Remarrying with children often creates a complex dynamic. Expectations may not be clear and people aren’t sure how to behave. Ex-spouses and their new spouse impact what happens in your household. Is it any surprise that all of this creates stress and conflict in relationships?
“Most couples enter into remarriage with a tremendous amount of expectation and hope,” says Ron Deal, author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family. “They are filled with hope, expecting positive things and are well-intentioned, yet in most instances, they are naïve about the trip they are about to take.”
Believe it or not, transitioning into a stepfamily requires some prep work. If you are embarking on this journey, Deal has a few recommendations to help you out.
- Nurture your marriage and learn to communicate well. According to a study of more than 50,000 stepfamily couples, maintaining fun in marriage is the number five predictor of a high-quality stepcouple relationship. Good communication and conflict resolution skills were the number two and three predictors of successful remarriages.
- Keep perspective. This is new for everyone, so expect to feel lost. Seek understanding and don’t force people to blend, because it takes time. It may even take years for your family to really unite, but it’s better than causing a lot of frustration by moving too quickly. Be patient with the process and have a “slow-cooker” mentality.
- Talk with others. Before you begin, you might want to educate yourself about stepfamily living. Also, ask other stepfamilies about their experiences and the things that caught them by surprise. Find out how they handled the early days.
- Help the kids. When appropriate, encourage biological parents to consistently spend one-on-one time with each child. Since this is also foreign territory for children, prepare them to expect a variety of feelings and encourage them to talk about it. Discuss what to call one another (e.g., stepdad or “George”) and decide how to introduce one another in public. Understand that kids may have different names/terms for stepfamily members depending on who’s in the room. For example, they may call a stepfather “Daddy” unless their biological dad is physically present until relationships stabilize. Don’t pressure kids to use labels that make you comfortable; try to follow their lead.
- Traditions matter. For sure, keep some old ones (for the kids), but also create a new one in your first year. If you want to help form the missing family identity in your home, put intentional thought and effort into creating that new family tradition. Traditions tell us who we are and where we belong.
- Be a team. It’s helpful if parents and stepparents can seek consensus in household rules and how to cooperate. Have lots of parenting meetings. In the first year, it’s a great idea for stepparents to focus on building relationships with the children. Be sure to move at their pace, not yours.
- Anticipate bumps in the road. Stepfamily life can be challenging, so don’t expect perfection. Try not to overreact.
- Keep your visitation schedule predictable. Give children continued access to the other home. Forcing kids to lose time with the other household will inadvertently invite kids to resent your relationship. Stepparents need to communicate a “no threat” message to the other biological parent. They need to know that you understand your role as a new person in their life who will never try to replace them. This message helps the other parent not to feel intimidated by your involvement with their children. Hopefully, it will also increase their openness to your role as stepparent.
- Stay connected. Try to maintain old friendships and social connections. If necessary, reconnect to church and a family of faith. Find a mentor to help you through your first year or join a group where you can find tools and encouragement.
- Take the Couple Checkup. The checkup provides an accurate view of your relationship and gives suggestions for strengthening your marriage. It not only tells you where you are and helps you decide where you want to go, but it gives you directions to get there. You can access the Couple Checkup and other resources at smartstepfamilies.com.