Step-Families: When Families Mend

Step-Families: When Families Mend


Bray and Kelly report the findings of their extensive research in a new book, Step-Families: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade. They explain that they found three main types of step-families. They discovered that step-families have their own Life Cycle, different from “traditional families,” and it takes several years for the family as a whole to solidify. The first two years are marked by intense conflict. The next two to three years are marked by relative peace. After that, turmoil comes again as the children reach adolescence, but then matters settle and the family, having worked to build itself into a real unit, is able to weather the adolescent years without too much trouble.

Types of Step-Families

As step-families come together and begin to bond, they resolve into one of three types: the Neo-Traditional, the Romantic, or the Matriarchal family.

  • Neo-Traditional Families These families resemble “traditional” families, but the parents realize this takes time to develop, and will have to include the absent biological parent at times. They are more likely to have open and frank discussions between the parents about discipline, the boundaries and limits step-parent’s authority, and each parent’s expectations of the other in this second marriage. As a result, Neo-Traditional families were better able to avoid family coalitions and “side-taking” which helped decrease tensions.

  • Romantic Families Romantic families want to be “traditional” families in the most idealistic way; they want instant happiness, cohesion, and parent-child relationships, the perfect home. However, the parents expect it immediately. They often find the absent biological parent disrupts their efforts, reminds them of “the life before” their marriage, and prevents them from seeing the family the way they want. They often want the biological parent to disappear for all intents and purposes. This often leads to criticizing the absent biological parent in an effort to show how much better the step-parent is. This generally results in more step-parent and step-child difficulties, the exact opposite of what the family wants.

    Their idealized view of their family’s future life makes it much more likely that they will find the stress of the first two years insurmountable. What would not seem overwhelming to the other two types of families is very distressing to them, because their unrealistic expectations set them up to not even consider the possibility of discord clearly and act to prevent or minimize it. They expect the step-family to not just be a family on its own, but to make up for and heal all wounds left from the first marriage. They see this marriage in many ways as “destined” to be. They set themselves up for disillusionment and pain by thinking this way.

    The parents in these families are less likely to have open and frank discussions about problems, and their difficulty communicating their expectations can be their biggest problem. They tend to “edit out” parts of their past, like exactly what went wrong in the first marriage. The simply see this as “unnecessary nastiness” to go through it with their partners, and expect that their idealized partner will simply “know” what to and not to do to avoid the same problems. Likewise, regular “couples’ nights out” is not instituted, because each thinks the couple is fine and that “the specialness” of the relationship protects them from serious marital problems.

  • Matriarchal Families These families comprised about 25% of the sample of step-families. They are run by a highly competent mom and her companion who follows her lead. While he may easily become a “buddy” to the children, he is not their parent. So long as he is clear on this, and so long as he and the mom share compatible values, they get along well. He seems to be most helpful to the family when he is a “monitor,” someone who knows where the children are and what they are doing, but not someone who tells them where to go and what to do. His additional information is helpful to the mother, but he is clear on his role; when parenting problems come up, he excuses himself and lets the biological parent handle her children.

The birth of the “our” child, or the matriarchal mother and her companion’s child, usually brings a host of problems. The parents have to renegotiate their roles. Mom’s career advancement may also cause problems; as she becomes more overwhelmed, she needs more help. Whether or not it is more than the husband wants to provide may determine the future of the marriage.

The Step-Family Life Cycle

Cycle 1
This covers the first two years, and entails joining as a step-family, dealing with:

  • Idealistic expectations (i.e., “This marriage will make everything right in our lives”).
  • Finding ways to avoid taking sides (e.g., choosing to enforce a step-parent’s or your child’s desires).
  • Learning better ways to communicate (i.e., unlearning ineffective ways from the last marriage, and learning the specific ways your new partner communicates) discovering, sometimes the “hard way,” where the step-parent is and is not welcome in the biological parent-child relationship (e.g., can they ground the spouse’s child? Expect them to do yard work? Withhold allowances?”).

This time marks a high risk period, and 25% of step-families dissolve during this time. However, 75% of families re-examine their beliefs and ideas about family, and grow to find a new balance in their homes. This happens by carefully walking around and by accidentally stumbling right over issues such as insider-outsider differences, side-taking set-ups, and the problems that families work hard to deny. Honest and clear communication is a key to surviving this phase. Communication over successes, failures, hurt feelings, disillusionment, and more, is crucial to surviving the first two years.

Several keys that Bray and Kelly offer are:

  • the ability to recognize and express feelings clearly
  • mapping, or asking questions and listening carefully to gain as much information as possible about the situation
  • conflict resolution and compromising skills
  • stating complaints in ways that evoke empathy instead of anxiety and accusations
  • developing real step-family rituals
  • acceptance of turmoil, change, and growth

Some of the more prevalent fantasies step-families can fall vulnerable to are:

  • Rescue Fantasy — “I’ll save my new partner and children, as well as my children, and make a wonderful new family.”
  • Just Us — expecting the past marriages and problems will never come into play, or should not come into play to affect the second marriage.
  • Instant Love — the belief that everyone will instantly get along harmoniously and easily.
  • Better Than — ideas that the second family will be superior to the first family, and the more unhappy the first marriage was, the more happy and blissful the second marriage will be.
  • Egalitarianism — the belief, often by the man, that he will join his wife and step-children being an equal in the family, thinking that his needs and emotions will weigh just as heavily as everyone else’s. They note that most men realize this and are willing to work to earn their place in the hearts of the family members. However, some don’t realize that there will always be some areas that they will never enter.

Sometimes children still harbor powerful reunification fantasies, sometimes including the step-father or step-mother. While logically these make no sense, they are still powerful possibilities in the mind of the child.

