Steps Toward Building Our Stepfamily
If we’re familiar with The Brady Bunch, we might have a rosy picture of a “blended family;” mix two divorcés with six kids and, poof, you get joy and adventure. Fiction aside, it’s still possible to create a wonderful stepfamily, but it takes effort and awareness.
That effort and awareness are increasingly important given that second marriages with kids are twice as likely to end in divorce as second marriages without kids. Plus, according to Barbara LeBey, author of Remarried with Children, since 2000, more than half of U.S. families are blended or extended families.
How do we successfully join two families? One ingredient is to help our kids make the transition from both the family we had with our ex (or our spouse who passed away) and the family-structure we’ve been living in recently (e.g., shared custody with an ex, single-parenting). Helping our kids emotionally transition from those experiences before asking them to adapt to a new stepfamily will ease their journey.
What’s important about transitions? According to William Bridges, an expert in helping people navigate change, when we’re in the thick of a major shift, like remarrying and bridging two families, we also need to internally transition—which Bridges defines as “the inner reorientation and self-definition that you have to go through…to incorporate… changes into your life.” Without an internal transition, that major shift will be turbulent or unsuccessful.
Given that it’s us parents, not our kids, who decide to remarry and blend families, it’s that much more important to empower our kids in this process and to be patient with them as they transition toward this major change in their lives.
To that end, we’d do well to encourage our kids to talk about: (1) what they do (or will) miss about their “first” family, and the life they’re leaving behind; (2) what they appreciate about what their family used to look like; and (3) what they want to carry forward and invite into their new stepfamily, in both tangible (e.g., their bed) and intangible (e.g., alone-time with their parent) ways.
Couples also need to transition from life with exes and life between marriages, to our new state of matrimony. Again, acknowledging and even mourning what was good about the past (even if there wasn’t a lot of good) are important steps, as is dreaming into what we want this relationship to be.
It’s also helpful to get on the same page about what co-parenting looks like, not only with our exes, but also with each other. Addressing how we want to work together as a parenting team is especially crucial, because step-parenting can, at times, compel us to draw lines in the sand about what’s mine and what’s yours.
For some of us, we’re so eager to be a step-parent that we overstep, so to speak, our roles; for others, we presume step-kids are, primarily, our spouses’ responsibility, so we defer to them, or to their ex, most of the time.
There’s no denying that navigating parenting roles and responsibilities is complex in step families; but the notion that something is mostly mine or yours to deal with can be deeply divisive to our relationships, and potentially damaging to kids.
It’s not that everything we bring into relationships are split down the middle, but the following notion of co-responsibility is important:
What we bring into our marriage is no longer solely mine, or solely yours; now, it all belongs to us.
Creating a stepfamily that works for everyone involved takes time, patience, and a willingness to tackle the internal transitions we all go through during major changes. Committing to this process is, ultimately, an act of love for our new marriage, for our new roles, and especially for our children.