Written by: Jeannette Lofas, Ph.D., LCSW
- THE STEPFAMILY CANNOT AND WILL NOT FUNCTION AS DOES AN INTACT FAMILY: It has its own special set of dynamics and behaviors. Once learned, these behaviors can become predictable and positive. The tendency of many is to overlay the expectations and dynamics of the intact, or natural family onto the stepfamily. Others simply deny there is a problem. We are mother and fathers who want to love and nurture our children. Often, we put these children before ourselves. In a biologically connected family the children are an extension of their parents. Parents naturally want to devote time, energy, and money to their children. Conversely, the stepparent may not want the children to exist at all.
Very often, the fairy tales are true. Without wanting to, we can become wicked stepchildren, cruel stepmothers, and critical or withdrawn stepfathers. Most people in step relationships travel along an unpredictable and uncharted course. *** The Stepfamily Foundation serves to provide workable models and new maps of the territory of step.
- REJECTION OF NON-SELF TISSUE: The stepfamily initially might be considered analogous, psychologically to what physically occurs in organ transplants. In medical terms, the greatest cause of failure in transplants is “immunilogical rejection of non-self tissue.” The body responds protectively and rejects foreign tissue. This natural protective mechanism may result in pathology and the failure of the transplant. Medically, measures are taken to combat this occurrence. Psychologically, the danger of similar pathology exists in the merged family situation. However, often the problem is unrecognized and the remedies are unavailable or unsought.
- CONFLICTING PULLS OF SEXUAL AND BIOLOGICAL ENERGIES: In the intact family, the couple come together and have a child. The child is part of BOTH parents and generally both parents pull together for the well-being of the child. Most tend to dote over any and all of the child’s accomplishments. In step, blood and sexual ties can polarize the relationship in the opposite directions and energies. The natural parent is often torn between child and spouse. Additionally, the biological parent is denied the cohesive rewards and joys of caring for the child given by the now absent biological parent (often divorced). Furthermore, stepparents don’t dote and often feel jealous and resentful of the natural parent’s devotion and doting.
The sexual partner traditionally expects to come first in the spouse’s life. This is automatic in the first marriage. In the second marriage, despite the fact that we know the partner comes with children, we still expect to feel like the most important person in our spouse’s life. The children, in turn, in fact have often come first when their parent was single. They can feel that the new step person is not entitled to the same degree of attention. Not only are they accustomed to this attention, but also, they may feel the parent’s new partner is unjustly usurping their parent’s time, energy, and money.
- THE CONFLICT OF LOYALTIES: This issue must be recognized as particular to step. Every person in step is affected. The child, just as he begins to have caring feelings toward a stepparent will often negatively act out. It goes something like this, “If I love you, I don’t love my real parent.” The child often feels the need to bring up “Mommy” in Daddy’s house and “Daddy” in Mommy’s house. That same conflict of loyalties also exists for the adults… my child call me – my spouse calls me, who do I answer first? The mother wonders is her young son should eat alone while she and her new husband have a romantic dinner. The father feels guilty on visitation when his child wants to be alone with him and not with his new wife. The emotional and time demands of step can be conflicting and overwhelming. In the intact family, the conflicts seldom reach these “no-win” levels of confusion. *** In step, we lose if we do not recognize, prioritize, and organize these multiply conflicts of loyalties.
- THE MYTH OF INSTANT LOVE: “If you love me, you will love my child.” “If I love you, I will love your child.” So many who remarry are burdened with the myth of instant love. Often in the courtship, the children behave well and adoringly. Things can change drastically after marriage. Sometimes the more you try to love the stepchildren, the more they act out or pull away. Love can and does happen, but expecting the myth of instant love could have the very opposite effect in step.
- THE HOPE OF BECOMING ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY: This too is a myth. When it does not occur, the couple blames each other and each other’s children. We so hope to be like the television series, “The Brady Bunch.” In twenty four minutes, the Brady Bunch solves all of the children’s problems and the couple is not affected by any of the dynamics of step. Many children will watch “The Brady Bunch” hoping their family will interact as they do. It is unrealistic and can be destructive to expect a “Brady Bunch” situation. We cannot blend the Smiths and Jones into one BIG HAPPY FAMILY.
- BLAMING OF OTHERS AND SELF INSTEAD OF THE STEP SITUATION: Hundreds of times, we have seen people blame themselves, their spouses, and the children for behaviors that are endemic to step. The dynamics of step are often nameless negatives. We need to look to the situation of step and its particular and classic way of functioning before we blame any of those involved.
