How To Build A Stable Stepfamily
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Building a blended family that genuinely works as a functional nuclear family is… well, borderline f*cking impossible. “Stepfamily” is an old-hat term. “Blended family” covers the blurred boundaries and messiness much more accurately.
The idea of a blended family helps the partners acclimatize. You’re not being inserted into a “step-parent” role – you’re melding two families together like you’re the daughter of a 14th-century monarch, being married off to unite two influential houses.
You fell in love with someone and got left holding the baggage. And no matter how much you think you understand what you’ve gotten yourself into, there is no getting around it: your life is about to become extremely complicated for the foreseeable future.
You’ve married into another family, or your partner has married into yours – or both. Your children are screaming bloody hell, your partner doesn’t know where to look or what to say, and you’re wondering how you ever got into this mess.
There are so many dynamics to account for. If your partner has younger children, for example, you might be disappointed if they don’t start calling you ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’ as they grow up. Maybe the kids are old enough to challenge you to a fistfight.
A member of Team Vippi grew up in not one but two blended families. One functioned like a giant, unwieldy family unit. The other was a situation fuelled by spite, estrangement, and manipulation.
So let’s talk about blended families.
(We’ll shorten “Member of Team Vippi” to MTV, as this is about to get complicated. Buckle up.)
Setting up a blended family
It’s wrong to even approach the topic in terms of “setting up” a stepfamily. There’s no organization here: just the slow and often reluctant shifting around of extremely complicated moving parts.
At any one time, you have:
- Partners healing from previous splits and dramatic life changes
- Bitterness and pushback from previous partners
- Children facing up to the prospect of “new parents” or “replacement moms/dads”
- Step-siblings squaring each other up – who is the real competition for their parents’ affections?
- Existing children of each parent facing up to new arrivals for the new couple – will the stepchildren ever feel like their “real kids” again?
There are hundreds of square pegs fighting over a limited availability of round holes. How will you all co-exist?
Well, the first step is to take just that – a first step. Broaching the topic of a new partner for a divorced parent is going to be difficult. You’ll generally have one child who accepts the arrangement, if only with a raised eyebrow, and another who raises hell.
Be honest and open about your new partner with your children. In MTV’s case, one blended family formed rather suddenly, but with a partner his dad had known for years. Suddenly, friends became step-siblings. And when MTV’s dad went on their first date, MTV knew who it was without being told. MTV’s dad may have peed his pants a little.
However, MTV’s dad waited a while to tell MTV’s younger sister – who promptly hit the roof, turning on her dad and forcing MTV into a middle man position where everyone in the family would come to him to complain about everyone else.
The mistake MTV’s dad made was waiting to be open. Would it have gone down badly anyway? Maybe. His sister was still hurting from the divorce. So was MTV, but his pain manifested in slower-burning ways.
Only when MTV’s sister started forming a bond with her dad’s wife did the situation begin to resolve itself. That took a long, painful 2 years.
The pitfalls facing stepfamilies
The main pitfall in MTV’s paternal blended family came from good intentions: They tried to treat all four stepchildren equally.
However, that’s simply never going to work. All children require different treatment, are at different ages, and have different personalities. So a blanket “we’ll treat you all the same” simply won’t cut it with most stepfamilies.
Sometimes, it will seem like some of the stepsiblings received more favorable treatment than the others. The chilled-out stepsiblings will receive less attention than those who constantly raise hell and show aggression because the new stepmom and stepdad will be attempting to smooth over the bumps in the road rather than pay attention to the children who aren’t causing trouble.
You’re not only merging two families – you’re combining two different parenting styles. You may not agree with your partner’s strict approach, and they might not agree with your laissez-faire, laid-back manner with your kids. The way your partner’s children behave might not sit well with you.
Blended families are about blending. You’re going to have to make adjustments in how you treat your stepchildren. You may need to set boundaries for your natural children you don’t set for your stepchildren while fostering a more robust relationship – but this runs the risk of p*ssing off your biological children.
One or several stepchildren might come home to board with you, while others don’t. It’s all a balancing act.
Keeping a blended family going
This scene from Stepbrothers puts a comedic spin on the somewhat fraught family dynamics of a blended family.
You can’t force any of the children into accepting the new relationship, and you absolutely can’t force them to pick one divorced parent and partner over another. Sometimes, you have to cultivate a sense of normalcy from a very abnormal situation.
There may well be simmering resentments with your children’s other parent, from whom you’ve now separated. Sometimes, however, your children will have a hard time of it – perhaps with addiction, or depression, or problems at school. Whatever it is, you’ll have to collaborate with your ex to support your kid at some point or another.
This is essential to the longevity of a blended family. In MTV’s case, his family was estranged from each other for 4 long years while he was away at college. The very first time his dad, stepmom, mom, and stepdad sat at a table together was at his graduation. For MTV, that feeling was more meaningful than either of their weddings.
(And yes, the stepkids still send anniversary presents to both sets of parents. They’re not monsters.)
The timing of the reunion was highly fortunate. MTV had severe problems with bullying and depression the next year and had to lean on the kindness of both new stepfamilies to get through it. It’s in those moments that a blended family begins to settle – when you’re caring for your children and stepchildren in times of emergency, pain, and sadness.
That’s when MTV started to feel like this was the new normal and that he could get used to it.
