Ushering in a New Era for the Stepfamily

A new year is here — a year to spend time strengthening your stepfamily, overcoming obstacles, and taking advantage of all the information out there on stepfamily life, including this wonderful magazine, StepMom Magazine.

If you haven’t noticed, this past year has seen a burgeoning of information about stepfamily life. This is such an amazing time because, up until now, everything about living in a stepfamily has been suffered through silently by most of us living in it. No one to talk to. No one who really gets it. No understanding of what the issues are and how to talk to our husbands (or wives if you’re a stepdad). No certainty that if we agree to be a part of the life of someone with children, we can demand that they go on this journey with us. (We go with them, but we also need them to go with us).

If we think about it, when any one of us becomes divorced or ends a relationship and we have children, it is ridiculous for us to allow ourselves to fall in love and “hope” things will work out. There is no possibility that stepfamily challenges and stepfamily dynamics will not occur in your family. Knowing what those dynamics are is vital. If you don’t learn about them, then when you decide to become vulnerable and fall in love again, you are handicapping yourself, whether you’re the step or the bio parent.

In this new era of available information (with the help of magazines, with the informative books available, with a radio show hosted by yours truly), we have access to each other and to real, useful, information – the kind we need. And we owe it to ourselves to become educated about stepfamily dynamics.

Stepfamily Life in the 2000s

Stepfamilies are the predominant family system in the U.S. today. There are 74 million of us. There are also many that have fallen off of the radar and, while those failed relationships are never reported, they impact parents and they also impact children significantly, as James Bray found in his research: When a second marriage and a second family dissolve, the children internalize the lessons that marriage is not permanent, that a home is never stable, and that you cannot trust the people you love.

When I became a stepmom in 1976, all I had were images – TV shows like The Brady Bunch, movies like Yours, Mine and Ours, and the original Parent Trap. So stepmoms could either be the hated, cold woman on the scene (the evil stepmom that needs to be displaced) or so incredibly, extraordinarily patient, kind, and understanding that anything short of that means you are evil and cruel. Of course, when your spouse is defending their darling children and not you, that increases the likelihood that you feel like Cruella de Ville!

Now is the time to usher in a new era in stepfamily life. An era where we declare that we are no longer going to delude ourselves thinking that we are like a nuclear family. An era when we break hold of the myths so we are not broadsided into believing we have failed when they crumble. An era when we acknowledge openly that stepparents and stepchildren have inherent problems, most of which belong to the system itself rather than terrible, incapable people.

Without ushering in this new era, we are doomed to repeat stepfamily dysfunction. But when we know what we are dealing with, we can face it together from an informed, proactive place.

Commitments Every Stepcouple Should Make

When we begin to really commit to learning about stepfamily life, we can help our children adjust far better. We owe it to our children to help them work through their issues about divorce, their loyalty binds, and the havoc they may be wreaking that ultimately leaves them feeling worse about themselves, by helping them understand stepfamily life. We can help educate grandparents, aunts and uncles, and teachers so they don’t try to fit everyone into a nuclear family role — a role where everyone comes up short and everyone suffers.

We need to come into these relationships mindful, with emotional intelligence. I propose that all stepcouples usher in the new year with a commitment to focus on strengthening their relationship, tackling the issues of stepfamily life together, and pledging to treat their new family as it should be treated — a stepfamily, and not a nuclear family. On the following pages are Commitments for Stepcouples that you should review with your partner. What will result is not only a stronger coupling, but a stronger stepfamily.

Download a checklist of commitments that every stepcouple should make.

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