Not getting your reasonable needs met by others in your life be they family, friends, and even casual acquaintances? Consider that the problem may be a lack of communication skills on your part. Here's the fix that can serve you forever, strengthen your relationships, get your needs met, and who knows - maybe even promote world peace.
Like pieces of a garment pattern, each communication ability makes more sense when seen as part of the whole concept.
1. “Process awareness” is the foundation skill of effective verbal communication. It is being aware, without judgment, moment by moment, of your and your partner’s key attitudes, physical and emotional feelings (including hunches and intuitions), thoughts (inner voices), real communication skills, and other needs and objective awareness, and, finally, how you are talking together. Use “process awareness” in all key situations, including when you are alone. With practice, it becomes a habit.
2. “Metatalk” is honest, clear, and cooperative discussion with a partner about how you are communicating together. It is based on mutual respect and process awareness, and uses a special vocabulary. You build this language over time to your own personal values and style of communicating.
3. “Empathic listening” is a conscious decision to: suspend your opinions and other needs for the moment; briefly feedback your sense of your partner’s main thoughts, feelings, and needs and vigilantly and objectively note their reactions. This is used when your partner’s emotions are intense and he or she cannot listen to you. Listening empathically does not, however, mean you agree with your partner. Mastering these first three skills is essential for effective “assertion” and “problem solving.”
4. “Assertion” (the skill or art of) is: clearly knowing what you really need, right now; asking for it plainly and without guilt; calmly expecting a defensive response; respectfully listening to it; and then, firmly repeating these steps until you either get (1.) agreement, (2.) an acceptable compromise, or (3.) switch to the last skill, “problem solving.”
There are three effective assertion essentials: (1.) Valuing yourself and your partner’s need to communicate equally; (2.) firmly believing that your present needs are legitimate; and (3.) knowing that if you are making a request, compromise and “No” are okay; or, if you are making a demand, they are not okay.
5. “Problem solving” is used to meet enough of everyone’s real needs when people disagree. This skill involves cooperatively uncovering what each person really needs now, and creatively brainstorming all options to evolve a win-win solution. Effective “problem solving” uses all of the other four skills and requires self-respect and mutual respect, optimism, imagination, patience, and good will. Well used, the power of this skill is enormous.
We rarely study the skills we rely on the most to get many of our daily and business needs met. Effective verbal communication happens when each person gets his or her major needs met enough and feels good enough about the way he or she did and each person involved.
A powerful key to success that most people are unaware of is the non-verbal relationship messages that we get from each other all the time. Only when we each decode these face, body, and voice-dynamic signals as, “You see me as a respected equal here,” can effective communication work. If any partner reads, “You seem to feel ‘one-up’ or ‘one-down’ to me,” communication withers. A deadly variation, “I see me as ‘one-down’ also steadily wrecks the outcome of any communication.
The three most basic verbal communication tools to build are: a healthily love and respect for yourself and your own needs; an equal respect for every partner’s worth, dignity, and needs; and, a knowledge and proactive use of all five of these skills.
Reading about these skills will change little. Trying them patiently and with cautious optimism will cause positive communication and relationship changes, over time. The more you use communication basics and skills to do win-win problem solving, the more automatic and effective it becomes—a priceless life-long road to success.
Relationships in blended/stepfamilies are new, untested, and not a given as they are in traditional families. Even when everyone is in tune, what is missing is the comfort of knowing that there is a bond taken for granted, a biological bond of caring and love. Now, outward signals and signs are continuously needed to show that caring and loving, or respect, really exist. Children in blended/stepfamilies also have at least one extra set of grandparents and extended family which can leave everyone on both sides confused about what to do.
These children become siblings, residential stepsiblings, nonresidential stepsiblings, residential half-siblings, and nonresidential half-siblings. There are even two subtypes of half-sibling roles: those of children related by blood to only one of the adults, and the half-sibling role of the mutual child. Children also have step-grandparents and ex-step-grandparents.
Even though blended/stepfamilies are a large segment of the American families today, our language has not yet caught up with the proliferation of new family roles. As family members separate and join new families, the new kin do not so much replace as add to kin from the first marriage. What are the new relatives to be called? There may be stepparents, step-grandparents, and stepsiblings, but what, for instance does a child call the new wife that her or his non-custodial father has married? Or, if a child alternates between the two households in a joint-custody arrangement, where does he or she call “home,” and where is his or her “family”? It takes the entire family working together to make the adjustment easier for everyone.
Stepfamilies look pretty much like biological families. They have many common characteristics. And, they also differ in about 60 important ways. There are commonsense things that work in an average biological family that will not work, or will even backfire, in a normal multi-home stepfamily. For example, an earnest stepfamily adult (or co-grandparent) believing they must quickly love their young step-kin just like their own blood will usually stress everyone out, starting with themselves. The reality? Shoot for initial mutual respect.
This stepfamily identity-formation involves members gradually clarifying and melding ideas on who has what “jobs” in their multi-home family, including non-custodial biological parents, their new spouses, step-grandparents, ex in-laws, and half-siblings. The reality is that grandparents can see a new child as altering their estate bequests, or as an exciting blessing and joy.
Therapists, clergy, doctors, and teachers can often cause unintended confusion by using labels that do not emotionally fit for a given stepfamily. As authority figures, their choice of title can carry more weight (especially with kids) than a non-professional’s. Most stepfamilies find it best not to force names or titles on members, but to experiment over time and consider the comfort levels of all key people involved, including both biological parents and all grandparents. Each family will evolve its own titles—there is no absolute right way to label here.
Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect, http://amzn.to/stepfamily
The roles of stepmother and stepfather are not easy, a confusing mix of similarities and differences to that of biological mother and father roles. Equally baffling are the alien roles of stepson, stepdaughter, stepsibling, and half sibling.
Teenagers, even in the best of biologically intact families, are capable of making your hair stand on end. Multiply that a few times over and you have an idea of the havoc they’re capable of within the stepfamily mix – a situation where constructive discipline often goes begging. Traditional biological – family discipline often backfires, creating even less harmony, security and order, leaving everyone wondering not only what should be done but by whom.
