10 Necessary Steps in Stepfamily Integration

Joan D. Atwood, Ph.D.

This article first appeared in Marriage and Family Living.

The therapist returns a call in order to set up an appointment with a new client. The client, waiting anxiously for the therapist's call, responds by saying,

HELP!!! Between us we have six children, a son 21 years old, a daughter 18 years old, a daughter 14 years old, a son 13 years old , a daughter 13 years old, and a daughter 2 1/2 years old. We have been married two months.

This call clearly conveys the complexity, the stress and the anxiety that can suddenly appear when a remarriage between two people with children from a previous relationship takes place. When a number of persons of varying ages and stages of development suddenly come together from a variety of previous family and household backgrounds, each one already has set ideas about how their lifestyles should be. The problem, of course, is that there is generally no agreement. Everyone brings different family traditions from their former family experiences.

In addition, family alliances form, with insiders and outsiders vying for positions based on parent-child relationships that preceded the new couple's relationship. For example, an only child may suddenly find herself sharing a bedroom with two new sisters. A biological parent may remain in the child's memory, if not in reality. The children may be members of two households, going back and forth, experiencing culture shock.

The problem is increasing. As reported by the Tribunal, Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, in 1988, the number of marriages annuled nationally was 65,262. No statistical data are kept as to the number of marriages that end with the death of a spouse. Following a divorce, it is estimated that 79% of the divorced men and 75% of the divorced women remarry. Sixty percent of these remarriages involve children (Glick, 1984; Glick and Lin, 1986).

It is estimated that one child in five under the age of 18 is a stepchild and that by the year 2000 this type of family will actually outnumber all other kinds of American families. There may be close to 15 million children under the age of eighteen years living in stepfamilies.

Although stepfamilies are similar to natural or intact families, they have important structural and functional differences that require attention. For example, not only does the stepfamiliy have the same growth and developmental problems that any other family has, but they have additional problems as well which are rooted in the remarried situation. As this new family form continues to become more prevalent, it is important to become aware of the traps and pitfalls unique to this type of family. In remarried families, only some family members have a common history. Lacking a common history in which to locate one's identity and one's experience with one's new spouse, it is no wonder that remarried relationships often feel arbitrary and false. People report that nothing feels quite right. Blending two families is an inherently disorganizing experience that involves a total transformation of the individuals' world. There is a lack of a common history and therefore a lack of a common culture.

Generally, when people meet in adult life, they slowly accumulate a sense of each other's past history. Their increasing intimacy allows for a kind of empathic imagination that often includes a mental picture of someone's boyhood or girlhood etc. These mental images are essential to a couple's sense of context, both historical and current. This natural and intimate progression results in a family history that often does not occur in remarried families. Suddenly two families are thrown together and in many cases there is very little knowledge of the family member's history.

In a sense all remarried families are faced with an impossible developmental challenge. They must accomplish the task of becoming a family. At the same time they must function like a family further along in the family life cycle. In other words, they must operate as if they had developed the complex inner structure of a family who has been together at least as long as the age of the oldest child; however, at the same time, they only actually possess the rudimentary structure of a family just starting out. They must function at two stages of the life cycle at once! This creates all sorts of problems. It means that the developmental needs of the family as a whole may be in conflict with the developmental needs of the individuals who comprise it. There is therefore no way for remarried families to avoid a period of profound disequilibrium. It takes time for spouses to develop their own history, to establish rules regarding sequences of contact and distance, sexuality, conflict expression and resolution, Similarly it takes time for spouses to organize themselves as parents of infants, toddlers etc. At the same time, it takes time for children to organize themselves as siblings and to establish hierarchies of control and nurturing that reflect birth order relationships.

In a remarried family there is no time for such structures to develop. All at once a single woman becomes a mother of three or a child moves from being the younger of two to the eldest of four. Given this picture, the question becomes not why some remarried families become problematic but rather why and how they continue to succeed and grow!

