“What is happening?! I didn’t think it would be like this. I’m not really sure what I expected, but this wasn’t it!”
I’ve had these kinds of thoughts countless times over the years. We all had certain expectations heading into stepfamily life. Some of our expectations were driven by our culture and some by our upbringing. Some were driven by believing that we could never repeat what happened in our last relationship. Yet others were driven by believing that the qualities we saw in our new partner during the dating stage were actually the full picture of who they are — dating is never the full picture.
We all head into stepfamily life with expectations that eventually force us to face unexpected realities. Here are 9 of the most common realities that catch step-couples off guard and how to deal with the disappointment that comes with them.
1. Low and Slow vs. Fast and Furious
Most of us suffer from “The Brady Bunch Delusion.” We might know that blending two families isn’t going to be easy, but we choose to believe that it will mostly be smooth sailing for our stepfamily. Everyone is going to connect and enjoy each other reasonably quickly just like the Brady Bunch did!
The reality is that effectively blending a stepfamily is a process that takes time and it works best under low pressure. It’s low and slow, not fast and furious.
When you’re feeling the disappointment because blending doesn’t seem to be working, adjust your expectations. Research shows it takes an average of 7 years for a stepfamily to really click. Remember that blending takes time — for everyone! Shift your focus away from disappointment to action by discovering what you can do to bring that 7-year average down for your stepfamily.
2. Parenting Relationships vs. Parenting Responsibilities
Step-couples struggle to figure out who should be responsible for what when it comes to parenting. Many get stuck trying to divide up responsibilities thinking “moms do this…” or “dads should be responsible for that…” focusing on gender roles.
The reality is that parenting in stepfamilies is most effective when you focus on relationships rather than responsibilities. When kids need correction, they accept it best when it comes from a trusting relationship. That means their parent (not the stepparent) will always be the primary source of authority in their life.
One of the most common mistakes stepfamilies make is when a stepparent holds too much authority too soon. Healthy authority is always based on trust. Early on, the relationship between stepparent and stepchild is fragile. They need a chance to connect before a stepparent does any correcting. That can only happen when the parent is the primary parental authority in the home.
When you’re tired of always being the “bad guy” as a parent or when you’re frustrated as a stepparent because you feel helpless, work together to build a strategy that allows the parent to stay in authority while being supported by the stepparent behind the scenes.
3. Authority vs. Influence
Sometimes stepparents feel the need to establish some authority quickly to “lay a foundation” for moving forward. Other times they feel they have no choice because they’re often alone with their stepchild(ren), so they have to take some authority.
The reality is (just like the last point), too much authority from a step-parent too soon will slow or even stall bonding between a step-parent and step-child. The most successful step-parents choose to focus on influence rather than authority.
When you just can’t seem to get the response you’re looking for from your stepkids, consider shifting your focus. Authority is all about compliance, but Influence is about character. Ask yourself if your approach is centered on requiring obedience for today or on building a healthy adult for tomorrow.
4. Part of the Package vs. The Whole Package
When someone seems to be smart, funny, good looking and successful, we say they are “the whole package.” Well, “the whole package” means something a bit different for stepfamilies.
Most of the time, stepparents have a realistic expectation about kids being part of the package. However, they typically don’t think about their new partner’s relationship with their ex being part of the “whole package.” The disruption that an ex can create for your home can be overwhelming and often catches step-parents off guard.
When you’re angry about how disruptive your ex or your partner’s ex is to your home, recognize that they are a part of your “whole package” — for now. Keep in mind that their impact will change over time. They will always be present — for graduations, future weddings and other important events — but their level of impact and involvement reduces over time. Stay focused on how you can create more peace for you and the kids and keep your expectations in line.
5. Kids Are Adaptable vs. Stuck
Many parents believe that kids are adaptable and quick to adjust to a new family structure. They believe their kids will generally accept a parent’s new love interest and will probably go with the flow when they re-couple.