Do you and your mate disagree on what “effective” discipline is? Do you and your spouse discipline through pain, guilt and frustration instead of using discipline to guide, teach and protect by respectfully asserting yourself? Do you usually enjoy being a stepparent, or do you endure it? As a stepparent do you:
Feel uncomfortable with, or unsure of, your authority?
Feel significantly criticized about how you discipline your stepchild by someone whose opinion matters?
Feel too little disciplinary support from your partner, i.e., you often feel “It’s me against them?”
Feel significantly disliked and disrespected by your stepchild and feel hurt, resentful, torn, and guilty?
Perhaps you honestly don’t like your stepchild – which shapes how you co-parent him or her. Your partner may want you to discipline his child differently (more strict/less strict/more friendship), and you don’t really want to or don’t know how.
The first step is to adopt a long-term problem-solving outlook. The short-term rifle shot of “I want Jenny to start cleaning up her room now” isn’t going to work. Adopt a co-parent, partnership attitude: “This is our problem,” instead of “It’s me against you here.” Accept that it’s not a matter of simple “obedience” or “the mess in her room.” Effective discipline is about a group of deeper unmet needs that you and your partner need to uncover together, focus on one at a time, and resolve over time.
Work with your partner to develop the skill and confidence needed to spot and dismantle toxic relationship triangles. Discipline conflicts promote them, which makes lasting solutions all the more evasive.
SORTING IT OUT
When your stepchild disobeys and efforts to gain his or her consistent cooperation aren’t working, you need to look at the real problems underneath the defiance. When your stepchildren haven’t grieved their losses enough, you and your partner (including ex-mates) need to do this together and with compassion. Without exception, all stepfamilies are based on major sets of broken bonds, i.e., losses, for adults and kids alike; the loss from a gradual or sudden breakup of their biological family through separation and divorce, death, or desertion. Surprisingly, another set of broken bonds comes from remarriage and/or people from different families moving in together.
Children (biological and step) often test for safety, not because they’re rejecting you. If this is the case, support their needs, learn specifically what it will take for them to feel safe, and assert your needs patiently while they test.
Your stepchildren may be overwhelmed with their many developmental and adjustment tasks in this new household and may be paralyzed or angry about having to do them, through no fault of their own. Pay attention, often steady support, and praise their progress as they adjust, over time.
As a stepparent, you may be trying to discipline too soon. You have to earn your stepchild’s respect and trust over many months, after the wedding. Whenever practical, let your mate set limits and enforce consequences. Concentrate on earning the child’s trust and respect, without being a doormat. Assume disciplinary authority gradually.
Does your stepchild perceive (correctly?) that the limits you set are disrespectful demands instead of requests? If so, learn communication skills and change your attitude. Your message needs to become one of equal respect.
Your partner, your stepchild’s other (biological) parent, or someone else may be sabotaging your disciplinary authority by either overtly or covertly encouraging your stepchild to disobey you. Confront this person respectfully and firmly about his or her actions (but not his or her character, which will cause the person to become defensive and sabotage your intent). Work to uncover the real needs underneath the sabotage and solve these problems, if possible. Free your stepchild from being caught in the middle.
You might have unrealistic expectations of yourself, your partner, and/or your stepchild – e.g., I’m an adult, so my stepchild must willingly respect and obey me. Wrong. Adjust any unrealistic expectations and check the results over time.
Your teenage stepchild might be experimenting appropriately with early independence – just as you’re trying to get your stepfamily to bond together. Become an expert on what teems need to be able to break away safely. Refocus from bonding, obedience and acceptance to helping the child leave your new nest, over time. Try to see the “rebellion” as normal testing, not personal rejection – and respectfully assert your boundaries while the teen learn.”
YOU WILL NEED PATIENCE
Every one of these problems is “normal.” Improving your stepchild discipline problems will ground and empower you. Guard against wasting valuable time, energy, hope and patience on ineffective surface solutions. Earn the deep satisfaction and joy of raising relatively healthy, productive children.
Take heart. Over time, your stepfamily can grow to be a reliable, healing refuge of warmth, contentment, safety, respect, fun, and support. To get and savor these rare plums, the earliest challenge for you and your partner – and then your kids, ex-mates, and key relatives – is to clearly accept that together you make up a difference kind of normal family: a stepfamily. If you do not accept your true stepfamily identity in your hearts, you are at great ongoing risk of striving endlessly to be what you are not – a biological family. For most co-parents and minor kids, this becomes increasingly stressful and frustrating. It’s like trying desperately to make your poodle into a pony. It can’t, and you won’t.
Ultimately, the unexpected complexities, confusion, disillusionment, and lack of informed help combine to crack and ultimately destroy so many stepfamilies. In stunned disbelief, previously divorced biological parents and their minor (and grown) kids find themselves living the horrors, agony, financial, and conceal convulsions of family breakup and divorce – again.
Gloria Lintermansis the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect (Llumina Press). For more information: http://amzn.to/stepfamily
The ideal “modern family” should have at least 3+ children, be comfortable on camera and be active in their community.
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Learn to manifest your needs and bring positive and permanent change to your life, become the change you want to see in your family, and discover new possibilities and opportunities by reprogramming your internal dialogue!
"I’ve been caught on the crazy-go-round of living my life trapped in negative thinking. I’ve experienced a painful divorce that ended my first marriage. I know first hand what it’s like to be on the short end of the adultery stick. I had very little time to regroup and pull myself together...five months after my divorce was final, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This was my wake-up call. I knew I had to do life differently. In 2002, I started collecting inspiring quotes and reading positive and life affirming stories of others. I started peeling back the layers until I got to the root cause of my thoughts and beliefs. I kept that which was true for me and discarded the rest. I replaced misperceptions and untruths with the wholesome what is so for me.
This book began as an idea to inspire women who’ve been caught in the downward spiral of incessant negative thinking and over analyzing. Our lives don’t have to be messy, complicated, or chaotic. We can choose to participate in the drama or do something different. The choice is always ours."