Research on the process of remarriage indicates that it takes about 2 years for the remarried family to stabilize, to develop a coherent sense of itself including internal rules, traditions, and subsystems and also developing viable rules regarding relations with noncustodial parents and with siblings living with former partners. Below are some of the common pitfalls of the remarried family and suggestions and guidelines for overcoming them.


Resolution of Fantasized Expectations

At the time of remarriage the adults may have rosy expectations about their future. They believe that the children will welcome the wonderful new person entering their lives. From a child's point of view, however, the picture may look very different. Many children of divorce not only want their biological parents to reunite but also do not wish to have their present relationship with their custodial parent interfered with. The presence of another person in their parent's life threatens both of these desires. Consequently, children often actively attempt to disrupt such impending relationships and changes in their lives. Time and the involvement of the ex-nuclear members seems to help overcome this obstacle. After children realize that the situation is not going to revert back to the former condition do they become more accepting of the new remarried situation. Acceptance of this is facilitated by encouraging the child to express their feelings without imposing judgement. Former partners and in-laws could prove to be instrumental in managing this matter, if they willingly cooperate in helping the children to make this adjustment.

Resolving Mourning and Loss Issues

The process of divorce and the transition to remarriage evoke an almost universal feeling of loss and grief in parents and children alike. Incomplete mourning of past relationships can interfere with efforts to create a successful new stepfamily. For example, such mourning may be interrupted in the single-parent family, when children are used by either parent for comfort and support. Here, the children have not been allowed to acknowledge and experience the pain of their losses because they have been allotted the task of caring for the emotional condition of the parent. The child's pain remains suppressed and unattended to. Remarriage may rekindle these suppressed feelings since the child may fear the loss of his/her relationship with the custodial parent through remarriage. Anger and deviant behavior of the children may result, which often produces further loss .

After the remarriage, the children must share their parent with another adult and perhaps with other children. They wonder how often they will see their biological parent. They may be deeply concerned about whether there will be a place for them in the new household unit. Teenagers may be asked to give up their role as man of the house or father's helper and return to being a child again. One such situation involved a stepmother who came bursting into the family in which her new husband had lived with his 16 year daughter. The teenager had cleaned and cooked for her father for 2 years following her mother's death. Her new stepmother wanted to take charge, pushing her out of the kitchen. The sense of loss the young woman experienced was so acute that the teenager tried to come between the new couple to regain her former status and position in the household.

There are also less easily recognized losses: the dream of what the former marriage was going to be even for the spouse who initiated the divorce, or the lifelong expectations of what marriage would be like for a person not previously married who was marrying a person with children. The task of letting go of these fantasies and dreams is so difficult that many go through times of anger, then sorrow before accepting the reality.

When the divorce finally takes place, even if the marriage has been miserable, the parents experience the loss of a dream. The children are confronted with a parental loss that they have not chosen. At the time of remarriage, the parent and particularly the children may still be grieving their respective losses. In addition, the children experience a second loss when their custodial parent remarries, seemingly abandoning them. Many children believe that they are not gaining another parent but are being abandoned by their only remaining parent. Hence, many children feel rejected. The new stepparent is faced with helping the children deal with their loss and feelings of anger, guilt, rejection and despair. This can be a great source of stress to stepparents who enter remarriage believing the myth of instant love: that stepchildren will immediately love and appreciate them as their new parents. Stepparents feel confused and disappointed when their stepchildren withdraw from them.

Dealing With Divided Loyalties

Children often experience a sense of divided loyalty toward their custodial parents and their new stepparents. A child may view the stepparent as an intruder and cling to the custodial parent. During the divorce period the children and the custodial parent are both experiencing a loss and often enter into an exceptionally close relationship. When remarriage occurs, the custodial parent or the children may have difficulty letting go. In addition, because the new husband and wife do not easily have time alone together, he or she may feel jealous of the attention the spouse gives to the children. Thus, the stepparent is faced with both a spouse and stepchildren who have their loyalties divided. The stress caused by this situation often makes the stepparent feel jealous, resentful, and disappointed. A way of handling these crises is to provide ample opportunity, time and energy for the expression of these concerns. Each member must be afforded the opportunity to express his/her concerns and feelings and to contribute to effective solutions.

