Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Q&A About Stepfamilies

What You Need to Know

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/sf/qa.htm

Updated 06-05-2015

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      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 stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.

      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..

  • the intro to this nonprofit Website, and the premises underlying it.

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 6,

  • these Q&A items about relationships,

  • this example of a real stepfamily

      If you're a media professional, please see this.

  Questions you should ask about stepfamilies

1)  What is a stepfamily? What is a nuclear stepfamily?

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?

4How are they different, and what do these differences mean?

5What are the benefits of being in a (high-nurturance) stepfamily?

6Are typical stepfamilies "as good as" intact biofamilies?

7(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?

9Who belongs to a multi-home stepfamily? 

10)  If a divorcing parent re/marries, is their ex mate a member of their stepfamily?

11What are the most common stepfamily stressors and problems?

12)  What should we know about stepfamilies before we commit to forming or joining one?

13Are there different kinds of stepfamilies?

14Do most clergy, counselors, lawyers, and educators get adequate stepfamily training? How can we pick an effective stepfamily coach or counselor?

15)  What are values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles, and why are they important in typical stepfamilies?

16)  How can we recognize credible, practical stepfamily advice and publications, and what stepfamily books and other resources do you recommend?

17)  Are we still a stepfamily if...

  • the youngest stepchild moves out? Yes.

  • a stepchild's other bioparent is dead? Yes..

  • I legally adopt my partner's child/ren? Yes..

  • both remarried partners have prior children? Yes..

  • a stepparent and their mate conceive a child together? Yes..

  • all our prior kids are adults? Yes..

  • some "authority" disputes these answers? Yes.

18)  What's different about roles and relationships in typical divorcing families and stepfamilies, compared to those in intact (bio)families?

19)  What is effective co-parenting after parental separation and divorce?

20)  How can conflicted divorcing parents improve their relationship?

21)  Should typical stepfamily members expect to love each other like (healthy) genetic relatives do? NO.

22)  What are the most common problems between adults in average divorcing families and stepfamilies, and what causes them?

23)  Why are many stepfamily relationships significantly stressful, and what can reduce such stress?

24)  How long does it take for typical stepfamily relatives to bond, stabilize, and feel like a family?

25)  I'm less interested in nurturing a certain stepfamily relationship than the other person is, and I feel guilty. What are my options?

26)  Is it a good idea for stepparents to adopt their stepchild? See this for perspective.

27)  What do typical new stepfamily members need to know to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily over time?

28)  What if some relatives disapprove of the re/marriage and/or a new stepparent?

29)  What if a divorced parent's relatives want to keep an active relationship with his or her ex mate and/or their relatives?

30)  What problems do typical co-grandparents face, and what are their options? See this article.

31) Where can stepfamily adults get support? See this article.

32)  After re/marriage, is there a best way to plan family events? Yes

33)  How can new step-relatives handle significant racial, religious, or ethnic differences?

34)  I'm confused about names and titles in our new stepfamily. Are there any norms or guidelines?  Yes.

35)  What can stepfamily relatives 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 - "under 5%."

      For more stepfamily perspective, also see these Q&A articles on...

 If you don't see your question here, please ask!


Q1)  What is a stepfamily? What is a nuclear stepfamily?

      A stepfamily is an ancient kind of normal social group in which one adult mate nurtures one or more kids their 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 unawareness, modern stepfamilies are often viewed as nontraditional and inferior. Because of this undeserved bias, many co-parents, kin, and stepkids deny their stepfamily identity, causing unrealistic expectations and significant stress.


Q2)  Is it OK to call a stepfamily a "blended family" or some other label?

      Technically, a 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.

      Many people associate the prefix "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-.".

      Using such "feel-good" labels risks...

using unrealistic (biofamily) expectations about stepfamily norms, roles, dynamics, and relationships;

making up to three unwise courtship commitment-decisions; and...

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 passing on psychological wounds to the next generation. I have repeatedly observed that avoiding "step-" titles and labels usually indicates significant psychological wounds and harmful unawareness.


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 similarities and 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 try to merge their several multi-generational biofamilies.

      So co-parents 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 supporters. self-improvement Lesson 7 can help you do this.


Q4)  How are stepfamilies different, and what do these differences mean?

      Typical multi-home stepfamilies differ from average intact biofamilies in two major ways. Can you name them?

  • Stepfamily systems are "built" differently than biofamilies in 35 ways (!) These structural differences and the unique way stepfamilies begin (after death or divorce) also cause...

  • extra developmental stages and up to 36 unique 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 what their adults and kids can expect as they slowly merge 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 biofamilies?

      What is a good apple tree? A good armadillo? A good family? Premise: families exist to fill the needs of their members, so "good" (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 identify and fill their own and their kids' needs well enough, often enough. Typical divorcing-family and stepfamily adults have more to learn (Q12 below) and more tasks to master to accomplish that vital goal, over many years. 


Q9)  Who belongs to a multi-home stepfamily? 

       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 bond with you (weak > strong), and merit you bonding with them to some degree. You and they may or may not like each other, and members...