As a step and biological Mom, and the author of a book on stepfamilies which involved not only my own experience but research with stepfamily authorities and other stepfamilies, I am aware, all to often, of divorce among these families.
One reason is that there are no understood guidelines for these families. Society tends to apply the rules of first marriages, while ignoring the complexities of stepfamilies.
A little clarification: In stepfamilies the child(ren) is of one co-parent; in a blended families, there are children from both co-parents, and virtually all family members have recently experienced a primary relationship loss.
Three potential problem areas are: Financial burdens, Role ambiguity, and the Children’s Negative Feelings when they don’t want the new family to “work.”
Husbands sometimes feel caught between the often impossible demands of their former family and their present one. Some second wives also feel resentful about the amount of income that goes to the husband’s first wife and family.
Legally, the stepparent has no prescribed rights or duties, which may result in tension, compromise, and role ambiguity.
Another complication of role ambiguity is that society seems to expect acquired parents and children to instantly love each other. In reality, this is often just not the case.
The third reason for a difficult stepparent-child relationship might be that a child does not want this marriage to work, and so, acts out with hostility, since children commonly harbor fantasies that their biological parents will reunite. Stepchildren can prove hostile adversaries, and this is especially true for adolescents.
Clinicians say that the role of stepmother is more difficult than that of stepfather, because stepmother families may more often be born of difficult custody battles and/or particularly troubled family relations. Society is also contradictory in expecting loving relationships between stepmothers and children while, at the same time, portraying stepmothers as cruel and even abusive (Snow White, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel are just a few bedtimestories we are all familiar with).
Men who marry women with children come to their new responsibilities with a mixed bag of emotions, far different from those that make a man assume responsibility for his biological children. A new husband might react to an “instant” family with feelings which range from admiration to fright to contempt.
The hidden agenda is one of the first difficulties a stepfather runs into: The mother or her children, or both, may have expectations about what he will do, but may not give him a clear picture of what those expectations are. The husband may also have a hidden agenda.
A part of the stepchildren’s hidden agenda is the extent to which they will let the husband play father.
The key is for everyone to work together.
The husband, wife, their stepchildren, and their non-custodial biological parent can all negotiate new ways of doing things by taking to heart and incorporating the information you are about to learn—the most positive alternative for everyone.
One Day at a Time
Now you have a pretty good feel for what everyone is going through. How do you start to make it better -- a process that can take years? First you must be very clear about what you want and expect from this marriage and the individuals involved, including yourself. What are you willing to do? In a loving and positive way, now is the time to articulate, negotiate, and come to an agreement on your expectations and about how you and your partner will behave.
The best marriages are flexible marriages, but how can you be flexible if you do not know what everyone needs right now. And, this may change over time, so there must be room for that to happen as well.
In flexible marriages partners are freer to reveal the parts of their changing selves that no longer fit into their old established patterns. You couldn’t possibly have known at the beginning of your new family what you know now and will learn later.
Spouses may feel the “conflict taboo” even more than in a first marriage. It is understandable that you want to make this marriage work. You might feel too “battle-scarred” to open “a can of worms.” And so, you gloss over differences that need airing and resolution—differences over which you may not have hesitated to wage war in your first marriage. Avoiding airing your differences is a serious mistake. It is important for you to understand your own and your partner’s needs because society hasn’t a clue how stepfamilies should work. Unless you talk about your expectations, they are likely to be unrealistic.
Since roughly one third of stepfamilies do survive—even thrive—we know that stepfamilies can grow the safety, support, and comfort that only healthy families provide. Consider the following for living your step/blended family life well:
You must assess, as a couple, how well you accept and resolve conflicts with each other and key others. Learn and steadily work to develop verbal skills: listen with empathy, effectively show your needs, and problem-solve together. The emotional highs of new love can disguise deep disagreement on parenting, money, family priorities, and home management, i.e., values that will surface after the wedding.
Together, accept your prospective identity as a normal, unique, multi-home stepfamily. You need to admit and resolve strong disagreements, well enough for positive results.
You must balance and co-manage all of these tasks well enough on a daily basis to: build a solid, high-priority marriage; enjoy your kids; and, to keep growing emotionally and spiritually as individual people.
Know and take comfort in the fact that confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security—and often (not always) the love—that adults and kids long for.
Gloria Lintermans is the author of The Secrets to Stepfamily Success: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect,http://amzn.to/stepfamily
In any stepfamily at least three people are struggling to form new family relationships while still coping with reminders of the past. Each family member brings expectations and attitudes that are as diverse as the personalities involved. Creating a successful stepfamily, as with any family, is easier for all when each member tries to understand the feelings and motivations of the others as well as their own. Ideally, discuss the realities of living in a stepfamilybefore the marriage.
W can you do? Plan ahead. Look carefully at your motives, and those of your future spouse, for wanting to get married. Get to know him or her as well as possible under all sorts of circumstances. Consider the possible impact of contrasting lifestyles. If your lifestyles clash, the children are the ones caught in the middle. Discuss how your lives will change by bringing two families together. What do you agree and disagree on when it comes to your concept of child-rearing.
Talk honestly with your children about the changes this marriage will bring: new living arrangements, new family relationships, and how this will affect their relationship with their non-custodial parent. Give your children ample opportunity to get to know your future spouse well. Consider your children’s feelings, but don’t allow them to make your decision about remarriage.
Discuss the disposition of family finances with your future spouse. An open and honest review of financial assets and responsibilities may reduce unrealistic expectations and misunderstandings. Understand that there are bound to be periods of doubt, frustration, and resentment.
Any marriage is complex and challenging, but the problems of stepfamilies are more complicated because more people, relationships, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs are involved than in a first marriage. Because its members have not shared past experiences, the new family may have to redefine rights and responsibilities to fit your individual and combined needs. Time and understanding are key allies in negotiating the transition from single-parent to stepfamily status.
In a good stepfamily every member is treated with dignity, care, and respect (initially love may not be in the equation). A healthy step or biological family is one in which each person feels the support to grow to his or her full potential.
