"Our marriage will be a positive for our children, right?" Charles' question was filled with hope during his and Tamara's first session of pre-stepfamily counseling.
"Yes, eventually," I replied. "But initially, your marriage is another loss for them. So you need to be proactive in how you unite your children into a stepfamily."
Most couples with at least one child from a previous relationship underestimate the challenges of stepfamily living and are often blindsided after the wedding. But research is revealing fundamentals that make a couple's relationship strong enough for a healthy stepfamily.
Long before the wedding, a couple can begin working to increase the likelihood of stepfamily success.
Before you blend
Slow down. Proactive blending begins before the wedding. Couples should slow their dating process and give children plenty of time to adjust. You may know what family life will entail, but you haven't experienced stepfamily life — and they aren't the same. Ideally it is wise to date for an extended amount of time, and once engaged, give the kids time to adjust.
Model your faith. Strong stepfamily relationships begin with shared spiritual values between a husband and wife who put God first. This gives purpose and direction to a new stepfamily.
While more than half of couples live together before a remarriage, cohabiting in a home professing Christian values sends contradictory messages to children and decreases the couple's ability to objectively examine their relationship. To honor God and model your faith, avoid sexual involvement and cohabitation before the wedding.
Communicate and play. Stepfamily life is stressful, especially in the first few years. Good communication skills will moderate that stress, while shared leisure time will keep a couple close.
Discipline well. An overzealous stepparent often tries to straighten out undisciplined stepchildren, and significant conflict erupts. One of the best gifts you can give your marriage is to set limits with your own children and follow through with discipline long before the marriage begins.
Align parenting styles early. Once wedding plans have been made, begin to align your differing parenting styles, rules and routines. Because single parents have authority with their own children, applying changes prior to the wedding is easier than waiting until the stepparents and/or stepsiblings integrate into one household.
After the wedding
Bond carefully. Bonding in a stepfamily must move at the children's pace. Accept the level of relationship and affection offered by children, and trust that with time it will increase.
Balance your time. Find a balance between separateness and togetherness with your biological children. Sometimes it's wise for parents to spend exclusive time with their own children each week. Separate time is then balanced with together time — when adults and children engage in shared interests such as playing games, eating at a favorite restaurant or attending worship services.
To build bridges of connection, stepparents might also spend focused one-on-one time with a stepchild. Brad and his stepson Richie didn't have much in common until they discovered they both enjoy playing the guitar, and this deepened their relationship.
Create identity. If you don't buy a new house after the wedding, purchase a new piece of furniture as a family. For example, a new dining room table removes territorial barriers and invites the family to find their place. Sitting at the table becomes a metaphor for the family's developing identity; it also represents the new family story.
Stepfamily living has many unique rewards; it also has many hidden pitfalls. But couples who prepare will help ensure that the stepfamily experience is positive for their children.
Focus on the Family has resources and counseling to help you and your family. You can contact us during normal business hours at:
(800) A-FAMILY (232-6459)
Ron Deal is the author of The Smart Step Family and director of FamilyLife Blended for Family Life.