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Why Step Relationships Aren't Easy

Why Step Relationships Aren't Easy

When two people remarry with one or both having children, they must double up their adjustment. They do not have the luxury of simply marrying as partners. They must commit to the complexity of learning to marry as parents, too. This parental dimension to their union requires additional communication as they not only work out how to function as a couple, but as a family, as well.

If they want to keep their marriage together, they must keep their parenting together. They must never allow the child to become divisive of the marriage - to cause them to feel they are on opposing sides in the parental relationship. They must always stay on the same side with both of them wanting to support dialogue and decisions that preserve the union they have created. "We really see this situation differently, and that's okay. Let's talk until we understand each other's point of view and work out a position we can both support."

The Entry Adjustment

Before remarriage, honeymoon harmony may have reigned among them all, with everyone on his/her best behavior, playing together but not living together. However, once they actually form a blended family unit, the easy-going shine quickly wears off, and hard reality sets in. Now, differences between stepparent and stepchildren over household conduct, between parent and stepparent over child raising, between parent and children over respect for the new marriage, begin to irritate family relationships, causing conflicts as incompatibilities become hard to deny and harder to accept.

  • "Your kids never pick anything up!"
  • "Our stepparent is a neat freak!"
  • "You care more about your new marriage than you do for us!"
  • "Who comes first, your kids or me?"
  • "Why can't you both just get along for my sake?"

Complaints, complaints! Unhappily, the couple may wonder: "Why can't everyone just enjoy each other's company?" That's a good question. Knowing some of the answers allows the couple to develop realistic expectations and make effective choices that can help remarriage with children work.

Adjustment to Parental Remarriage

It can frustrate a remarried mother or father to have a child whose discontent threatens to spoil the happiness that parent seeks. "Why must you make things so difficult at a time when I want everything to go well?" At this point it is worth remembering that remarriage is an adult decision, selfishly made, at least for one of the parents, for his or her personal happiness. Like divorce, it is not a decision either made by the child or for the child's sake. And, it is not a decision that necessarily pleases the child who may feel jerked around by family changes over which he or she had no control. "I liked things better living with my parent alone, and I still miss having Mom and Dad and us all together." Divorce and remarriage both create a powerful conflict of interest between parent and child. These family changes are chosen to advance happiness of the parent, to some degree at the child's felt expense.

Being Taken Through One's Parents' Changes

The transition from parental marriage to parental divorce to parental remarriage creates a host of changes for the child to accept.

  • Divorce ends living all together in the original family and creates separate households, while remarriage means learning to live on daily intimacy with a step parent whose ways are unfamiliar and who is in many ways a stranger. "It feels awkward living with some adult I hardly know."
  • Divorce and remarriage also alters caring. In the original family caring felt unconditional; then divorce questioned the constancy of caring (as parents lost love for each other); and, now, in remarriage caring from and for the step parent can feel conditional. "We like each other when we get along, and we don't like each other when we don't."
  • In the original family, both parents were fully there; divorce meant one parent was always gone; and with remarriage the resident parent is only partly there. "I get less time with my parent now that my stepparent is here."
  • In the original family, the child assumed the parents would always be together; divorce meant accepting they would never be together again; remarriage means parent and stepparent will be together for the foreseeable future. "First they tear up the old family, then they expect me to get used to a new one!"
  • In the original family, parents were the same as the child had always known them; with freedom from divorce each parent starts making personal changes; and with remarriage the influence of the stepparent changes how the mother or father has always parented. "What I hate most about your remarriage is the way you've changed!"

And these are just some of the adjustments a child must make.

Attachment Expectations

One particular area of adjustment about which there can be unrealistic parental expectations is concerning the child's attachment to the parent's new partner. Central to the dream of a happy remarriage may be the dream of a loving bond between child and stepparent. Chances for this to occur are largely dependent on how old the child is at the time of parental remarriage. The watershed age when acceptance tends to become harder is the onset of early adolescence, around years nine or ten, when the developmental separation from childhood commonly begins. Below that age, significant attachment is more likely to occur; but above that age, adolescence makes bonding much more difficult.

