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Stepfamily Dynamics: When You’re Not Blending

Co-parenting, jealousy, and step-sibling conflict can chip away at a family’s future. But five changes can create a lasting impact on stepfamily dynamics.

Abe was frustrated and worried his family was falling apart. He described his situation of his stepfamily dynamics this way:

“I’m not sure what to do. I’ve been married two times and have one son from each marriage. My current wife is growing increasingly hostile toward my oldest. Just yesterday, she complained that I am spending too much time with him and not enough with our son.

“She’s bitter, jealous, and possessive—she even wants him written out of my will—and I’m caught in the middle. Now the boys are not getting along. No matter what I do, somebody loses and somebody is mad at me.

It doesn’t help that my first son’s mom is constantly competing with my wife. Once again, I’m stuck in the middle.”

Unique Stepfamily Dynamics

Blended families have unique dynamics that slow down the process of bonding (or “blending”). Abe’s situation illustrates several:

  • People who feel like outsiders and are jealous of the insiders.
  • Parenting issues that ripple into the marriage.
  • Biological parents who feel caught between their child(ren) and spouse.
  • Financial issues.
  • Conflict with a stepparent or between stepsiblings.
  • Problems with an ex-spouse that complicate co-parenting and cause stress in the home.

When experienced together, these dynamics block stepfamily harmony and chip away at hope for the family’s future. But making a few small changes can make a big difference.

Five Steps for Healthy Family Blending

In the midst of stepfamily struggles, there are a number of actions you can take and perspectives to adopt that can help move your family toward blending. Consider working with a qualified pastor or therapist as you take these steps.

1. Strive to unite your marriage.

Marital harmony in blended families is as much about parenting as it is about your marriage. Deciding together how to parent the kids helps take biological parents out of the middle and decreases family conflict.

To get there, three things need to happen. First, stepparents will have to manage jealousy. Second, biological parents have to manage the temptation to defend their kids. Third, both partners need to manage the fear of loving and losing again.

2. Relax your expectations.

Stepfamily stress is high the first few years. These are what I call the integration years. Stress is high in part because couples often have high expectations for how quickly the family will merge.

But you cook a stepfamily with a Crock-Pot, not a blender. Becoming a family doesn’t happen fast; it takes years. Stop expecting a quick fix, and start repairing the family one relationship at a time. Start by strengthening your marriage, then various individual relationships.

3. Appeal to the lowest common denominator.

While trying to work through hard feelings, invite adults and children alike to strive for the basics. A stepparent might say to a stepchild, “I realize you don’t want me around, but let’s just try to be civil to each other.” A dad might say to his child, “I don’t expect you to love my wife, but I am asking you to be decent and respectful, like you are to your teachers at school.”

Of course, you hope the family will grow beyond shallow civilities. But these small shifts, magnified by time, add up to significant course corrections.

4. Co-parent well.

Healthy co-parenting occurs when ex-partners put aside their negative personal relationship history and focus on their current parental relationship functions. At the end of the day, this means choosing to put the child’s needs above your own feelings. Start by being business-like in your interactions, maintain an online schedule, and avoid hot button issues.

5. Let go of self-condemnation.

I have a confession to make: Abe’s story at the beginning of this article is not a contemporary one. It’s an adapted retelling of the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hager and their children Isaac and Ishmael (see Genesis 1621:1-11).

There is a common misconception that if a person was more spiritual or faithful to God, he or she wouldn’t be in a blended family. But, you see, blended families have been part of God’s story for a long time, and they have always had trouble blending—even faith-filled ones.

You’re not alone. God is with you. Keep going.

Copyright © 2020 by Ron Deal. All rights reserved.

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