Rules of engagement
While setting up a stepfamily, there are some hard and fast rules you should stick to for everyone’s sanity:
- No one has to call anyone Mom or Dad unless they feel comfortable doing so – to be honest, any name that isn’t a cuss word will do at this point.
- Step-parents shouldn’t overstep their jurisdiction to give advice and guidance – not until a genuine and enduring bond has developed. At that point, step-parents are welcome into intimate conversations with their stepkids.
- Your family is bigger now – so set up a practical, manageable dynamic. If you’ve now got 3 or 4 step-siblings, birthdays are about to get expensive. Talk to the other siblings about teaming up on a present for each birthday or engaging in a Secret Santa-type scheme for Christmas.
- Stay civil with your ex where that’s possible. You’re not together, but you don’t have to be enemies, especially if that makes life hell for your child. You’re still parents, and both need to be there when the sh*t hits the fan.
- Stepchildren have to eventually come to terms with the step-parent’s new role in their life. Step-parents are usually great at staying within their bounds and respecting the speed at which a stepchild acclimatizes. But the stepchild can’t simply act hostile forever – eventually, they have to have sensible conversations about the step-parent’s role in their life.
- Step-parents need to team up wherever possible to support the growth of their children and stepchildren. Your stepchildren will dictate the pace at which they’re happy to let you contribute to their lives as a couple – but love and support them while they grow as people.
- Try and have vacations, holidays, and meals together where possible. You’re often not going to convince all stepchildren to join you in the same place, but celebrating momentous events together holds the family together. MTV’s stepsiblings were at his surprise 40th birthday party. It made it extra special.
- It’s not just about momentous occasions, either. Stepfamilies need to function in daily life, too, with all its warts and imperfections. So have dull days together. Watch TV. Have days where you work in the other room while your stepdad or stepbrother do something else. It’s the “super-normal” side of blended families that will carry you through.
- Don’t expect the world. The stepchildren haven’t come together by choice, and they’re trying their best. But, sometimes, a family dynamic isn’t meant to be entirely perfect.
- Don’t forget that you’re still a couple. Go on dates. Your children are a crucial part of your life, but they aren’t the whole story. Spend time with each other. You’re making all of these sacrifices; you might as well enjoy each other’s company.
Looking at the other side of the coin, MTV’s mom and stepdad have very different stories to tell. MTV’s stepdad is wholly estranged from his natural children (and grandchild). The stepdad’s children were weaponized against him by their mother – they were forced to pick a side.
MTV and his sister adopted their stepdad as their own. MTV had another father figure who made his mom happy and did maintenance stuff around the flat. The stepdad had a son-like figure to laugh at his dirty jokes and play him at PlayStation.
A stepkid’s perspective: Pain points and positives
No kid wants to see their parents lonely and unhappy. Once you approach adulthood as a stepchild, you realize that however much stability you lose, you were never really a stable household if your natural parents were only staying together to raise you.
So when both parents are with new partners and happy, you finally start to understand the adult quest for personal happiness – and how that comes with immense sacrifice. As far as MTV was concerned, he garnered a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for both step-parents over time.
They went through absolute agony trying to make MTV’s parents happy. You can’t fault that.
However, there was an imbalance for a while. MTV’s dad had found his next life partner; his mom was still looking. And that imbalance led to bitterness between parents, which trickled down to him and his sister.
Piggy in the middle
A massive pain point is trying to reconcile both parents’ situations in a way that makes sense. But just as you can’t treat all stepkids equally, the same applies to parents at different stages of the healing process after divorce. You have to let them feel pain in their own way – the pressure of having to pretend everything’s okay in front of their children is immense.
Then there’s the cognitive dissonance of seeing your dad with his arm around your stepmom or your mom kissing your stepdad at their wedding. It’s hard to reconcile the knowledge that your parents aren’t together anymore with these public displays of affection. It’s like a dirty secret made public, even though you know full well it’s not hush-hush.
It’s just another part of blending families that takes some getting used to.
Dealing with disputes in a blended family
Let’s not get it twisted: disputes will happen. Stepsiblings can be notorious for not getting along, but they can also clash with either parent, previous partners, and each other.
If you’ve got a large stepfamily, you’re simply never going to bond with everyone. You don’t just smoosh two families together and continue like everything’s okay. What’s important is coming to an understanding and moving on before any more hurt can unfold.
Remember that more than disputes in natural families, conflict resolution is there to protect the feelings of more than just the person with whom you’ve clashed. For example, MTV had a clash with his stepsister recently. However, immediately after disagreeing, he reached out to let her know he respected her, explain his actions, and check-in emotionally.
Deep down, he realized that he wouldn’t just have been hurting her; his dad and stepmom’s vision of a unified, happy family was under threat, and that would hurt them most of all.
As part of a stepfamily, there is a lot of sucking up pride and moving on. And that’s fine – it’s excellent practice for implementing the art of forgiveness in your day-to-day.
Blended families evolve like any other. MTV’s stepsiblings all have long-term partners now, and he’s even a step-uncle (which may be taking the step- prefix to dizzy new heights).
Nowadays, it’s a relatively merry family gathering, with MTV’s father and mother getting on famously alongside their new partners. But it’s essential never to forget the fragile equilibrium on which such relationships are built.
Team Vippi only asks that you take care of yourselves – and each other.
Segal, J. (2020). Blended family and step-parenting tips. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/step-parenting-blended-families.htm