Divorce and remarriage tend to intensify the natural grievance and rebellion of adolescence. Sense of injury and being treated unfairly by disruptive family change can fuel the young person's anger. The stepparent is an easy target for this resentment since in this relationship there is no history of love so there's no love to lose. Now the stepparent/stepchild relationship is easily inflamed by mutual blame, each one scapegoating and stereotyping the other for what is wrong in the family, pitting the "evil" stepparent who is always "mean and moody" against the "no good kid" who is " bad mannered and uncooperative."

To prevent these stereotypes from taking hold, rather than stepparent and stepchild having less to do with each other (which is what they want), they actually need more time alone together to allow contact to inform their judgments with knowledge, and not allow separation to reinforce their prejudices with ignorance.

Realistic Expectations for the Step Relationship

A parent's realistic expectations for attachment between stepparent and stepchild when that child is in adolescence are these. It is realistic for the parent to expect, and insist, that the teenager treat the stepparent with respect, even when that young person wishes this outside adult could just go away. It is realistic for the parent to expect the stepparent to care about what happen to the stepchild even when the stepparent does not at the moment much care for the stepchild's attitude or behavior.

It is also realistic to expect that many of the differences the stepparent brings into the family -- of sex role definition, of personality, of skills, of knowledge, of interests -- can all be turned to positive value for the stepchild when they create an opportunity to learn and grow and profit from this association. This is not to recommend divorce and remarriage, but increased diversity of family life is not simply a cause for divisiveness, it is a source of additional richness as well. To encourage taking advantage of this positive side, it helps if the stepparent clarifies that he or she is not in any way competing with, or trying to supplant, the absent biological parent. "I'm not your real parent and have no desire to be. But I am your real stepparent, and exactly what that means is something you and I will have to work out together. Hopefully, we can make it into a relationship we can both enjoy."

Dealing With Step Family Differences

Step relationships mix people up by increasing the mix of individual differences in a family. These differences are often incompatible and make accommodating and fitting in hard to do. When two cultures come together for the first time, some clashes are bound to occur. "Whose way is the right way?" is the common denominator for many conflicts as stepparent and parent (plus children) work out on whose terms they will live, which way of family life will prevail. The outcome is always some mix of the two, each side in the partnership giving up more traditional practices and tolerating more change than was originally anticipated. "I never thought I'd learn to live this way!" From "my way" and from "your way" the couple comes to define "our way," and the stepfamily starts creating a cultural identity of its own.

From the outset of remarried life, there will be stepchild behavior and parenting practices that seem acceptable to the parent, but are offensive to the stepparent. "How can you let them act like that? Why haven't you taught them any better?" And immediately the parent feels put on the spot. "There's nothing wrong with their behavior, you're just not used to normal kids!"

In remarriage, stepchildren come to represent the cultural divide between parent and stepparent. To attack child raising differences by attacking each other, arguing over who is right and who is wrong, will not serve the new marriage partners well. It will only polarize and antagonize their relationship. Parent and stepparent will never see the children through the same perceptual lens. Typically, the parent sees the child more affirmatively ("He is really trying!"), and the stepparent sees the child more critically ("He is not trying hard enough!"). The parent (attached and approving) tends to see the glass (the child) as half-full, and the stepparent (fatigued and frustrated) tends to see the glass as half empty. Parent and stepparent need to turn their contrasting perspectives to advantage.

What the parent has to offer is constancy and acceptance. "Loving who they are is always more important to me than always liking how they act." What the stepparent has to offer is distance and perspective. "Sometimes I can see what your kids need more objectively than you can." It is this mix of parental acceptance and stepparent perspective that can be combined to great advantage, depth of caring and breadth of vision both contributing the children's well being. Love can blind the parent to problems the stepparent is willing to see. Frustration can cause the stepparent to give up on the child to whom the parent remains loyally committed.