Resolving Issues With Former Partners

Former Partners can create problems that are by definition related to the first marriage. Studies have found that both spouses in a stepfamily experience stress as a result of three major problems: (1) custody and visitation difficulties, (2) children being upset by the former partner's telephone calls, broken promises, or late arrivals, and (3) competition between current and former spouse. In addition, jealousy often results if the stepparent's partner is preoccupied with emotional baggage left over from his or her first marriage. These unresolved feelings toward a former partner often stir up anger and rivalry in the remarriage. The unresolved emotional baggage often takes the following form. Although spouses hope that the remarriage may offer them a "new lease on life", they may fear that it will not last, because marriage never has in their lives. They fear that they might repeat past mistakes. When these fears become a preoccupation, a self fulfilling prophesy can be put into effect. The solution to this problem often extends beyond the objectivity and resources of the new family system and often therapy is the best solution. At times, these issues may be too emotionally charged, needing an objective viewpoint to effectively resolve them.

Reducing Role Confusion

The role of the stepparent becomes the measure of the step-family's development. The degree to which all members accept and provide a meaningful role for him/herself determines how well established the family's role and rules will be by the immediate family members, other relatives and outsiders. Perhaps the greatest source of stress in stepparenting results from the fact that the stepparent role is not clearly defined. The stepparent is a newcomer--many times the intruder or interloper--to an established family system. There is usually an attempt by an existing system to expel a foreign body. Initially, because the stepparent is an intruder, there may be an attempt, either overtly or covertly, to expel him or her. This discomfort and upheaval may be the result of children not knowing what to expect from the stepparent, since the role of the stepparent is ambiguous and ill-defined.

Because there are few models for a stepparent, it is a difficult task to prepare for the role. There is no legally sanctioned role; the stepparent-stepchild relationship confers no rights and imposes no obligations. Experiences and circumstances then reinforce the reality that the stepparent is a non-parent. The role of the stepparent gradually develops over time through shared experiences and involvement with the family.

Deciding on the Role of Discipline

Remarriage involving children brings with it instant parenthood. Sharing the parental role as an instant parent is a major source of stress for the stepparents. A problem faced by stepparents as they try to share the parental role is the discipline of the children. Effective discipline is a major key to the integration of the stepparent into the family. There are many problems around discipline faced by stepfamilies. There could be different methods of discipline. The custodial parent may experience difficulty in sharing the role of disciplinarian with the stepparent. The custodial parent may believe that the stepparent is picking on the child. Custodial parents often feel defensive and may feel inadequate when stepparents criticize their children. The child may refuse to obey the stepparent. There could have been an absence of children in the stepparent's prior marriage and hence no prior parenting experience and there could be a previous lack of discipline by the custodial parent during the single parent period that spills over into the stepparenting situation. Oftentimes what occurs is that the stepparent remains an outsider with regard to discipline while the custodial parent functions as sole authority figure in the family. As a result, matters of discipline are often left unresolved and the lines of authority remain unclear.

Something Old and Something New: The Development of New Traditions

When stepfamilies begin, daily and personal activities are thrown into disarray. Things will never be the same again, nor should they be. One immediate obstacle to becoming an integrated stepfamily is the numerous changes that require adjustments, including new ways of doing things and especially changes in values. Decisions need to be made concerning new sets of roles, rules, and traditions for the new household. In addition, meaningful traditions from any member's past need to be maintained, whenever possible. This is necessary in order to demonstrate respect for individual members' preferred way of doing things and that to demonstrate to the children that there is neither a right way or a wrong way of doing things. The stepfamily needs to emphasize that everyone's input is needed in order to creatively develop effective solutions. This needs to be an on-going process. In this manner, important old traditions are maintained and new traditions develop, adapting to the changing system.