If you have already jumped into the role of stepmother or father, the following three points can ease the transition process for everyone and give you breathing space as you continue to explore and use the ideas presented in this book.
Help stepchildren to get over their loss (the divorce or death of a parent) if they have not yet (it takes about two years). Or, perhaps, regardless of the time lapsed, they have not been able to because there was no environment of emotional support and trust in which they could have their feelings and come to terms with the “I wish I had(s)” or feelings that they somehow caused the divorce (as children commonly feel). They need a climate of emotional safety to not only express, but acknowledge their feelings rather than just blindly acting out with rage. They need to heal their loss before they can move on emotionally to creating and being part of a new stepfamily. You see your new marriage as completing your life, but a child may see it as something which will take away from theirs. You see it as a plus; they see it as a minus.
It is more important to develop a relationship of caring, communication, and respect with a stepchild than to hope for or expect instant love. Love takes time; it must grow. Be real with your emotions. What you resist persists, what you accept lightens. Encourage your children and stepchildren to be real about their feelings. Set limits on behavior, not feelings; for example, you cannot allow them to act out their anger by burning down the house, but you can let them express their feelings that they wish this new “family” didn’t exist.
Let your relationship with stepchildren develop gradually. Don’t expect too much too soon—from the children or yourself. Children need time to adjust, accept, and belong. So do parents. Don’t try to replace a lost parent; be an additional parent. Children need time to mourn the parent lost through divorce or death. Expect to deal with confusing feelings—your own, your spouse’s, and the children’s. Anxiety about new roles and relationships may heighten the competition among family members for love and attention as loyalties are questioned. Children may need to understand that their relationship with you is valued but different from your relationship with your new spouse and that one cannot replace the other. You love and need them both, but in different ways.
Help the child that goes back and forth between parents.Their lives are full of good-byes. Help children accept painful feelings so that these feelings can become smaller and more manageable. Let yourself and your children feel, so that everyone can heal. An idealized expectation becomes a prison while accepting the truth will set you free. If you are marrying into an existing family, TV and movies may have helped create unrealistic expectations of what a family is and how it functions. What it is not is a fairy tale of politeness and caring.
Why Most Stepfamilies Fail
One in three typical stepfamilies do succeed, long term. In order to find out how to accomplish this, you must be willing to first explore why most stepfamilies break apart. There seem to be five interlinked reasons why most average stepfamilies crash, often within 10 years.
The adults in many stepfamilies seem to come from families which were, to some degree, less than functional. Without awareness and personal growth, these adults unconsciously pass similar emotional traits on to their kids, repeating and spreading a cycle of unreasonable need and an inability to get these needs met.
Most stepparents resist fully accepting that they are forming a multi-home stepfamily, which will differ in over 60 ways from the one-home biological family they are used to. To make matters worse, many people overtly or unconsciously associate “step-” with failure, wicked, unnatural, second-best, and inferior. They do not want to learn about stepfamilies, let alone be one. This ignorance can be fatal, both as a partner and parent. Typical multi-home stepfamilies are amazingly complex and often take five to eight years, or more, to stabilize. Many unaware, love-dazed couples expect it will all come together in five to eight months.
One or more new-stepfamily kids or adults are often blocked in mourning their agonizing prior losses. Every remarriage follows traumatic endings from previous divorce or death. Remarriage and/or cohabiting cause more major losses (and gains). Parents who did not see their parents grieve well, regardless of why they were grieving, can’t grieve themselves. How could they have taught you how to grieve. They repressed and avoided intense sadness and/or rage, and so were stressed and ruled by these emotions for years. Incomplete grief promotes crippling addictions and illnesses, nourishes post-divorce hostilities, splits biological kids emotionally between warring ex-mates, and prevents even adult step-kids from accepting the kindest of stepparents. Blocked mourning has clear symptoms. Once recognized, frozen grief can be thawed, over time.
For most, the decision to remarry is made in a shared, wonderfully distorted state-of-mind: romantic love. Combined with the illusion that stepfamilies are not all that different from biological families, these distortions often cloud an awareness of what the couple is really undertaking, and what practical preparations they should make. Sobering divorce statistics imply that almost three of four stepfamily adults marry the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, and at the wrong time. They commit to mutual illusions.
The final reason for such widespread re-divorce is that our media and most communities offer little or no informed, effective support for remarried people and their kids. There are few or no stepfamily co-parenting classes, support groups, newsletters, or aware counselors. Few clergy, teachers, therapists, mediation lawyers and judges, or medical professionals know how different, complex, and risky multi-home stepfamilies are. Stepfamily re-divorce seems to be a social-science black hole, though so many remarriages involving prior kids are highly stressful and ultimately fail.
Why Do Some Stepfamilies Survive
However, since roughly one out of four stepfamilies do survive—even thrive—we know that stepfamilies can grow the safety, support, warm closeness, strength, and comfort that only healthy families provide. The following, explored in detail throughout this book, can insure your success:
Each adult must learn the symptoms, if any, of their own troubled childhood. You must identify your major destructive emotional traits and evolve a self-motivated, high-priority personal plan for healing. You must commit to it, and begin. Next, evaluate the odds that your prospective partner may have troubling emotional traits. If so, unless they are aware of their problems and are in solid recovery, settle for friendship.
You must assess, as a couple, how well you accept and resolve conflicts with each other and key others. Learn and steadily work to develop important verbal skills: talking about how you communicate, empathic listening, effective assertion, and problem solving. Learn to manage your inner and personal conflicts. The emotional highs of new love can disguise deep disagreement on parenting, money, family priorities, and home management, i.e., values that will surface after the wedding.
Together, accept your prospective identity as a normal, unique, multi-home stepfamily versus “We’re just a family” (with unreasonable expectations). Then, stepfamily adults and kids (minor and grown) can try to agree on who belongs in it. You need to admit and resolve strong disagreements, well enough for positive results.
Learn how your stepfamily differs from typical biological families, and the related typical stepfamily myths. Then, discuss realistic expectations for each of your many marriage and family roles. Be realistic, because without steady work on these, you and your kids will in all probability divorce within seven to 10 years.
