Families involving stepparents and step children are always tricky. And yet they’re a very common kind of family unit in today’s society. So how do the marriages look in these blended families? As we look into this we’ll see that a happy marriage and a happy blended family are very closely linked.
How Common are Blended Marriages?
Over half of marriages every year are second marriages for one or both spouses, and 65% of those are bringing kids from the previous relationship[i].
80% of blended families feature the biological mother and a step-father, rather than featuring a step-mother, or being “complex stepfamilies” where both spouses bring children from a prior relationship.
Let’s look at some of the common issues and challenges that couples in these families face. Forming a blended family or step family presents challenges to the marriage, including:
- Negotiating parenting roles
- The step parent forming a new relationship with the child
- The divorced parent still having some control/responsibility for the children’s upbringing, affecting the decision making process for the new couples
- Negative appraisals of the family and the step-parent role from society or your social circle. In a lot of ways stepparents are looked down on or seen as not-quite parents, and the very fact that you’re in this situation can lead people to think that the original family has failed in some way, which is a lot of added negativity from outside that really isn’t going to help.
How couples navigate these challenges becomes a big part of how they function as husband and wife. “Researchers note that stepfamily functioning and couple functioning are inexorably linked, suggesting that it is difficult to create a happy second marriage without also creating a workable stepfamily[ii]. This is a dynamic that two people entering their first marriage without children do not have to navigate.
Luckily, research emphasizes that couple functioning in step families is significantly determined by the same processes and factors that affect any other marriage: communication skills, empathy, values and beliefs etc. But there are some specific factors and issues within blended families that do need special attention.
Bottom line: the usual skills apply, and a few more on top.
As blended families are a fairly new concept relative to traditional first marriages there aren’t as many norms and established ways of functioning. The “family” has been around as long as human civilization, but the “blended family” is a pretty new idea. So while families have thousands of years of convention and wisdom to lean on, blended families are a bit more in the dark.
For example there are set norms for looking after and disciplining kids, managing finances and decision making in first marriages, but there’s no “set” or expected way of doing things in a blended family[iii]. Couples in blended families have to figure things out for themselves. This can create uncertainty over roles and lead to conflict, especially over complex issues like combining your assets/finances as you get married or looking after step children as well as your own children. These are tough issues to deal with and it can feel like you’re the only ones struggling with them.
So: it would be good for couples to explicitly discuss these issues and agree on how to manage responsibilities, finances and childcare[iv]. Doing so eliminates that uncertainty and helps couples work together on creating their own set of norms for their family. And I imagine this could actually be quite liberating: having no set way of running a family imposed on you, so getting to set the rules yourself. Just make sure it’s a joint process.
Getting the family part right will make things much better in your marriage too. Agreement on parenting and family roles is associated with lower rates of conflict and higher marital satisfaction[v].
Step-families typically receive less social support from their extended family than first marriages and often feel stigmatized. This disapproval from society and from family/friends can negatively impact marriage in a lot of ways, which we looked at in our episode on what to do when your folks don’t like your spouse. This is certainly true of blended families as well. A study in 2001[vi] found that lack of support from family and friends was a specific factor that led to lower marital happiness for wives in second marriages.
Step families also have to deal with a lack of recognition and formal support from society. For example there is often less practical support available to step parents and less formal or legal recognition of the relationship between a child and their step-parent.
Simply understanding and validating these experiences and difficulties can be beneficial to couple’s wellbeing[vii], so couples could try to find support from other couples in similar situations, or from formal support groups or counseling. All the methods used for coping with social circle disapproval from episode 159 also apply here.
Couples need to understand that forming a new family dynamic will take time and effort. It won’t happen overnight, and thinking that it will can be damaging for everyone involved. Expectations that you will be able to instantly establish great relationships with step kids or that you’ll naturally fall into a good dynamic are linked to lower marital quality[viii].
How long should it take? It’s bound to be different for every family, but research suggests that stepfamilies often go through 1-2 years of “disorganization and turbulence” before stabilizing and starting to function as a new family over the next 1-3 years[ix]. So couples need to be realistic about this.
Flexible Family Dynamics
Because of the complex nature of families involving stepchildren and former partners, having a flexible definition of what “the family” is becomes important.
Research shows that individual relationships within the family are more important than forming a single cohesive family unit. For example focusing on the one-on-one relationships between the stepfather and stepchildren, or between the new couple, are more important than focusing solely on functioning as a family[x].
So there’s a lot of extra work to sort out these other roles. That’s why you need to lower expectations and understand that this all takes time.
All families have rituals: regular routines or behaviors which are important to them as a family and become representative of the family’s identity. For example, how you celebrate Christmas or birthdays, bedtime routines, mealtime routines or traditional days out and so on[xi]. These little routines and unique ways of doing things are very important for creating a sense of family identity and stability.
Making new rituals as a blended family is an important part of learning to function as a family. A study in 1998[xii] interviewed 53 blended families about the importance of rituals. They found that rituals were successful in creating family unity when they included members of both the old and new family (eg family gatherings involving the step children and the new couple’s biological children, or a step father going to sports games with his step son and biological son).