- THE CHILDREN ARE PULLING THIS RELATIONSHIP APART: The major presenting problem for those we counsel at the Stepfamily Foundation sounds something like this, “We love each other but our reactions to one another’s children are endangering our relationship.” This dynamic is seldom experienced in the biologically connected or intact family. It is a primary cause for the extraordinarily high failure rate in step relationships. The exact percentages may vary. However, one major study designates that failure rate to be 67%. Other studies indicate failure rates as high as 75% for steps who are either married, living together, or seriously dating. Without a doubt step relationships are one of the most endangered forms of relationships, impacting not only adults but also millions of children.
- THE PRIOR SPOUSE: Somehow the prior spouse often turns into a black character in the step situation. The tarnished and often bitter former wife herself becomes a dynamic in step. She is the mother of the children and often felt by those who live in step not to be a very good mother and a negative element in the new partnership. Within the new step family, the absent father may also suffer from bad press. Some of the issues revolve around bad mouthing, visitation, controlling through the children, and of course, money. Common complaints about the father center around lack of financial support and interest. However, for the prior spouse who is involved, his compliant is frequently that he pays the bills and gets none of the benefits. In addition, he may bemoan the capital losses he suffered by the divorce itself. *** Ideally, it is important for former spouses to heal their hurts, reconcile their differences, and agree to disagree on issues that they cannot resolve. For the sake of the children, they must learn to deal with each other in a respectful manner. Their communications should only concern the children’s well-being, not their relationship. The dynamic inherent in step is that former spouses rarely achieve this.
- THERE ARE NO EX-PARENTS… ONLY EX-SPOUSES: We can never become an ex-parent. When we divorce we must be aware of something we label as the “separation triangle.” We no longer relate as husband and wife; however, we continue to relate as mother and father, discussing ideas and events and making decisions that are important to guiding and parenting our children. **** In this culture, it became fashionable in the 1960’s to “do your own thing.” In the 1970’s it was believed that divorce was freeing, fulfilling, and fun. In the 1980’s we are seeing chaotic care taking, spiraling materialism, and heavy doses of narcissism. We take note of studies which indicate a lack of interest in children and parenting. And, paradoxically observe a resurgence of motherhood and marriage. This, despite the fact that the predicted divorce rate will be two out of three and the indication of the severe impact divorce has on the children involved.
- THERE IS NO REPLACING THE BIOLOGICAL PARENT: We cannot reconstitute the family. There are no replacement mothers or fathers. Mother and father are hallowed words. They are also psychologically “holy” places. Most stepmothers and stepfathers wonder at a child’s ability to almost worship the biological parent no matter what that parent has, or has not, done. It is instinctive and natural.
- UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS BEGET REJECTIONS AND RESENTMENTS: One of the most common fallacies of those who live in step is unrealistic expectations. Whether it be the child expecting the new stepparent to be awful or wonderful; the stepfather stating, “Now I’m the father around this house and we can start running things properly,” the stepmother feeling that caring and working hard will cure everything or that she can be uninvolved with his kids with impunity, etc.. Realistically or unrealistically, everyone mysteriously feels short- changed. The good news in step is that you get more people, the bad news is that you get less of the ones you like and more of the one’s you dislike.
- SUPERSTEPPARENTING DOES NOT WORK: We see this most with the stepmother. She comes into the situation with caring- trying to please. Superwoman would be hard pressed to compete with this gal- she works, she’s a homemaker, and a stepmother as well. The super stepfather can come on too fast and too soon. He is often concerned with issues of discipline. He wants to teach the children what he feels they have missed. Both stepmother and stepfather can endeavor to buy the child’s affection with gifts and events. Biological parents are not exempt from this practice.
- JOB DESCRIPTIONS: Most couples in step do not establish clear job descriptions neither for themselves nor for the children involved. This lack of step management can result in upsetting consequences. Most who live in step are not clear with each other regarding the contributions and responsibilities that they expect. Often the notion of the contributions and responsibilities are based upon that of the intact family. Even more often, expectations are undelineated. *** Some of the work we do at the Stepfamily Foundation is defining exactly what the job descriptions are for each member of the household and each child whether visiting or permanent. For example, how living spaces are kept, how meals and cleanup are handled. Household etiquette should be defined, e.g. in this house we say “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you,” etc.. It is the role of the male and female head of the household to draw up job descriptions, agree, and then to present them in a positive way with room for feedback for children.