You and your partner must learn the five stages of healthy grieving, and the specific symptoms of incomplete grief. Then run a check on yourself, your partner, and each child, for major prior losses. If anyone is seriously blocking mourning their unique losses, you and your partner (including ex-mates) must agree on a plan to deal with that. And you must act on your plan. Consider specifically what each child and adult will lose with your marriage and living together. Evolve a clear policy for good grief and use it to guide and support all of you through your inevitable life losses.
You and your partner should (separately) explore the following questions honestly: Why should I remarry? Why now? Why this person and their kids, ex (if not their first marraige)? If I have to, can I often put this adult ahead of my own kids without major resentment or guilt? (Stepfamily parents are inevitably forced to choose and often.) Can my partner do that?
After the wedding, merge and stabilize your two biological families’ assets, beliefs, habits, values, rituals, priorities, and lifestyles. Everyone in your new multi-home stepfamily must give up some cherished things and accept new things. Support each other in mourning key personal losses.
Consistently resolve the many values and loyalty conflicts that will result from your marriage. The most important and dramatic conflict of all needs to be mastered. Each parent must decide whose needs usually come first with them, their partner’s or their children’s. To protect your kids from another divorce trauma, you might need to put your marriage first. Also, clarify whose needs control each of your stepfamily’s homes. Learn how to problem-solve effectively together.
Evolve and use a stepfamily goal plan. Stabilize your stepfamily roles. Revise most of your old biological family roles. Evolve new intra- and inter-home rules for these roles that everyone can accept well enough. Help each other admit and grieve key personal losses along the way.
You must consistently balance and co-manage all of these tasks, plus a myriad of other responsibilities well enough on a daily basis to: build a solid, high-priority marriage; enjoy your kids; and, to keep growing emotionally and spiritually as individual people. And, don’t forget to laugh, play, and relax together along the way.
Know and take comfort in the fact that well-run by knowledgeable, confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), this modern version of an ancient family form can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security—and often (not always) the love—that adults and kids long for.
Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect, http://amzn.to/stepfamily
Typical multi-home stepfamilies are similar to intact biological families in a number of ways. At the same time, they also differ structurally, developmentally, and dynamically in oversixtyways! People unaware of these differences, and what they mean to typical adults, kids and supporters, risk unconsciously using inappropriate or harmful biological family norms and expectations to guide their stepfamily perceptions, goals, and decisions. This is like trying to play baseball with soccer equipment and basketball rules—guaranteed to create confusion, frustration, conflict, and stress that will inhibit healthy stepfamily merging and bonding, and promote growing dissatisfactions.
Learning, Teaching, and Applying Stepfamily Realities
Learning to live well in a new stepfamily has been likened to the challenges faced by a clan of Swedes pledging loyalty to a tribe of Tibetans, who all settle down together in rural Brazil. There is much for everyone to learn—new laws, customs, roles, and vocabulary. Everyone is learning to cope in a new, alien environment.
There are three distinctly new challenges facing you and your child-raising partners:
1. You will need to learn specifically how your multi-home stepfamily differs in composition, norms, and dynamics from your respective birth-families and first-marriage families.
2. You will need to use these step-realities and make time together to evolve clear and realistic personal, marital, co-parent, and multi-home stepfamily goals and expectations over time.
3. You will need to teach yourmain stepfamily differences, realities, and goals to your kids, important kin and friends, and key professionals. Keep them updated. Expect some people to misunderstand and to criticize your new values, goals, and plans—or you. Realize they probably have their own unsolved problems and/or are stuck in a biological family mode of thinking. Befriend informed others who will empathize with and support you.
Here is a sample of common stepfamily myths and realities that you’ll discover, discuss, accept, and apply:
Myth: “I love you and I must love your kids.”
Reality: “I love you and will patiently work at respecting your kids. They and I may never love each other. If we do, it will feel different than biological parent-child love, and that’s okay.
Myth: “Your or my ex-mate is not part of our family!”
Reality: “As long as your previous marriage biological children live, their other biological parent, and their new mate(s), if any, will emotionally, financially, legally, and genetically influence all of your lives. Ignoring or discounting the needs and feelings of these other adults will stress everyone for years.
Myth: “We’re just like a regular biological family.”
Reality: No, because you have two to three linked stepfamily co-parenting homes, three to six stepfamily adults, six to twelve co-grandparents, forty to ninety relatives, new alien family roles (such as stepfather, stepmother, stepsibling, for example), many major losses to mourn, and many conflicting values and customs to resolve among all your people. You are, however, normal—a normal multi-home stepfamily.
Myth: “Your or my kids will never come between us.”
Reality: Stepfamily adults’ inability to resolve clashes over one or more step-kids, including related money issues, is the most quoted reason for a stepfamily divorce. Underneath this usually lie your own unhealed wounds.
Myth: “Step parenting is pretty much like biological parenting, without the childbirth.”
Reality: While key aims of stepparents are about the same as those of biological parents, the emotional, legal, and social environments of average stepparents differ in numerous ways from typical biological parents. That usually leads to role confusion, frustration, and high stress, until all the stepfamily adults in your stepfamily agree clearly on what each stepparent’s key responsibilities are.
Myth: “Your and/or my biological kids(s) will always live with us.”
Reality: In about thirty percent of U.S. stepfamilies, one or more minor biological kids move sometime to live in the home of their other biological parent. This sends complex emotional and financial shock waves into and between the sending and receiving homes, especially if the move was on short notice or not agreed to by all involved.
Use this information to build realistic expectations for your new stepfamily homes, roles, and relationships. If you do not, collective, distorted expectations can cause great ongoing frustrations and disappointments, and even corrode your marriage. But by learning together what’s normal in average stepfamilies—early on—minimizes much of this.
Ideally, all of your stepfamily co-parenting ex-mates and key kin will join you in this goal. Be aware that some or all of your stepparents and biological parents may agree intellectually that you are a stepfamily together, but may not learn, adapt, and apply important step-realities to your expectations and relationships. If so, they risk expecting, deep down, biological family behaviors and outcomes. This will surely lead to mounting frustration, disappointment, and stress in and between your homes. This is especially true in the first years after the wedding, as alien stepfamily crises, like loyalty conflicts, begin to bloom.
