Family life is full of challenges and rewards. Stepfamily life is no different, although the nature of the pressures is unique. Approximately 30 percent of U.S. weddings form stepfamilies.
When a stepfamily is formed, the marriage includes more a than the happy couple in love. Children are involved, as can be intrusive ex-spouses and/or painful histories with accompanying heartache. With all those dynamics in play, building a successful stepfamily can feel overwhelming. Yet with a little help, these unique families can be places of warmth, love and belonging.
1. Discover God’s grace.
As a member of a stepfamily, you may feel unworthy of God’s redemption because your family doesn’t match God’s ideal design. Yet if you spend time in Scripture, you’ll be relieved to discover that none of the Old Testament families were perfect, and most didn’t resemble God’s family model. Still, God loved them and used them for His purposes.
2. Have realistic expectations.
Relax your expectations of how quickly your stepfamily will integrate. Realize your child may not immediately depend on your spouse for relationship or to help solve problems. That’s OK.
Be patient in relationship building. The average stepfamily needs about seven years to form a family identity. Pressure from parents often creates resistance in children. Learn to accept relationships as they are, and try not to worry about tomorrow. Your patience will contribute to a more relaxed family and greater harmony.
3. Put the marriage first.
The marriage relationship is the most important in any home, yet in a stepfamily, it is often the weakest. You and your children have a bond forged by blood; your marriage is an add-on relationship.
Making the marriage a priority is critical to family success. This means balancing time and energy between the children and the marriage. It also means modeling to your children that the marriage is unbreakable and that as a couple, you will lead together.
4. Cooperate with others.
Children in stepfamilies often have three to five (sometimes more) adults who contribute to their daily care. Strive to work in unison with as many of the other adults as possible.
Initially, stepparents can’t use their own influence until they have developed trust with the children. This can take years. You can help by respecting the stepparent and by making him or her an equal partner in parenting decisions so children gain respect for your spouse.
Your children may have another home to which they belong. Be patient and gracious as the children move back and forth, even when strong negative emotions and a painful past make it difficult. Demonstrating grace and forgiveness will relieve your children from ongoing battles and create a sense of safety.
5. Bridge the past with the present.
Without knowing it, many adults overlook common childhood struggles. Children who continue to be sad about the loss of previous relationships need to have their feelings validated and permission to grieve. Connections to the past should be honored and respected, not shoved away.
Keep traditions of celebrating holidays and special days, even as your new stepfamily creates unique traditions. This allows your children to carry their past with them while they connect with new relationships.
6. Take your time.
Like Moses and the Israelites headed for the Promised Land, developing a healthy stepfamily is sometimes a long journey. Remain dedicated to gradually forming a family identity.
Stepcouples often ask, “When’s our honeymoon?” I’m quick to give them hope: There is a honeymoon stage for stepcouples. But like the Israelites, the honeymoon may come at the end of the journey, not at the beginning! As your family holds God’s hand and trusts Him to show the way, the journey to the Promised Land will be worth the wait.