The reality is most kids are stuck. They don’t want to adjust to new family members. In fact, many kids who have experienced their parents’ separation hold onto a hope that they will somehow reunite someday. When one or both parents re-couple that can end their dream and push them deeper into “stuck-ness.”
When you’re hopeless that your child will ever adapt to your new partner, stay focused on helping them loosen up. Help them to know that you don’t expect them to “love” your new partner, but you do require respect. Create some space for them to build a relationship with a stepparent and celebrate little wins along the way.
6. Easier vs. More Difficult
Single parents often look forward to having a partner that will help them “carry the load.” Family life is busy and a single parent has a lot to accomplish. Becoming a parenting tag-team is going to make life easier, right? Wrong.
The reality is that parenting in a stepfamily can actually be more complex and challenging than single parenting. You each have different parenting styles, expectations and ideas of what preparing kids for adulthood looks like. Now that you’re a couple, you have to deal with parenting the kids and negotiating how to parent the kids with a partner.
When you can’t seem to get on the same page, start with a discussion about values. Figure out the top five values that you can both agree on for your home. Make sure you both have the same definition for each of those values. Then refer to unexpected reality #2 (above) when you implement these values in your home.
7. Family Time vs. One-On-One Connections
Step-couples enter stepfamily life excited for their new family! Not only are they looking forward to life together as a couple, but they’re often anticipating fun family time with all the kids.
The reality is that tensions are highest when the whole family is together. Step-couples planning lots of family time together may experience disappointment when it doesn’t go very well.
When your family time seems to be filled with frustration and stress, shift your focus to one on one time for all the relationships. Find a rhythm that allows bio-parents and their kids to spend quality time together. This will affirm that the kids are still secure in their relationship with Mom or Dad.
Then introduce family time in small doses. Try a picnic on a Saturday afternoon or even a 10-minute walk around your neighborhood. Slow and steady will win the race.
8. Biological Loyalties vs. Partnership Priority
It’s common for step-couples to be surprised when it feels like their partnership is pretty low on the priority list. Stepfamilies can easily divide along “biological lines,” creating two separate “camps” leaving individuals feeling like they are either in or out of each “camp.”
The reality is that relationships have been reordered in stepfamilies. Rather than the couple’s relationship being the first and longest relationship in the home; it is the parent-child relationship that have more history and are bonded by blood. This can create friction when it comes to parenting and family leadership decisions.
When it feels like your partnership is low on the priority list of all that’s going on in your stepfamily, set aside some time to connect. Be intentional about building your romantic relationship apart from negotiating all the tasks that come along with family life. Decide together what you can do to connect on a daily basis, enjoy some extra time together on a weekly basis and get some extended time to relax together on an annual basis. Getting your relationship higher on the priority list takes some planning and intentionality and you’ll discover it’s worth it!
9. Fresh and Fun vs. Ordinary and Difficult (One Roof?)
Whether walking down the aisle or signing a lease together, step-couples look forward to their new beginning. They look forward to a fresh start and the fun they’re going to have building the family they really want. It doesn’t take long to discover that what they dreamed isn’t necessarily reality.
The reality is that the mundane routine of ordinary life as well as the complex challenges of step-relationships can set in early for stepfamilies. They find themselves disappointed when the difficulty of stepfamily life sets in so quickly.
At that point many step-couples decide to give up. They throw in the towel because they feel like the walls of relational separation grow a little taller each day. Research shows that approximately 50% of step-couples end in separation — that’s double the rate of separation for first family couples. We get it. Kim and I were close to being one of those statistics.
When you’re feeling defeated, have hope and find your way forward! You can discover the hidden issues that are derailing your stepfamily. You can also learn strategies that will equip you with effective action steps that will help create more connection in your home. We’re confident you can get there because we have, and we’ve helped countless other couples thrive in their stepfamily too.
You’ve probably experienced at least one of these realities in your stepfamily journey. That means it’s time for you to take a next step. Whatever you’re experiencing in this season of your stepfamily journey, you can have hope and you can take a next step. Choose to move forward today!