STEP-FAMILIES – Increasing healthy relationships in the step-family life

There are many relationships/marriages that end up in separation/divorce, then form a new relationship and a step-family soon after. In the past, step-families have been seen as second rate compared to nuclear families. Nowadays, this view has shifted and step-families are more accepted as another form of family. However, many parents and children struggle in making some adjustments in their new family system.

Relationships in step-families are different from the nuclear family. It is impossible to form healthy relationship in a step-family system overnight. Therefore, integrating the different expectations and ways of doing things can often takes a long time, hence it may take up to 3 to 4 years to form a solid alliance and work as a team to meet the step-family challenges.

Even when individuals from both families know one another for some time, living together is still different because there are more intimate interactions, with people needing space, attention, sharing time, etc. Each family member will influence each other’s processes in the step-family life. Many unfamiliar and unanticipated challenges will surface soon after a step-family is formed. Each family member will have to go through many losses and changes, such as children no longer living full-time with their parents, parents and children having to adjust to a new house, neighbours, school, food, rules, etc., all which makes parenting children and teenagers more challenging.

What causes step-families not integrate well?

Here are some common mistakes in the failing of step-family integration (but are not limited to):

  1. Entering the new relationship too quickly – the loneliness and the burden as a single parent can be a factor in accelerating separated/divorced parents to form a new relationship, and parents can overlook the complexity of a blended family that comes with it.
  2. Grief and loss are not attended to appropriately  separated/divorced parents often do not give enough time for their children and themselves to grieve their losses of their nuclear family. Untended grief and loss may result in anxiety and depression.
  3. Not enough preparation and explanation – especially for children, which create more reactions and struggles in their adjustment to the new family system.
  4. Unrealistic expectations – when couples separate/divorce and remarry, they often have unrealistic expectations. They hope their ex-partner and children will support their choices and decisions, as well as hoping their children will have a close relationship with their new partner.
  5. Lack of boundaries and consistency – a step-parent and biological parent can often have different parenting styles, which impacts on the boundaries and consistency in parenting the children and teenagers
  6. Using children to hurt the ex-partner – this will result in a lot of hurt and damage on your children and you will push them away from you.
  7. Making the new family the new nuclear family – there are some parents who try to form their step-family as the new nuclear family. This often causes more pain, confusion and damage to their children and their own relationship with their biological children.

Oops, I have made some mistakes. How can I repair it?:

It is good that you are aware of your mistakes, but that’s not the end. You still can repair the damage by:

  1. Slowing down and reflecting! – you need to willingly put yourself in your ex-partner’s and your children’s shoes to understand how they feel and what has caused the struggles in the step-family relationship.
  2. Attending to your children’s grief and loss by listening to their pain without being defensive yourself. If the separation/divorce has caused you a lot of pain, even more for your children. Acknowledging and believing in their pains is a healing to their wounds and it does take time.
  3. Be an alliance for your children – spend one-to-one time with each child to build a strong relationship, and by doing so, you can gain the trust that they have lost in you. As the trust grows, it will make it easier for your children to be more open and willing to accept the changes.
  4. Check your expectations – many changes, including the rules, in the new family need to be discussed and negotiated to reach a win-win situation for both parties – your children and your new partner. Taking baby steps at a time will result in a long-term gain, rather than making big leaps too soon.
  5. Respect your ex-partner – this will help your children to accept your mistakes and respect you. Disrespecting and talking badly about your ex-partner will hurt your children. Remember, your ex-partner is still your children’s biological parent.
  6. Do not use your children to hurt your ex-partner for your own gain and do not use your insecurity of losing your children by defaming their other biological parent. Often children fear expressing their hurt when this happens, because they are afraid of the consequences on their other biological parent and on themselves.
  7. Set clear boundaries and be consistent in your parenting your children and teenagers.
  8. Remember, no one can have multiple nuclear families, but only one! So be realistic about it and you can create a loving and respectful step-family life.

Living in a step-family system can be complicated and painful, however, do not lose hope! There is professional help available to assist you in resolving some of the mistakes you have made.

If you are uncertain whether you need professional help, you can contact us to discuss and to guide you further.