  • expect certain attitudes, values (like loyalty and respect), and behaviors from you, and...

  • 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 and a low-nurturance family.

      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.

      The need to belong (be noticed, accepted, valued, and supported) is primal, with roots in infancy. Lesson 7 will help adults accept and understand their stepfamily identity, and agree on who belongs.


Q10)  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 genetically, legally, historically, financially, and psychologically, until the last of their common children dies - so yes, ex mates are full stepfamily members.

      Stepfamily-membership exclusion and/or rejection is strong evidence of psychological wounding + ineffective communication + adult stepfamily unawareness + (often) incomplete grief. Exclusion and rejection usually confuse (stress) most minor and grown stepkids, who automatically include both bioparents in "my family" no matter what anyone says. Both views promote escalating loyalty conflicts, divisive relationship triangles, and many secondary problems.

        See this article for more perspective on stepfamily membership.


Q12)  What should we know about stepfamilies before we commit to forming or joining one?

      To make three wise decisions on whether to form or join a complex, risky stepfamily or not, typical courting co-parents need to work patiently together for many months at these seven crucial self-improvement Lessons.  At the least, they need to discuss these common courtship danger signs.


Q13)  Are there different kinds of stepfamilies?

      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 their stepfamily identity.


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 counselors, 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.

      To my 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. re/divorce epidemic.

         For specific suggestions on how to pick an effective stepfamily counselor or therapist, see this article.


Q15)  What are values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles, and why are they important in typical stepfamilies?

      These three related stressors are inevitable in and between typical divorcing-family and stepfamily homes:

  • values conflicts occur when two or more people hold 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 roles.

      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 compromises?

      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 leading surface reason for our unremarked re/divorce epidemic.

      The real issues causing typical loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles are unseen psychological wounds + ineffective communication + stepfamily unawareness + (sometimes) incomplete grief and excessive post-divorce guilts. All of these an be reduced with education, personal awareness and healing, and patient hard work - perhaps with informed lay and professional support.

        See this article for more perspective and solutions.


Q18)  What's different about roles and relationships in typical divorcing families and stepfamilies, compared to those in intact biofamilies?

      All family relationships exist to fill each person's primary needs. Average divorcing families and stepfamilies have unique structures + adjustment tasks + special needs to be filled + new sources of confusion, discomfort, and conflict + major environmental differences from typical intact biofamilies.

      Typical intact biofamilies have up to 15 traditional roles (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 relationships than average intact biofamilies, which promotes confusion, frustrations, unrealistic expectations, and concurrent membership and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles that high-nurturance biofamilies don't experience.

      These many differences combine to create significant stress for unaware adults and kids as they  merge their 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 self-improvement Lessons - ideally starting in courtship.

      See this and this for 70 specific biofamily-stepfamily differences and related tasks.


Q20)  How can conflicted divorcing parents improve their relationship?


  • work to keep your true Selves in charge of your personality (i.e. work at Lesson 1). This often requires hitting true (vs. pseudo) bottom - usually in midlife or later;

  • adopt a patient, long-term outlook, rather than looking for quick fixes;

  • clarify your personal priorities, affirm your mutual rights as worthy persons, and use these wise guidelines in all your relationships;

  • tailor these premises about resolving relationship problems to fit your situation;

  • assess which relationship problems you want to reduce, click "More detail," and discuss appropriate options;

  • see if any of these communication options help;

  • Use qualified professional help as needed along the way;

  • Affirm and enjoy your progress together! If you have trouble following this framework, suspect that well-meaning false selves are impeding you.

      If this looks like a lot of work - it is. Are your kids' worth your best efforts at these steps?

        For more perspective, see these basics.


Q21) Should stepfamily members (expect to) love each other like genetic relatives do?

      Most stepfamily experts advise "Strive for mutual 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 identity or (b) accept it but don't know stepfamily realities, 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" by chance.

      As survivors of childhood neglect 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...

  • affirm their stepfamily identity and accept what it means;

  • 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.

      As 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 have to love your stepsister (or stepparent or step-grandparent), and she doesn't have to love you. You two can enjoy becoming friends and stepsisters, over time.")

      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?

      Basic reasons:

  • one or more adults are psychologically wounded, and don't (want to) know that, what it means, or what to do about it;

  • few adults and no kids know how to communicate and problem-solve effectively;

  • 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 conflicts over membership (exclusion), values, loyalties, and relationship triangles;  and typical adults and supporters don't know how to avoid or resolve these effectively;

  • many typical stepfamily members haven't adequately grieved key losses (broken bonds), and don't know how to assess that, what it means, or what to do about it;

  • many minor and grown stepkids have up several dozen concurrent developmental and adjustment needs that they need informed adult help with - and get little or none;

  • the divorced parents of many stepkids have significant conflicts over kids and money, which polarize homes and family members into opposing camps - specially if parents initiate costly, draining court battles;

  • often, needy, wounded, unaware stepfamily couples made up to three unwise commitment choices, which breed multiple surface problems after their romantic idealism inevitably fades; and...

