Stepfamilies - A Deeper Dive
If you are anything like me, you will find it helpful to understand some reasons why stepfamilies struggle. I tried to learn everything I could about my new family right away. That is because I didn’t want to blame myself for everything that went sideways in my family. You know how mothers take on so much mother guilt. Once I learned there were things that were beyond my control, I found it helped me to understand my feelings and manage my expectations.
If you don’t expect everything to run smoothly, you won’t be so disappointed when it doesn’t. Allowing yourself to believe in your stepfamily, and not becoming discouraged, is hugely important. This information explains things that you may not understand, and will be helpful to navigate your way through to a more successful stepfamily.
Let's think about this for a minute – we never want to assume that the stepfamily has more problems than any other type of family. We all know other types of families with problems. Ours are just different and most struggles aren’t our fault.
Let’s talk about some of the things I learned about stepfamilies. Things that helped me to understand why life seemed harder than I thought it should.
The first one is that parents want to pull the family together and have that warm fuzzy feeling of everyone belonging and getting along.
The second one is that just about everyone in the family wants to be accepted as a unique individual within that bubble.
All families are built on relationships, both social and emotional, as well as on cultural beliefs. Stepfamilies can have strong relationships. I knew this, so I always wondered why stepfamilies took so long to gel together. The books all say it takes about 4 to 7 years for a stepfamily to come together. “Surely not”, I always said! “No Way! After all everyone has a strong wish to belong.”
I discovered three answers to my question about pulling together. Here they are:
1. The first family, whatever it looks like, installs in their members similar values, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. Being similar to each other glues everyone together…. so to speak. This is called the “togetherness force” and it is automatically in most early families.
And believe me, the family the parents grew up in will influence the way each family is bonded later. This is imprinted in each parent’s unconscious minds.
So knowing this about families, let’s look at how this affects your stepfamily.
Everyone in a new stepfamily has to get used to the new rules and behaviors and values etc. The parents and stepparents often try to make everyone behave the way they want them to behave. (The way the parents likely grew up.) And so you will see that the members often resist new ways for a while and friction can result. The members are bonded together with their own “clan” from a past family. And that is no ones fault, it just is. This can be even more so if the first family, the children reside in, lasts for many years.
2. Emotional experiences from a previous family also tie family members together. If they are positive, heartwarming experiences, and sometimes even if they aren’t all that positive, family members stay bonded. This deep sense of belonging can keep them bonded the rest of their lives. Guess what? The stepfamily is going to have a hard time replacing that bond especially with older children. The difference could depend on how long the children are in that original family.
If your stepfamily has two sets of children, here is where I say that there likely will be two different families together in one house. That is not so bad. Your family can still work. Each family can bond together and still belong in a greater sense in your stepfamily. You will just need to check your old togetherness expectations at the door and accept a new way of looking at the unity within your family. Right?
3. Next, there is an attachment for children to the parents who raised them when they were very young. Children attach for life to these parents as long as the parents are loving and caring.
Understanding this bond is important. Struggling to be a new parent to a child, and especially to an older child, just won’t work no matter how hard you try. Letting go and being a special, important person in the children’s lives, no matter their ages, works much better for them and also for you. (I will both talk more about this in my next blog.)
So what about that need for everyone to be unique and special in a family?
With all the newness and change in a stepfamily, each member needs to try really hard to keep their individuality. They are used to the ways of another family or two, and each person struggles to be seen and heard now in this family. I am speaking about the parents as well as the children. This can cause friction of course. Respecting this struggle is so important for the parents and the children. Good to know!
Guess what group of people is pushing to break away from all family? Teenagers! Yup, and so if you have a teen or two in your new family you can expect some stress while they flex their will. This is normal behavior for teens. Which of course makes it harder on everyone … but necessary.
You are going to ask me what the advantage was by learning all this, and more, over the years. Let me tell you how it helped me.
I tried not to push all family members to do everything my way. I tried really hard to stay open to new ideas and ways to achieve things. And I sat back and asked myself why I was acting a certain way. Did it have something to do with not being accepted for who I was? What was my part in the problem? Was I letting everyone be who he or she was meant to be or was I forcing him or her to be who I wanted them to be? Because I knew about the togetherness pull and the need for individuality, it helped me understand what was happening in my precious stepfamily.
You know that psychologists study stepfamilies. I think listening to professionals is a better way to learn about stepfamilies than some to the stuff you read on the web. One person’s experience in a stepfamily does not mean that your stepfamily will have the same experiences. It’s a good idea to learn everything you can from the right sources and keep an open mind.
Don’t let anything you read take your hope away!