Forming New Interpersonal Relationships

In a nuclear family the couple has the opportunity to solidify their relationship before the children are added. This is not the case in a stepfamily, in which the new couple may be attempting to have a honeymoon in the middle of a crowd. Also, there are parent-child relationships of longer duration than the relationship of the new couple. Frequently, children are dropped on the doorstep of a remarried couple who have not planned to include them in their new household. Everyone may feel uneasy and trapped. The parent of the newcomers may feel guilty at the unhappiness displayed on all sides and may push for quick stepparent-stepchild relationships, increasing the tension. There may be guilt, anger and frustration often followed by rejection and a sense of alienation. This can be particularly devastating for the stepfamily unit if the dissension interferes with the marital pair.

Strengthening the Marriage

The healthy development of the marriage often suffers with the premature presence of children , as is often the case in remarriages. The demands of childrearing may distract from, if not interfere with, the development of a healthy marital relationship. For example, time for each other is often short-circuited by other family duties; everyone may feel uneasy and trapped. Couples in stepfamilies have many conflicting forces that can weaken their relationship. For example, they may feel guilty at forming a new adult-adult relationship because it seems to be a betrayal of their earlier parent-child relationships; there may be divisive behavior on the part of the children who may still retain the fantasy of getting their biological parents back together again; there may be nonacceptance of the new partner and children by stepgrandparents or other close relatives and there may be neglect of the needs of stepfamilies by many institutions such as the schools, churches, and legal codes. In addition, there may be fears of repeating past mistakes. There may be inequality issues, such as unequal financial funds upon entering the marital relationship. There may be extended family ties to the former partner.

These internal and external stresses for remarried couples require that they make time to nourish their relationship, remaining conscious that sustaining a commitment to one another will serve to stabilize the new household unit. Such a commitment also acts as a model for the children as they grow up and separate form the family, establishing their own adult relationships.

In stepfamilies, the most crucial unit is the marital one, which needs to be given special consideration. The marriage is the bonding unit that caused the stepfamily to come into being. It requires nurturing if the stepfamily is to continue in a healthy manner. Weekly time must be set aside for the couple to spend alone, along with daily quiet time. Open communication, keeping each other informed and involved in the daily activities of the household is crucial. The children find marital emphasis comforting because they begin to see it as strong and united. They then can trust that it also will be strong and united for them. Such role modeling eventually will aid the children in eventually separating from the family and establishing their own healthy adult relationships.

Household Management

Another complexity facing the newly formed stepfamily is how to financially and logistically manage the affairs of the household. For example, Johnny has soccer practice; Anne-Marie has a dance recital; Paul has a dentist appointment, and Mom has to do the grocery shopping. How is all this accomplished between 4 and 6 p.m.?

Weekly meetings are often an effective way of managing these concerns. Here all concerns can be identified and prioritized, and the means for effectively achieving these goals can be explored. This process will be needed again and again to provide for the airing of personal feelings and thoughts. Finally, each member in the stepfamily needs to accept another basic tenet of the stepfamily system: Parents cannot be all things to all children at all times. Family meetings then provide the opportunity for members to express feelings about what cannot be.

There seems to be three phases to the process of achieving stepfamily integration. First the family must accomplish a common history by sharing memories of the past. This requires coming to terms with the past in the context of the present, which then constitutes the second phase. Third, these processes then trigger the activation of the family's own inner resources. As the authentic issues that have been avoided are addressed, family members' feelings of being trapped by one another yield to an expanded sense of possibility. Instead of reducing each other to roles, family members can now become three dimensional persons, and through that transformation they can begin to use one another to create a common culture.

Reference: Atwood, Joan D. (1990). 10 necessary steps to stepfamily integration. Marriage and Family Living. 20-25.

Joan D. Atwood, Ph.D. is the Director of the Graduate Programs in Marriage and Family Therapy and Director of the Marriage and Family Clinic at Hofstra University. Dr. Atwood is past President of the New York State Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and was awarded the Long Island Family Therapist of the Year award for outstanding contributions to the field.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

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