The Discussion Contract

In their discussions over the children, it helps enormously if parent and stepparent agree to the following contractual exchange. When an issue over the stepchild's behavior arises, the stepparent will express that concern to the parent with utmost tact, not putting the parent on the defensive by voicing complaints, comparisons, or criticism. Instead, communication is kept as objective and non-evaluative as possible. "I don't agree with how your child is choosing to act, and I would like to talk with you about trying to change that behavior." In return, the parent will be continually mindful of the stepparent's efforts to help create a family for the stepchild, expressing this partner's appreciation to the stepparent for hanging in there with a child not his or her own. The stepparent needs appreciation because the stepchild is not likely to give it. And the parent needs tact because it is so easy to feel defensive on one's child's behalf.

Role Pressures

In addition, it helps for each partner to be sensitive to stepfamily pressures that complicate each other's role. To be the parent in the remarried family often means feeling torn apart by conflicting loyalties and sympathies, caught in the middle between two loved ones who sometimes can't stand each other, each coming to the parent/partner to confide complaints. Of course, the good part of being in the middle is getting twice as much love as either of the two occasional antagonists. How much of the conflict between spouse and child to mediate and how much to let them just work out is an ongoing dilemma. In general, the more stepparent and stepchild are allowed to work out their differences directly, the less often the parent will intervene and feel caught in the painful middle. One approach that usually helps is for stepparent and stepchild to have some times with just the two of them together without the parent present. In this situation there is no parent time and attention to vie for, so each is usually more open to finding ways to get along.

To be the stepparent is to feel continually affronted by parenting values and stepchild behavior that seem unacceptable, to wonder whether to speak up or not, or to make an invisible effort to get along by shutting up about a lot. "Swallowing offenses" is how one stepfather described it. Since these efforts at tolerance and restraint are not seen by anyone else, they are not credited as effort, hence the problem of invisibility. In addition, there is often the frustration of being discounted by the stepchild who ignores the stepparent's presence and opinions, treating the parent as the only adult in the family who matters, the only adult worth talking to or seeking out for companionship. If this dismissive conduct is going on, the parent can insist on more respectful treatment. "I expect you to treat your stepparent with the same courtesy and respect that we give you."

These are the pains that come with the two roles. The parent often feels caught in the middle, unable to do right by one loved one without doing wrong in the eyes of the other. The stepparent often feels like an invisible and discounted family member whose efforts at adjustment, tolerance, and restraint are unseen and unappreciated. For the sake of the marriage, the parent can recognize the stepparent's efforts, thereby reducing discomfort from invisibility, and the stepparent can work out differences with the stepchild without pulling the parent into the middle.

Time for the Marriage

Finally, there is the abiding importance of parent and stepparent making and taking sufficient time alone and apart to shed parental roles and concerns and just enjoy being together as partners. Becoming life partners is the primary reason why they got together in the first place.

And, when they are back into parental role, the parent can explain how there is not one but two ways he or she experiences the stepparent's love. "When you treat me as your loving partner, and when you treat my children with love, in both ways do I experience your love for me." To which the stepparent can reply: "When you love me as your partner and as co-parent of your children, in both ways do I experience your love for me." Remarriage with stepchildren is at least twice as hard as marriage with mutual children or with none, but well done, it can be twice as rewarding, too.

About the Author

Carl E. Pickhardt, PhD, is the author of numerous articles and books on parenting, including The Connected Father: Understanding Your Unique Role and Responsibilities During Your Child Adolescence; Keys To Developing Your Child's Self-Esteem; and The Future of Your Only Child: How to Guide Your Child to a Happy and Successful Life to be published in 2008. His books are available at

© Carl Pickhardt, PhD, 2003 Used with permission.
Page last modified or reviewed on January 24, 2014