Try this quick exercise. Can you can name fifteen or more structural and dynamic differences between the average step and biological families, and describe clearly how each of those differences affects your home and family relationship? Though both are four-legged animals with mouths, noses, hair, and tails, poodles aren’t ponies—despite wishing, praying, mantras, thinking, or hallucinogens.
COMPARING STEPFAMILIES AND BIOLOGICAL FAMILIES
Differences and Implications for Stepfamily Adults
Stepfamilies and biological families do have major similarities. Simultaneously, they differ structurally and dynamically in over sixty ways. If unexpected, these differences individually and collectively can startle, confuse, frustrate, and greatly stress all new stepfamily members—and their supporters.
Biological families and stepfamilies have each been around for thousands of years. They are both normal. Because in our era and culture there are many more biological families, people often judge stepfamilies as abnormal. Neither family type is inherently better; they are, however, vastly different.
Among the many confusions around stepfamilies, one stems from the terms that we all use to describe them. For clarity, let’s review the “new” terms we are using. Stepparent means any adult who provides part-time or full-time guidance, nurturing, and protection to the minor or grown biological child(ren) of their current adult romantic partner.
The stepparent may be married to his or her biological parent partner, or cohabiting with—and emotionally committed to—him or her. A stepparent is usually, but not always, the opposite gender from his or her current partner.
A stepfamily is any family where at least one regular member of a parenting home is a stepparent. Typical extended stepfamilies, i.e., kids, stepfamily adults, and all relatives, can live in many related homes and may include 100 or more members. A blended stepfamily is one where both stepfamily adults have one or more biological kids.
A stepfamily adult is any biological parent or stepparent living in a stepfamily home. A stepchild is any biological child who lives with—or visits—a biological parent’s committed adult mate. Step-kids can be grown or minor, and legally adopted by their stepparent or not.
An interesting paradox is that, depending on the yardstick you use, typical stepfamilies can be accurately seen as just like biological families, andsimultaneously verydifferent. How can this be?
Stepfamily and Biological Family Similarities
Typical stepfamilies and biological families are alike, in that:
Both family types are composed of adults and kids living together part or all of the time.
The adults are (usually) in charge of their homes, and do their best to guide, nurture, protect, teach, and prepare their dependent kids to eventually leave and live well enough on their own.
All members of each kind of family have daily needs and developmental life tasks to fulfill, as well as a range of daily activities, such as work or school, worship, socializing and play, meals, shopping, chores, and so on.
Both kinds of normal families evolve through a predictable, natural sequence of developmental stages—although stepfamilies have some different stages. For example: a minor step-kid(s)’ key task is to test to learn clearly, “Am I safe in this family, or will it break up too?” Members will need to resolve personal and family-role name confusions such as, “What should we call each other?”
Both family types periodically have conflicts between their members, and with other people and the environment. They use tangible resources such as money, phones, cars, appliances, etc., and personal resources like love, humor, time, intelligence, patience, etc., to seek resolution to their conflicts.
Step-people and people in biological families each have individual and shared hopes, fears, goals, achievements, dreams, failures, joys, health concerns, celebrations, depressions, identities, bodies, losses, etc.
Both family types naturally develop sets of personal group values, group roles (who does what) and rules (when, how, and why), a history, an identity, and some loyalty or bonding.
They both evolve with human and natural environments and interact with each as contributors and consumers.
So, when a stepfamily adult (or other) says, “Hey, we are just a regular family!” they are absolutely right. At the same time, there are over sixty differences between biological families and stepfamilies.
Stepfamily and Biological Family Differences
Average stepfamilies could not be more different than biological families! Typical multi-home stepfamilies have very different structures and developmental tasks than biological families. By these measures, they vary more from average biological families than do typical foster, single-parent, or adoptive families. In reviewing the following information, notice both the individual differences and the collective impact of all of them.
Adopt a learner’s mind. Award yourself patience, permission to mess up and learn, and strokes for the smallest triumphs. Keep your emotional knees flexed, hold hands, and enjoy the adventure and challenge together. It is worth it. Average multi-home stepfamilies are simultaneously both the same, and enormously different than, typical intact (two-parent) biological families.
What’s Normal in a Typical Stepfamily?
Once again, a stepfamily is one where one or more adults are doing part-time or full-time parenting for their romantic partner’s biological child(ren). Thus, parental cohabitation with a new adult partner after divorce or a mate’s death forms a psychological stepfamily. Post-divorce stepfamilies have legal documents that further define them: property settlement decrees, and child custody, support, visitation, and sometimes stepfamily co-parenting agreements.
Older remarrying couples whose kids are all grown still form a stepfamily. They do bypass many, but not all, of the stress of stepfamilies with dependent kids, e.g., child visitation, support, and custody conflicts. They still encounter some of the most serious common causes of stress, particularly stepfamily ignorance, unhealed childhood trauma, incomplete grief, and divisive loyalty conflicts around grandkids, wills and bequests, holidays, and key traditions.
An intact nuclear (parents and kids) biological family normally lives in one home. Typical nuclear stepfamilies live in two or three stepfamily co-parenting homes woven tightly together by child visitations, legal agreements and responsibilities, genes, history, finances, and deep emotions. The only stepfamily that lives in one home is one where all biological kids or non-custodial biological parents are dead. Even then, there are usually emotional and other ties with living former in-laws and with step-kin living in other homes.
Because stepfamilies are adults and children living and growing together, sharing concerns with work and school, pets, health, bills, chores, religion, friends, etc., they do share some average biological family traits. Yet, certain “common sense” biological family operating rules and values cannot only be ineffective, but even harmful.
Live in two or three homes linked for a decade or more by genes, child visitation, support, and custody agreements; divorce decrees and obligations, history and mementos, and strong emotions.
Always include one or more living or dead ex-spouses and their relatives, who are usually emotionally part of the family.
