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 over sixtyways! 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:
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.
Some key differences:
Unlike biological families, normal/typical stepfamilies…
- 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.
Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect (Llumina Press).
Causes Gloria Lintermans Supports
Environment California, The Audubon Society, University of Washington Foundation, American Cancer Society, Sierra Club Foundation, and Heifer Project...