Cycle 2
This covers years two through five, and is a time of relative peace and happiness. It also coincides with a relatively calm period of childhood, ages 6 to 10. It is common to see that step-parents and children have built a comfortable relationship and developed rituals together.

During this time, ideas about “what a family should be like” may be met easily. It can be a great time for step-parents and step-children to solidify their relationship with common interests or outings together, and for the family to build the “step-family video library.”

Cycle 3
Good Times
This covers years five through nine. It is marked by greater marital satisfaction and stability. However, it is also marked by intense stress and some bickering; adolescence and the resulting turmoil it brings put an end to the peaceful period in Cycle 2. However, most step-parents found this period was less unhappy and distressing than you might expect.

One reason for this is that this period of stress stems from the teen’s experiences of developmentally normal changes. Other families get through this, and step-families can too. They have had several years to work out problems, develop stronger ties, and experience considerable success in handling family problems.

Another reason these families weather this period well is because they have stopped thinking of themselves as a “step-family” and simply as a “family.” It is not so easy to divide the parents, expose wounds from the past, or allow communication problems to cause discord. The children have turned out well in the vast majority of cases, overcoming the stress of the divorce, improving in school, and making and keeping good friendships. They feel a significant sense of pride in their accomplishment.

And the Bad
Some step-families do run into problems in this stage though:

  • Teens who want to know more about absent parents, or the real reasons the marriage ended, can bring up long buried but still painful feelings and conflicts.
  • Matriarchal mothers who find their children growing up into independent teens may have difficulty adjusting.
  • Teens sometimes become uncomfortable with the opposite-sex step-parent due to their developing sexuality, especially teen girls with their step-fathers. Sometimes this works both ways, and step-fathers suddenly feel like physical contact or kisses with their step-daughters are suddenly wrong. Visits from the step-parent’s opposite-sex teen children can also be uncomfortable.
  • Step-fathers and step-children who never really cemented a strong bond now find their relationship peeling apart and crumbling.

Bray notes that when they asked teenage step-children what they called their step-fathers, some interesting results were found:

  • 32% used “Dad”
  • 62% used a first name
  • 6% used a step-father’s nickname

This did not change from childhood to adolescence. Most step-fathers realized “Dad” was likely to be reserved for the biological parent and the special bond that existed there. They were OK with a first name, but hated being referred to as “my mother’s husband.” Bray and Kelly report that about 20% of adolescents want to move out during this phase and live with the other biological parent. In some ways, this is an easy way to establish independence from the step-family, and allow for greater closeness in the relationship with the other biological parent. As long as the step-family adopts an “open-door policy” that allows the teen to move back if they want, all can go well. However, often teens move away because of dissatisfaction with the step-family processes, and arguments with the step-parent. Moving may allow them to run from their problems, but parents may feel like they have no other choice but to let the teen move and hope for the best.

Key Tasks

Step-Families must solve 4 basic tasks to survive:

  • Integration
    • Integrating the step-father into the step-children’s lives.
    • Integrating the step-family into the step-children’s lives.
    • Developing a shared vision of family life, which must include making a decision regarding how close the step-father and child will be (i.e., buddies or closer, consultant or discipline partner with the biological parent).

    Bray and Kelly found that 50% of families mishandled one or more of these steps. Romantic families especially are prone to avoid discussing this openly and clearly. Both think from the outset that the step-father is, without any doubt, to be a complete father in every way. Romantic mothers also fail to intervene to clarify things, teach their husbands about the children, and help them understand them better. One mother said that it would be “insulting” to do this for her husband; she would be communicating that she didn’t think he could be a good father on his own.

  • Creating a satisfying second marriage This entails taking care of each other, and separating from the first marriage. Happy second marriages help the parents live through the stress of the first two years. Popenow sees this as based in part on the couple’s ability to realize that “we” must come before “me” and to make freely the sacrifices this entails. Bray and Kelly add good listening skills to this, and an ability to see how one’s actions are likely to appear to the partner based upon their history.

    This also entails keeping ex-partners from interfering, and creating additional stresses and maintaining old dysfunctional patterns. Sometimes mothers feel distressed with their husband’s attitudes about her and his children from the previous marriage. Often, men assumed there was a “mommy gene,” and that their new wives would automatically know how to handle, care for, and discipline his children. Discussion around this topic had to be clear, setting rules about what responsibilities a step-mother will have and accepts, how this fits into her schedule, and under what conditions she accepts the additional responsibilities.

  • Managing change in the family This is an especially difficult task to manage, since much of the change that step-families must deal with comes from factors beyond their control. Consider visiting step-grandparents, rules imposed by ex-partners about parenting, children’s development and changing needs, integration of non-custodial children, changing roles of parents and step-parents over time, and simply the unpredictable results of mixing this many people into the step-family, people with different experiences, needs, and opinions.
  • Creating good working rules This entails creating, trying, refining, rejecting, and finally agreeing on workable rules for handling the cast of peripheral characters (absent biological parents and step-parents, step-in-laws) that enter the family’s life from time to time.

Bray and Kelly found several good coping skills for dealing with the ex-spouse:

  • Take a vacation – new spouses can minimize or avoid all interactions with the former spouse, allowing the biological parents to work things out.
  • Become deskilled – when the step-mother claimed ignorance for how to handle all the step-sons’ problems, they stopped leaning on her as much and became more self-reliant. Ex-partners are also less likely to dump responsibilities for their children on you if you don’t seem to be able to do them appropriately.
  • Resolve to take ex-partner’s comments impersonally – when ex-spouses make comments about the new parent’s skills, the new parent can use it as an opportunity to ask the “right way” from the former spouse. It gives the biological parent a way to feel his or her input is valued, and that no one will try to replace them in their child’s life


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