Are always founded on two sets of major losses: divorce or death, and remarriage and cohabiting. All three generations on both sides need to grieve these abstract and physical losses well.
Have up to thirty family roles (e.g., stepdaughter), compared to the fifteen roles in typical biological families. There are no schools or accepted social conventions for these extra fifteen roles, so they typically cause confusion and frustration in and between linked homes until a stepfamily-wide consensus evolves on them.
Include many more people. Typical multi-home, three-generation stepfamilies have over sixtymembers.
May have complex confusion over priorities, values, names, rules, holidays, inclusions, traditions, money, and loyalties.
Have common social isolation, misunderstandings, and biases to deal with.
Stepfamily adults usually have to master numerous major developmental tasks, many of which have no equivalent in biological families—with little preparation or social support.
Because stepfamilies are so different from biological families, all remarrying adults and emotionally important kin, including their prior parenting partners, should study stepfamily basics, regardless of prior biological family experience. Note that growing up as a stepchild is probably not adequate preparation for being an effective stepfamily adult.
Over time, all parenting households evolve hundreds of rules about child discipline, finances, holidays, names, privacy, money, pets, home chores, grooming, health, worship, etc. Some of these rules are unspoken while others are vocalized and clear. Because stepfamilies are so different, some “normal” biological family rules about co-living—and especially about parenting—can cause conflict rather than order. Other “normal” biological family rules about who’s in charge of the home, hygiene, privacy, interpersonal respect, clear communications, honesty, nutrition, and the like, are still relevant and applicable.
Sometimes step-people are stressed by trying to force “normal” biological family priorities on their new household. For example, pushing step-kids to accept, respect, and like (or love) their new step-relatives quickly because “kids should respect (i.e., obey) their elders” can cause major resentment, guilt, and frustration.
Brady Brunch notwithstanding, new love is usually not enough!
Relatives and friends of remarried people often mistakenly expect the new household and kin to feel and act like a biological family. They also may not approve of either the prior divorce(s) or the remarriage. Therefore, friends and relatives may be startlingly un-empathic and critical, or offer unrealistic or inappropriate (i.e., biological family) suggestions if your new stepfamily runs into unexpected problems.
Men who marry women with children come to their new responsibilities with a mixed bag of emotions. Your motivations may be far different from those that make a man assume responsibility for his biological children. As a new husband, you might react to your “instant” family with feelings that range from admiration to fright to contempt. You might even see yourself as less effective than a biological father.
A new stepfather typically enters a household headed by a mother. When a mother and her children make up a single-parent family, she tends to learn autonomy and self-confidence, and her children do more work around the house and take more responsibility in family decisions than do children in two-parent households. These are good things, but to enter such a family, you must work your way into a closed group. For one thing, mom and kids share a common history, one that does not yet include you.
Moving into your wife’s house can make you feel like the “odd man out.” It might be months before you feel comfortable and at home. In truth, initially, stepfathers do have less power relative to stepchildren, particular adolescents, when they move into the mother-child home.
You might feel out of place because of a different background or because you have a different perspective on what family life is all about. After years of living as a single-parent family, for instance, both mom and kids are likely to have evolved a chore allocation system. As a newcomer, especially if you assume the traditional male role in a two-earner remarriage, you may draw complaints that you are not contributing enough. Or, while you think it helpful not to interfere, your behavior might be seen as an unwillingness to contribute.
The “hidden agenda” is one of the first difficulties a stepfather runs into: The mother, her children, or both, may have expectations about what you will do, but may not give you a clear picture of what those expectations are. You may have a hidden agenda of your own. You may see your new stepchildren as spoiled and unruly and decide they need discipline. Or, you may find that after years of privacy, a bustling house full of children disrupts your routine.
A part of the stepchildren’s hidden agenda is the extent to which they will let you play the father. Children can be adamant in their distaste for, or jealousy of, their stepfather, or they may be ready and anxious to accept you as a “new daddy.”
Stepfathers tend to be more distant and detached than stepmothers, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some detachment might be just what’s needed in order to have a workable relationship with your stepchildren, especially during the early years of your marriage. Teenagers may be mature enough to think of you primarily as their mother’s husband rather than as a stepfather. Teens, and younger children, may be unwilling to go back to being “children”—that is, dependent on and subject to adult direction. To you, they may seem spoiled and undisciplined rather than mature. Try to keep in mind that as part of a single-parent family, their responsibilities and participation in decisions were probably encouraged. The hidden agendas of mom, children, and you may be over simple matters of everyday living, things like food preferences, personal space, and the division of labor.
Discipline is likely to be particularly tricky for everyone. Two parents rather than one now establish house rules and influence the children’s behavior, but you and your spouse may not agree. A second problem can be the influence of the biological father. To you, there may sometimes seem to be three parents instead of two—especially if the non-custodial father sees the children regularly—with the biological father wielding more influence than you, the stepfather. The key is for everyone to work together.
You might react to all of this in one of four ways. First, you might be driven away. Second, you might take control, establishing yourself as undisputed head of the household, and force the former single-parent family to accommodate your preferences. Third, you might assimilate into a family headed by a mother and have relatively little influence on the way things are done. And fourth, you, your new wife, your stepchildren, and their non-custodial biological father can all negotiate new ways of doing things by taking to heart and incorporating the information you are about to learn—the most positive alternative for everyone.
Okay. Now you have a pretty good feel for what everyone is going through. How do you start to make it better? How can you give yourself breathing space—time to catch your breath while your new family begins to come together emotionally and learns how to work together, a process that can take years? First you must be very clear about what you want and expect from this marriage and the individuals involved, including yourself. What are you willing to do? What do you need from your spouse in order to feel supported physically and emotionally? In a loving and positive way, now is the time to articulate, negotiate, and come to an agreement on your expectations and about how you and your partner will behave.
The best marriages are flexible marriages. But how can you be flexible if you do not know where you, your spouse, and the children stand and what everyone needs right now? Needs will change over time. There must be room for change. People change and promises will not prevent change. People who vow never to change often try to hide their personal growth from each other, and the result, of course, is lost intimacy. People who are not flexible, who cannot change, may be left with a permanent, but stale, relationship.