- DISCIPLINE: Discipline is one of the most important issues in step. Discipline does not just mean punishment. Discipline is also guidance and direction. All of us were raised with different styles of discipline. In an intact family, the couple has had time to decide on the modes and methods of discipline. In step, we must quickly and consciously decide and define how we will order our households. Discipline and structure equal caring and love.
- VISITATION: Visitation is something that is generally upsetting to everyone in a nuclear and extended stepfamily. Each time the child goes between homes, the feelings related to the trauma and upset of the divorce can reoccur. The grownups involved often do not recognize that the difficulties and uncertainties of visitation can negatively impact all. *** Visitation is best when clearly defined, planned, and anticipated both coming and going.
- FEAR OF LOSS OF TERRITORY AND POSITION: Step is borne of loss. Step comes into being out of death, the death of the intact family and a failed marriage. Each person in the nuclear and extended stepfamily may have suffered a loss of position and territory. Many who live in step feel that their position is constantly threatened. Just as you have found your seat in the stepfamily someone else is sitting in it. Wanting to come first and vying for position reverberates throughout step… be it that of a wife, husband, Daddy’s girl, Mommy’s boy, first born, or baby. The urgency to establish position and turf pulls heavily. The single parent who focused only on the children must now divide her time between the children and her new partner. “Whose questions do I answer first?” “Who would be attended to first in a lifeboat situation?” The intact family did not prepare us for this. Each asks the question, where do I fit in? Where do I rank? *** As adults we must establish this order or we will create a problem which we label as “Position Hunger.”
- INTRUSION AND FEELING LIKE AN OUTSIDER: In step, everyone feels like an outsider. The insiders become outsiders and the outsiders become insiders. Everyone can feel intruded upon. The man works all week and wants to be alone with his wife. Her children are there and his children will be visiting. She feels as though she has no relationship with her husband when his kids come over. Sometimes she may even resent her own children. The children see the new spouse as an intruder and outsider and taking away from the relationship with their parent.
- GUILT: In general, the absent biological father suffers the greatest degree of guilt. He may feel that he never sees his child enough to make a difference. He failed at the marriage. His payments are never enough. His child is being raised by a woman he no longer can influence nor cares for. HE frequently feels he only gets the bills and not the blessings. He feels the mother, his former spouse, may be poisoning the child against him. He suffers under the dreaded fear of losing his children. The truth is that a great percentage of absent biological parents actually do, for all intents and purposes, lose their relationship with their children. His fear have substance. In addition, his present wife blames him for being controlled by the former wife. She complains that he turns into a wimp every time his “ex” calls.
The woman can feel guilty about giving her attentions to the new man in her life and away from her children. Now, a new form of guilty female abounds in the land. She works- she is successful, she has little time to have easy, loving, unstructured, caring, female time with her children. She never does enough at her job, for her children, or for her man.
- MONEY: Money equals love in this culture. Money equals who you are and who you are not. We all too often relate our worth to the allocation of money. No matter how much money there is in the step situation, it repeatedly becomes an issue. Financially, many second wives believe they have become second best. She wonders why he must give the children money, in excess of the agreement… they haven’t had a vacation in years. The first wife and the children may also think they are not getting enough. He may feel he is not only supporting his children, but his wife’s children as well. Everyone wants more and thinks that they deserve more. She works hard and part of her money supplants the money he doesn’t have to put into their relationship due to alimony and child support payments. She pays for his kids and then feels like the maid (which they cannot afford) when his kids visit. The children perceive that Mom does not have enough money and that Dad and his new wife have more. The children can be resentful that Dad’s new family is taking away money that is rightfully theirs. Wills and insurance policies can become major weapons of war in step. Everyone can be wronged. Monetarily, adults may no t know what is the “right thing” in a step situation. Due to this complexity and confusion, money matters often end up being handled through avoidance or lack of disclosure. Generally, should the relationship break up, the law does not compensate stepparents for what could be years of service. It seems as though no matter what you do vis a vis money in step, somebody gets hurt. *** As difficult as it may be, it is important for step couples, prior to marriage, to carefully discuss and plan financial obligations and allocations. Prenuptial agreements are in order. In fact, we advocate the delineation of a postnuptial agreement concerning disbursements of time, energy, and money.
- OVERINDULGENCE… THE NEED TO PLAY CATCH UP BY THE ABSENT BIOLOGICAL PARENT: The complaint of many women in step is that he overindulges his children on visitation. The issue here is a difficult one for many women to understand. The custodial mother has the notion that her children will always be close. She seldom thinks of losing them. Somehow her biological bonding allows her little understanding of the fears of the absent male biological parent. His children, on a daily basis, are being raised by someone, of whom he may no longer approve. He often feels the need to “play catch up” regarding love, influence, education, etc.. Should he discipline them? Reprimand them? Even see their negative behaviors??? If he does, he unconsciously may fear that they won’t want to come back. He is also concerned that his prior spouse will prompt the children and embellish any negativity- past, present, or future.