These rituals encourage bonding between individuals in the blended family while emphasizing the importance of both old and new family members. Bringing in rituals from the old family but adapting them to include the entire blended family was also important in building a sense of unity as a family. So it’s about making sure everyone is included, and taking elements from the old family if they can still be used in the current family.
Rituals failed to lead to family unity when they felt imposed or compulsory, or involved treating members of the old and new family differently (eg activities where the biological children are included but the step children are not, or where biological children are punished for not participating but step children aren’t).
So there is quite a bit to navigate in this area. This is a conversation that you need to have and need to do well. To help with that we have built out a conversation guide for our patrons who support our show on Patreon. We really appreciate you guys!
Building Good Routines for Your Blended Family
This guide will help you think about how you can deliberately set up new routines and rituals that will strengthen your unity as a family, and also remind you of the importance of staying strong as a married couple in the midst of this. Even if you’re not in a blended family, there’s some thoughts to consider about the traditions or rituals in any family. If you are not a patron, you can get a copy of this and dozens of other resources by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Relationship with Stepchild
The relationship between a happy parent-child relationship and a happy marriage is interesting here. In first marriages a happy, well functioning marriage leads to happy children and positive interactions between parents and children. In a blended family, the effect is the other way around: establishing some kind of workable positive relationship with the stepchildren is the key to creating a stable and happy marriage[xiii]. Once you have that stability and basic level of trust between parent and stepchild that allows you to function day to day, the marriage starts to strengthen and grow.
I have to confess I had no idea this was the case so it was really interesting for this to come out in the research.
Are there any specific parenting styles that step parents can utilize? A study in 2003[xiv] found that stepparents report the highest satisfaction with their family life and marriage when they initially take a secondary role in parenting: acting warm and supportive to their stepchild and supporting their spouse in discipline issues but not taking a leading role in discipline until a stronger bond with the child has been established. Stepfathers in particular need to be careful to avoid being authoritarian and distant and should take an active interest in forming a relationship with the step children before assuming any kind of disciplinarian role.
The age of the children is also an important factor: if the kids are very young when the new family is formed then the step parent can expect to form a strong parental bond with them over time. If the children are adolescent then forming a bond that is as strong as a biological parent-child bond probably isn’t going to happen, and might not be realistic to expect. Simply establishing a positive, trusting relationship with the stepchildren is enough.
Relationship to Former Spouses
Another relationship to consider is the ex.
Having the former spouses be highly involved in the new family reduces the relationship quality for the married couple. This is true regardless of whether the interaction with the former spouse is positive or negative: constantly arguing with your ex is bad, but so is showing that you still have some affection for them and wanting them to be highly involved in your life[xv].
There’s a delicate balance in there.
High levels of competition between the stepparent and the former spouse — trying to one up each other in terms of gifts or playing the child off against each other — will negatively impact the child, leading to bad behavior and bad relationships with the step-parent. This then negatively impacts marital satisfaction. So in order to have good relationships with the children — and therefore a good marriage — the couple need to set proper emotional and practical boundaries with the old spouse and establish a relationship to the old spouse that is cooperative, or “businesslike”, but not intimate.
That can be tricky — it requires a pretty robust understanding of healthy boundaries along with a collaborative spirit about the whole thing. And obviously you can’t control what the ex-partner wants in all of this, or how they are going to act. So that can be hard.
So these are some of the key ingredients to making that blended family work well. Loving your spouse’s kids is a huge gift. As I reflect on this, it’s almost like adoption. It reflects the heart of God and I think that doing this well is something that God will bless. I just remember a roommate from college, terrific guy. He came from a blended family — he even had two brothers with the same name, the same age. They were like twins. He spoke very highly of his family and his stepmother and father.
I just mention this because chances are if you stumbled across this episode because you were looking for help, you may be in that turbulent stage right now. Stick with it. Realize that this is a journey. Manage your expectations and don’t be afraid to get help. There’s more and more being written about this and of course, there’s always marriage and family therapists like myself who would be happy to assist.
[i] Francesca Adler-Baeder and Brian Higginbotham, ‘Implications of Remarriage and Stepfamily Formation for Marriage Education’, Family Relations, 53.5 (2004), 448–58.
[ii] Adler-Baeder and Higginbotham.
[iii] Adler-Baeder and Higginbotham.
[iv] Adler-Baeder and Higginbotham.
[v] Adler-Baeder and Higginbotham.
[vi] David Knox and Marty E. Zusman, ‘Marrying a Man with “Baggage”’, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 35.3–4 (2001), 67–79 <https://doi.org/10.1300/J087v35n03_04>.
[vii] Froma Walsh, Normal Family Processes: Growing Diversity and Complexity (Guilford Press, 2012).
[viii] E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, For Better Or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (W.W. Norton, 2003).
[ix] Adler-Baeder and Higginbotham.
[x] Adler-Baeder and Higginbotham.
[xi] Dawn O. Braithwaite, Leslie A. Baxter, and Anneliese M. Harper, ‘The Role of Rituals in the Management of the Dialectical Tension of “Old” and “New” in Blended Families’, Communication Studies, 49.2 (1998), 101–20.
[xii] Braithwaite, Baxter, and Harper.
[xiii] Adler-Baeder and Higginbotham.
[xiv] Hetherington and Kelly.
[xv] Adler-Baeder and Higginbotham.