In flexible marriages, partners are freer to reveal their changing selves and the parts of themselves that no longer fit into their old established patterns. You and your partner must continue to be in touch at a deep emotional level even when the outer framework of your lives changes. The more you know, the more you grow. You couldn’t possibly have known at the beginning of your new family what you know now and will learn later. Flexibility in your relationships will enable growth rather than tearing them apart.
Get in touch with your expectations and encourage every family member to do the same so you can compare and negotiate the differences. Your goal, and your partner’s, are to actively begin to define and built a healthy, supportive relationship. Talk over specific problems. Just because you were unable to predict some of the problems, don’t let that stand in the way of dealing with them now.
It is not uncommon for people who marry again to feel reluctant to fully commit themselves emotionally, even though they want the marriage to work. The struggles of your first marriage and divorce can leave scars. When not openly acknowledged and healed, past failure, rejection, loss, and guilt can undermine a new intimate relationship without either of you understanding what is happening. One way to release these feelings is to share them, and to make it safe for your partner to do the same. Each of you needs to feel secure, respected, positive about yourself, and as comfortable as possible in your new family unit.
You may feel the “conflict taboo” even more than in your first marriage. It is understandable that you want to make this marriage work. You might feel too “battle-scarred” to open “a can of worms.” And so, you gloss over differences that need airing and resolution—differences over which you may not have hesitated to wage war in your first marriage. Avoiding airing your differences is a serious mistake. It is important for you to understand your own and your partner’s needs because society hasn’t a clue how stepfamilies should work. Unless you talk about your expectations, they are likely to be unrealistic.
Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect (Llumina Press).
All children need to believe, without ambivalence, that their lives have intrinsic worth, promise, and real meaning. And when children, step and biological, are not treated with respect, the entire stepfamily suffers. What does discipline in stepfamilies look like?
Consider the following:
Decide up front if you are all going to try to co-parent your dependent kids as a team of informed, cooperative caregivers, or as independent, competing (or indifferent) adversaries.
Accept that typical stepfamilies are very different from average one-home biological families, and often need fundamentally different rules and standards than typical biological homes.
Go slowly on changing pre-remarriage child discipline rules and making new rules and/or consequences. Ideally, biological parents should do much of the discipline with their own minor kids until the kids learn to trust and respect their stepparent(s).
Expect loyalty (or values) conflicts over child discipline issues in and between your related homes. Evolve a way to deal with them that works often for your unique stepfamily.
Try viewing discipline values that clash as different, not good/bad or right/wrong. Doing so helps avoid destructive, stressful power struggles.
Expect dependent step-kids to test and retest your home’s child discipline rules. This is (usually) far more about their learning to trust that they are safe in confusing and alien new stepfamily surroundings than it is about defiance, rebellion, or “badness.”
Help step-kids see and accept that a stepparent is not trying to replace or “become” their biological parent, but is (1.) doing parenting things like guiding, teaching, and protecting, and (2.) legitimately co-managing his or her own home.
When a stepparent is the only one available to perform child discipline—especially in a new step-home—it helps if the biological parent(s) verbally “authorize” the stepparent in front of the step-kid(s) to act in their place.
Stepparents should try not to confuse a biological parent’s natural tolerance for his or her own child’s behavior with being “too easy.”
Stepfamily adults should experiment over time with who sets the child-behavior rules, and who enforces them and how. Avoid rigid, black-and-white child discipline rules.
A stepparent who resents a stepchild talking disrespectfully to a biological parent should try something like, “I don’t like the way you’re talking to my wife (husband)” rather than “…to your mom (dad).”
If step-kids visit their other stepfamily adult(s) regularly, it helps if all stepfamily adults inform each other of key child discipline values, rules, and consequences in their respective homes, and try for a collective united front where possible.
It can be helpful if child discipline, usually considered from the stepparent's point of view, is explored via stepchild’s perspective. Consider the following "memo" from and about your stepchild:
Set clear limits for me. I know very well I shouldn’t have all that I ask for. I’m only testing you, which is part of my job. I need a parent, not just a pal. Be firm with me. I prefer it though I won’t say so. It lets me know where I stand.
Lead me rather than force me. If you force me, I learn that power is what really counts. I’ll respond much better to being guided.
Be consistent. If you’re not, it confuses me and makes me try harder to get away with everything I can.
Make promises that you can keep, and keep the promises you make. That grows my trust in you and my willingness to cooperate.
Know that I’m just being provocative when I say and do things to upset you. If you fall for my provocations, I’ll try for more such excitement and victories.
Stay calm when I say “I hate you.” I don’t really mean it. I just want you to feel upset and sorry for what I feel you’ve done to me.
Help me feel big rather than small. When I feel little, I need to act like a “big shot” or a whiney cripple.
Let me do the things I can do for myself. Your doing them for me makes me feel like a baby, and I may keep putting you in my service.
Correct me in private. I can hear you better if you talk quietly with me alone, rather than with other people present. Talk about my behavior when our conflict has calmed down. In the heat of battle somehow my listening gets bad and my cooperation is even worse. It’s okay for you to take the actions needed, but let’s not talk about it until we all calm down.
Talk with me rather than preach at me. You’d be surprised how well I know what’s right and wrong. I need to have my feelings and ideas respected, just like you do—so please listen to them.
Tell me of your anger at my actions without name-calling. If you call me “stupid” or “jerk” or “clumsy” too often I’ll start to believe that. Help me learn how to handle anger without harming.
Help me feel that my mistakes are not sins.I need to learn from my errors, without feeling that I’m no good.
Talk firmly without nagging. If you nag over and over, I’ll protect myself by growing deaf.
Let my wrong behavior go without demanding big explanations. Often, I really don’t know why I did it.
Accept as much as you can of what I’m able to tell you. I’m easily scared into lying if my honesty is taxed too much.
When you teach me things, please keep it simple. If you use big words or get into long confusing explanations, my mind goes somewhere else.
Enjoy me! I have a lot to offer you!
Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect (Llumina Press).