We are now seeing more and more women giving up custody or sharing custody with their husbands. All of the above fears, overindulgences, and compensating behaviors now hold true for these women as well as men. Absent biological parents can and do lose touch with their children. Their concerns are well founded. When custody is shared, children are now offered the opportunity to play both parents against each other, further heightening the tendency to overindulge. The overindulged child can later have difficulties in a society which expects duties, contributions, and responsibilities. There are those who say that the whole crisis concerning the productive worker relates directly to the lack of parenting, loving discipline, and structure in the home. The increasing divorce rate, coupled with guilt about working compounds the overindulgence factor with children.
Overindulgence is not just a mistake made by absent biological parents. Today we see numerous single parents who are working hard and do not see their children often enough. Many tend to fall short of on the basics of disciplining. Beds do not have to be made, clothes do not have to be hung up. The children do not have to help with the meals but watch television instead while Mother does all the work.
- STRESS AND STEP: We live in a stressful world. The resources to cope which were available in the 1950’s and the 1960’s are gone. An extended family, household help, the wife at home, even an affordable home, for many families are no longer possible. The new stresses currently placed on individuals are enormous: Male/female issues, high divorce rate, decline of buying power and the ever increasing demands of the work place- difficult in the intact family- are compounded in step. Many men must support two families- help their new wives with the household and additionally act as mother and father to their own children on weekends.
Financially and domestically, the woman must carry her workload. Studies show that women still perform a far greater percentage of the housework. Children are impacted by the unrecognized stresses of visitation. They are further stressed by the lack of structure and the uncertain expectations of adults. Many children feel as though they are “Citizens of Nowhere.” For much of the time no one is home for them. Television is their constant companion. In addition, children are often asked to assume the responsibility of becoming the parent’s confidante regarding issues of money, dating, and personal problems. We often unthinkingly load up the child with the negatives of our lives. What a child needs most is a sense of security, belonging, and positivity. The child of today does not have enough caring human resources upon which he or she can rely.
- SEX AND STEP: Again and again spouses complain that, “when the children are here… our sex life isn’t.” Many adults become nervous and concerned when their children visit. There can be a tendency to focus their attentions on the children and withdraw their interest from their sexual partner. For the woman upset can occur when she perceives that he has been unfair to her children. This may cause her to pull away from him sexually. Sexuality can be a problem for the single parent. Long term relationships may be accepted by children. However, when long term relationships break up, the children once again suffer a loss. Casual encounters, the arrivals and departures of a variety of sexual partners may be detrimental to children, according to a number of studies.
The child’s sexual development can become confused in step situations. The Oedipal desires, i.e. the son wanting to have a Mommy all to himself and the daughter wanting all of Daddy’s attentions can take place in a divorce and become further conflicted in step situations. The boy may become Mommy’s little man. The girl may become Daddy’s little girl. When a stepparent is involved even the normal adolescent plying up to Daddy or protecting Mommy can become a cause for major upset in step. The family incest taboo must be addressed in step- not only between parent and child but also between step siblings as well.
- THE RELUCTANT STEPPARENT PERSON: We are seeing a growing number of people both males and females who no longer “wish to be involved.” This has increased over the last decade. The causes are numerous. People have become involved in step and failed, draining their energies, emotions, and taxing their career. More women are working and devoting their time to the market place as opposed to the parent place. Should the relationship end in divorce, the adults involved are frequently reluctant to commit to any relationship involving children. We are seeing a greater number of people abstaining from serious involvements, having casual relationships, and sometimes no relationships at all.
We are also seeing a growing number of women who have never parented, who have been or are involved in relationships where there are children, deciding never to have a baby because of their negative experience of step. The ultimate stepparent is an ex-stepmother or an ex-stepfather. So often they are dissolved from their prior stepchildren's lives after years of involvement and caring.
- THE POSITIVE DYNAMICS: The above dynamics are generally negative and classic to step. They must be seen and dealt with. Not to be forgotten are the many “good news” stories in step. The well functioning stepfamily provides the child with many more people resources. The children are exposed to a variety of lifestyles, points of view, and experiences. Adults gain the love, admiration, and respect of another child. History is filled with great men and women who have had stepmothers and stepfathers who became powerful and positive influences upon them.