skills Required, and far simpler. The common marital choice is our checking and savings accounts, investments, home and vehicle titles, and asset ownership
27) Decide "shall you or I legally adopt my (your) minor biokid/s?" Possible. many emotional and financial complexities. Adoption usually needs non-custodial bioparent's legal OK, if living. No equivalent task
28)  Co-parents cooperatively adjust and stabilize physical and legal child-custody and any legal parenting agreements to fit changing conditions, over time.

Frequent, unless the other bioparent/s are dead, or all stepkids are living independently. Many factors can force adjustments. Often fairly to very conflictual, if family responsibilities are unclear, major prior losses aren't grieved, and/or co-parents' communication skills are ineffective.

No equivalent task
29)  All co-parents manage regular and special child visitations with other co-parents' and/ or relatives' homes. Ongoing, between three or more care-givers, unless the other bioparent/s are dead or uninvolved. Often until stepfamily kids are late teens, this may be very conflictual. No equivalent task
30)  All members adjust to minor children changing homes, schools, and custodial co-parents. Common (in about 30% of U.S. stepfamilies) - changes are planned or sudden; May cause major financial, space, privacy, priority, and other changes and conflicts. No equivalent task
31Settle legal battles between divorced bioparents; Heal related guilts, distrusts, resentments, and hurts, over time Common. Conflict sources: child visitations, custody, and $upport; and enforcing prior co-parenting agreements. Stepparents and stepkin can take sides and add to the turmoil No equivalent task
32) Grow stepparent - stepchild respect (vs. love) and trust over time Required, even if stepkids are grown. Long-term success depends on many things: there's no guarantee. Without mutual respect, stepparent - stepchild discipline is crippled, usually stressing the re/marriage No equivalent task. Bio-kids may lose respect for, and trust in, caregivers in a low-nurturance  home. Bioparents' divorcing can slow minor kids' trusting new stepparents later.
33 Members cope with stepfamily misconceptions, biases, and lack of support - i.e. few stepfamily-empathic friends, kin, and professionals Required. Common biases: "stepfamilies are 'second best' / flawed / 'not as good' / weird." Result: "We know no other families like ours: we're alone." No equivalent task, unless mates form a non-traditional (e.g. mixed race, religion, ethnic, or same-gender) family
34Co-parents break denials of their significant early-childhood nurturance deprivations and the resulting psychological wounds, and steadily pursue high-priority personal recovery (healing) After 36 years' clinical research, I believe at least 80+% of typical co-parents need to do this. This task is probably the key to long-term marital and child-raising success for most co-parents and grandparents. Based on the U.S. 47% divorce rate, I suspect at least 50+% of bioparents need to do this. Most don't know it, and don't want to know. Theory: denials of early nurturance deprivations  promote first and later divorces
35) Family adults prioritize, balance, and successfully co-manage all these tasks, plus "normal living" projects, every day; and make enough time to play, relax, love, and enjoy their shared family process enough. Ongoing, and far more complex: more people, more alien tasks; fuzzier roles, and higher odds of repeated conflicts and feeling overwhelmed. Keys: co-parents' awareness of their five hazards, and commitment to apply these online Lessons co-operatively. Ongoing, but far fewer concurrent tasks and people's needs to balance, so the odds of mates' feeling overwhelmed are significantly lower.
36) Divorce: All family members grieve many losses, and resolve guilts, shames, angers, hurts, losses, and fears of trying again, over many years More likely: recent stepfamily literature estimates over half of U.S. re/married co-parents and their minor kids re/divorce psychologically or legally within ~10 years of their commitment ceremony. Less likely: about 47% of U.S. first-marriage couples now divorce. Most have one or more children. About 70% re/ marry within five years, without knowing stepfamily norms and realities. Over half eventually re/divorce.

Summary: typical intact-biofamily members don't experience 23 (64%) of these 36 stepfamily-merger adjustment tasks. Versions of the other 13 tasks are much simpler in average biofamilies. How many of these task-differences do you think average stepfamily adults and supporters could name?

      Notice what you're thinking and feeling now. Each multi-home stepfamily has a unique mix of these merger tasks. Many of the projects are concurrent with each other and other daily responsibilities. Coupled with the 35 stepfamily-biofamily structural differences, does this task-table validate the claim that "stepfamilies are very different from typical intact biofamilies"?

      Unawareness of these 71 (!) structural and task differences contributes to average adults believing many myths about stepfamily functioning. These myths promote unrealistic expectations, which generate escalating stepfamily and re/marital stress - unless family members and supporters patiently help each other study, discuss, and apply onlinee Lessons 1 thru 7.

      How many typical co-parents do you think could name even half these 36 stepfamily-task differences before committing to each other? How many mental-health professionals? If most can't, what do you think the implications for stepfamily and re/marital success are?

      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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