  • adults can find little effective help 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 self-improvement Lessons.


24)  How long does it take for typical stepfamily relatives to bond, stabilize, and feel like a family?

      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;

  • how psychologically-wounded 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);

  • the ability of new relatives to empathize and problem-solve (low > high)

  • the degree of compatibility between the merging families' beliefs and traditions (conflictual > compatible)

  • how knowledgeable all adults are about stepfamily realities (ignorant > knowledgeable);

  • the geographic distance between merging family members, and the frequency and nature of contacts among them; and

  • the overall functionality of each of the three or more merging families (low > high) 

      The number and complexity of these variables explains why the odds of stepfamily-wide bonding and stability are relatively low.


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 rule - a must (not), should (not), cannot, or have to. If you feel guilty about not reciprocating interest in a family relationship, one or more subselves that direct your personality feel you're breaking some important rules, like..

"Family members must like or love each other."

"It's rude (disrespectful) to reject another person's interest and friendship, and I must not be rude."

"I must not hurt other people's feelings, so I should pretend interest even if I don't feel it."

"I should always be genuine, honest, and polite with other people."

"I should make other people happy, or I'm selfish and bad."

"I should always obey the rules."

Rules like these are often inherited in childhood, and unquestioned. They may not apply to your stepfamily situation.     

Options: affirm your stepfamily identity and your personal rights. Then...

Make sure your true Self is guiding you. If not, see Lesson 1

Let these timeless wisdoms guide you

Review self-improvement Lesson 4 (about relationships).

Read this article on reducing guilt

Identify what specific rules you (your subselves) feel you're breaking (e.g. those above) by not returning the other person's interest. Then review each rule to see if...

  • it fits stepfamily realities, and that...

  • 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 should respect everyone in my stepfamily, and I don't have to like or love them even if that hurts their feelings."

Check to see if you're in a loyalty conflict and/or relationship triangle with this person. If so, invite her or him to reduce it with you.

See if any of these barriers are contributing to the problem. If so, click on "More detail" in the graphic and look for useful options.

If the other person is a stepchild, study this.

If the other person is an ex mate, see Q20 above

Tell the other person that you're working to improve your half of your relationship with them (if you are).

      If you discount or defer acting on options like these, suspect that false selves control you.


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, high-nurturance stepfamily, they need to study Lessons 1 thru 7 - ideally starting before courting co-parents commit and cohabit.

      To gain motivation for this learning, partners and their supporters need to know stepfamily hazards, norms, myths, problems, and courtship danger signs. If studying all seven Lessons seems too hard, at least learn about the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and study and discuss Lesson 7.

      Reluctance to study these vital topics suggests significant psychological wounds and unawareness.


Q28)  What if some relatives disapprove of a re/marriage and/or a new stepparent?

      The relatives may see some major problems that partners aren't aware of or are denying, or the relatives have psychological and are unrealistically critical, pessimistic, and/or fearful.

      To check out the first of these, courting partners should check themselves for wounds and possible reality distortions like denial. Then they should heed Q27 above.

      If partners find no valid reasons for the relative's disapproval, then they should compassionately assess the critics for wounds, ignorance, barriers, and incomplete grief. These are symptoms of a low-nurturance  (dysfunctional) family and inheriting the toxic [wounds + unawareness] cycle.


Q29)  What if a divorced parent's relatives want to keep an active relationship with his or her ex mate and/or their relatives?

      If the ex mates and relatives are mutually respectful, then their staying connected is a stepfamily asset. Otherwise, ongoing membership and loyalty conflicts are likely - specially if these people don't know and accept stepfamily realities and/or don't know how to communicate and problem-solve effectively.


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 create a high-nurturance family together. Note that establishing and stabilizing stepfamily bonds (relationships) usually takes four or more years from cohabiting and commitment.

      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 mission statement 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 genogram to identify who is included in their multi-generational ("extended") stepfamily. 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 significant relationship problems among various family adults and kids, and choose among these options to reduce them over time.

  • For more perspective, read and discuss these articles on post-divorce holidays, stepfamily weddings, amd vacations.

      Use the learnings from these options to decide whom to invite to various family events and gatherings.


34)  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 are over...

  • first and last names ("Our stepsisters are both named Anne," or "My son and your ex are both Roberto,"); and...

  • family 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 normal name-confusions:

      Help all your adults and kids accept your 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 like...

      Accept that biofamily 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 guiding you. 

      Be 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).

      If everyone's pretending to be "just a (bio)family," kids feeling these things are apt to privately feel "weird" and guilty. Ask them how they feel and what they need - and then listen!

      It's 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.

      If name and title conflicts occur, learn how to resolve values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles, and teach your kids and relatives how to resolve these common stressors.

      Adults and kids with a strong aversion to "step-" titles are often psychologically wounded and haven't finished grieving their losses and accepted their new step-realities. They may also misunderstand what a stepfamily is.

      Avoid 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...

      Be alert 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 (unreal, unnatural, irregular, and abnormal).

      Stepfamilies are 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...

      For more perspective, read about adopting stepkids and this article about sttepfamily names.


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