Statistics show that "approximately one-third of all weddings in America today form stepfamilies."1
A look at different types of stepfamilies can highlight the unique challenges each stepfamily may encounter.
Portrait no. 1: Husband with children marries never-married, no-kids wife.
Dads who remarry often expect their new brides to assume a similar role to their former wife. The new wife, on the contrary, steps into the marriage ready for romance and quality time together as a couple. Instantly filling the role of wife is challenge enough; being interim Mom is often overwhelming. Wives in this situation often feel frustration and disillusionment when they are handed someone else's kids to care for (and the kids don't like it, either!).
In this scenario, Dad must step up to the plate and handle the disciplining of his children to avoid conflict with his new wife. He should also teach the kids to treat their stepmom with respect and talk through (or even write down) household duties with his new wife until a fair arrangement is reached.
Portrait no. 2: Wife with children marries no-kids husband.
Entering this marriage, Mom's relief at having a new partner in life might result in her handing off too many responsibilities to her new husband. The kids, then, usually will rebel. They have a dad (or had one); they don't think they need a new one. Tread lightly with any stepparent administering discipline. Biological parents are the ones who should handle rules and punishments, at least initially.
This couple needs to bond and show solidarity to the children. The wife must be careful not to shut out her new husband in favor of her children. Avoid inside jokes with the kids and subtle put-downs that would cause the kids to disregard their new stepfather altogether. There is a fine line between handling the discipline and devaluing the husband's position in the home. Require children to show the same respect for their stepdad that they would any teacher, law enforcement officer, or other adult in authority. Don't try to force love.
Portrait no. 3: Divorced mom with kids marries divorced dad with kids.
This type of stepfamily may seem to come with the most hurdles to overcome initially, but has potential to be the most successful makeup because Mom and Dad are motivated to pull together for the kids. Kids, however, experience the most loss when their parent marries someone with children. Access to their biological parent must now be shared by not just the new spouse but also by other children. Their physical space is shared with a stepparent and stepsiblings. New cities, new home, new school and new roommate are also common changes when families join. And, some children must face the end of their dream of their parents reuniting.
The first two years in any stepfamily, but especially this type, are crucial. Expect conflict and extend grace — lots of it. There will be different relationships between members of this type of stepfamily, different levels of intimacy, connection, and love between stepsiblings and between children and stepparents. Don't worry; that's normal.
Portrait no. 4: Widow or widower with kids remarries.
When a family experiences the loss of a beloved spouse and parent, the new spouse/stepparent will inevitably confront the “ghosts of family past.” On some level, grieving continues for years after the death of a spouse.
This stepfamily needs to make sure it is taking steps to heal from their grief in order for the new family to unite. Rather than trying to assume a parental role, the successful stepparent in this situation will step into the role of friend and mentor. Family members can honor their loved one with photographs and memories, but erecting a shrine and idolizing their past prevents intimacy with the new spouse and stepparent. Establishing common ground and moving forward together is difficult but possible.
Portrait no. 5: Divorced or widowed parents of adult children marry.
Even if the children have left the nest, remarried couples with children still qualify as stepfamilies. Due to a lack of daily interactions, bonding and connecting may be more difficult. Many relationships will be strained for years or may never achieve any level of intimacy. Stepparents and stepchildren can make an effort to connect through cards, letters, phone calls, emails and family get-togethers.
Unique issues to this stepfamily may include establishing healthy grandparenting relationships and inheritance tension. Family fears can be alleviated by communication and a welcoming love. Distributing family keepsakes ahead of time or deciding how you will distribute your property can ease some of the tensions related to inheritance.
No matter what type of stepfamily yours may fall under, with the right resources and the help of God, family, and friends, your stepfamily can find encouragement and hope.
Copyright © 2004 Natalie Nichols Gillespie. Used by permission.