“I didn’t know remarriage would be this hard,” said stepmom Sally. “We’ve been married more than a year and our relationships are still struggling. It feels like we take one step forward and three steps backward.”
Sally’s frustration is normal. White-picket-fence expectations of a do-over in marriage or second chance after the loss of a spouse create unrealistic ideas of stepfamily life. Myths about how things should be influence our understanding and set us up for disappointment. When we smother the myths of stepfamily life and replace them with reality, we more easily adjust to the new family in our home. Here are a few myths to consider:
1. Love is enough for a long-lasting marriage as a stepcouple. Fairy tales present an image that love is all we need. Marriage naturally includes love, but the complexities of stepfamily life require more than a gushy feeling. For a stepcouple to traverse bumpy roads with windy curves and unexpected potholes—and refuse the temptation to turn back at times—there must also be perseverance, commitment to the vows of “for better or for worse,” willingness to offer grace freely, empathy for another’s feelings, patience, forgiveness, understanding, wisdom, self-sacrifice, and more. It’s not that love isn’t important. It is! But sometimes, on hard days, we need to dig deep for something more than love, which just might be the ticket for thriving, long-term relationships.
2. Kids are resilient—they’ll adjust easily to their new family. Although kids might be resilient, that doesn’t mean they won’t struggle to accept their new family. There’s often a period of adjustment that can include behavioral outbursts or emotional withdrawal, particularly when kids haven’t had adequate time to grieve the loss of their original family or their age is in double digits (younger kids often adjust easier). Stepfamily research tells us it takes 4-7 years for relationships to come together and perhaps longer when both parents bring children to the marriage. It helps to adjust our expectations so we allow for a period of settling in when disharmony and uncomfortable feelings show up more often than we’d like. Relationship bonding is a marathon, not a sprint, with rewards for those who stay the course.
3. Stepparents are evil. Despite the message Cinderella taught us that stepparents are evil, we find stepparents everywhere who work hard to create loving homes and establish healthy relationships with their stepchildren. My stepmom friend, Lisa, is an example. Despite confusion in her role and uncomfortable feelings as an outsider at times, Lisa offers grace freely and often in her home. She doesn’t claim to be perfect, but she pushes past her mistakes and tries again when she fails. She understands the tug of loyalty her stepchildren feel that naturally pulls them toward their biological mother. She still offers love, guidance, and nurturing to better the lives of her stepchildren, recognizing there might be few rewards in return. Kudos to Lisa and stepparents everywhere who do the same.
4. Co-parenting is the only option. We all recognize the importance of healthy co-parenting with the ex-spouse in another home. But sometimes co-parenting isn’t possible. When Josie remarried, her ex-husband became volatile and uncooperative with her. Although Josie tried hard to keep communication open and amicable, every conversation about their kids turned into an argument. Finally, Josie opted to try parallel parenting, a form of disengaged parenting that is essentially “my house, my rules, your house, your rules.” There were often different standards in the two homes, but her kids learned to transition without a problem and no longer had to witness the arguments between two people they loved. Josie hopes co-parenting might work in the future, but for now, parallel parenting is the best option to reduce the inevitable conflict with her ex-husband.
5. Blended families can function like biological families. Blended families might try to function as traditional families, but frustration often follows. The dynamics are vastly different. For instance, parental roles are not clear. Since kids pre-date the marriage, stepparents fare better when they step back and establish a relationship before diving into a disciplinarian role. The old adage, rules without relationship results in rebellion, rings true here. Another difference is the dynamic of insiders and outsiders. In traditional families, everyone is an insider and accepted into the family circle. Stepfamilies have outsiders (stepparents) who weren’t part of the original circle and have to earn their way in. A stepchild who lives in another home might also feel like an outsider. When these complex variables are recognized and managed—differently than biological families—blended families can form healthy, thriving relationships.
We gain a greater likelihood of contentment and harmony within our stepfamily relationships, when we’re aware of stepfamily myths and confront them with reality, adjusting our expectations in the process. What other stepfamily myth does society project that needs to be considered?