Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Family Expectations

These expectations are often the source of the myths existing about stepfamilies. Developmentally, these myths exist in all aspects of married and family life. The following chart details these myths as they relate to marriage, divorce and remarriage.

Marriage Myths

Divorce Myths

Remarriage Myths

Things will work out if we love each other

Because we don’t love each other anymore, nothing will work out

Things must work out

Always consider the other person first

Always consider oneself first

Always consider everybody first

Keep criticism to oneself and focus on the positive

Criticize everything; focus on the negative

Keep criticism to oneself and focus on the positive

If things aren’t going well, focus on the future

If things aren’t going well, focus on the past

If things aren’t going well, focus on what went wrong in the past and make sure it doesn’t happen again

See oneself as part of a couple first, as an individual second

See yourself as an individual first, as part of a couple second

See yourself as part of a couple first, as an individual second/See yourself as an individual first , as part of a couple second

What is mine is yours

What is mine is mine

What is yours is yours

Marriage makes people significantly happier

Divorce makes people significantly unhappy

Remarriage makes people happier

What is best for the children will be best for us

What is best for us must be devastating for the children

What is best for us is best for the children/Having a “real” family again is best for everyone

Ganong & Coleman, p. 71

Many of these remarriage myths impact a couple as they are preparing for remarriage. When couples strongly adhere to "Things must work out" they become focused on working things out at all costs. The fear of another failure becomes immense and interferes with communication and a willingness to discuss problems. This may also be a time when couples enter the therapy process attempting to address the issues that needed to have been addressed prior to the remarriage. There is another phenomenon called "romantic blindness" (Holand & Eisenhart, 1990) that reflects the western culture belief that people who are married are happier than single people. In remarriage, subscribing to this contributes to being blind to potential problems and remaining caught up in the romance of the relationship. Finally the myth regarding children will be happier in this remarriage does not consider the tremendous adjustments children have to make when moving from nuclear family to single-parent family to remarried family. As Ganong & Coleman (2006) state: "the relevant point here is that unrealistic expectations often lead to a lack of remarriage preparation" (p.70).

Now consider the some of the myths outlined by Visher & Visher (1988) as related to stepfamilies and how these contribute to unrealistic expectations:

  1. Stepfamilies are the same as biological families: these are families born of loss whose structure is different from biological families.
  2. Stepfamily adjustment will be attained quickly: unresolved issues regarding previous losses will impact this adjustment. In addition the developmental stage of both parents and children create more difficulty in this area.
  3. Love and caring will develop instantaneously: because you love your partner or parent does not equate to loving their family members! Forcing caring feelings will only create more stress and conflict in the system.
  4. Working hard prevents the development of a "wicked stepmother": trying too hard to keep everyone happy is a common characteristic of the stepmother. Stepmothers often try to avoid the mythical image through trying too hard when what the family needs is freedom and time to connect.

Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies