Lesson 7 of 7  - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily
Accept Your Stepfamily Identity
and Learn What it Means

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member, NSRC Experts Council 


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/sf/id.htm

Updated  05-15-2014

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      This YouTube video  previews what you'll find in this article:

      This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both bioparents, or any of the several related stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.

This article explores...

What's the problem?

Why accepting your stepfamily identity is essential, and...

How to manage identity conflicts and "resistances"

        Before reading further, learn something about your stepfamily with this anonymous 1-question poll.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it   

  • self-improvement Lessons 1-6

  • these stepfamily facts and Q&A items;

  • typical stepfamily myths and realities; and...

  • this example of a real stepfamily

  What's The "Identity" Problem?

       My experience as a professional stepfamily researcher and therapist since 1981 suggests...

  • widespread lay and professional ignorance about what a stepfamily is

  • many people feel stepfamilies and step people are inferior, irregular, abnormal, and "unnatural"

  • many authors and program leaders try to dodge the negative association of "step-" by using  adjectives like second (family), bonus, co-, reconstituted, reconstructed, and rem(arried). This reinforces the myth of stepfamily inferiority

  • members of stepfamilies commonly minimize or deny their identity as a normal stepfamily, or they say "We are a stepfamily," but they don't (want to) know what that means; and...

  • many lay and professional people believe up to 60 myths about normal multi-home stepfamilies and their members. In other words, they live from an array of erroneous expectations based on intact biofamily structures and dynamics.

       Bottom line - many people ignore, deny, and reject their identity as a normal stepfamily ["Why no - we're just a regular (bio)family."]. So they encounter great trouble avoiding or resolving stressful step- role and relationship problems because they have unrealistic expectations. This is surface problem.

Three Real Problems

      Premise - The basic problem is the prevalence of psychological wounds in adults in divorcing and re/ married families and in typical human-service professionals. These wounds are usually ignored, denied, or trivialized. They promote step-identity denial by...

  • protectively distorting reality (e.g. ignoring that stepfamilies are very different than intact biofamilies, and that U.S. re/divorces exceed first divorces),

  • wounded step-mates longing for the ideal family they never had as a child,

  • hindering healthy grieving of divorce or death-related losses (broken bonds); and...

  • excessive shame ("our family is inferior!") and parental guilt ("I'm raising our kids in an inferior family!")

       The second root problem is ignorance - lack of lay and professional knowledge of the topics in this online course, and denial of the impact of this ignorance on families and our society.

      The deepest problem is public denial of the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle that is inexorably spreading in and weakening global  cultures. This denial manifests by passively condoning unqualified child conceptions and inept parenting, which produces low-nurturance families and passes on psychological wounds.

      Pause and reflect Have you ever encountered these ideas about stepfamily identity before? Do they seem credible to you?

  Managing Stepfamily-identity Conflicts

      The goals here are to get all your adults and kids to...

  • understand what a stepfamily is,

  • accept "We all are a normal stepfamily," and...

  • motivate everyone to learn what your step identity means to you all, so you can...

  • evolve realistic role and relationship expectations and...

  • resolve these common problems together.

      The best time to begin work toward these goals is during courtship - before deciding whether to form or join a stepfamily. If you didn't, doing these steps can still be valuable:

1) Define the identity-assessment criteria you'll use;

2) Assess key relatives' step-acceptance and knowledge;

3) Motivate resistant or unaware relatives to (a) accept your identity and (b) change any stepfamily myths into realistic expectations; and...

4) Teach your kids about their step-identity and what it means to all of you;

            Here's more detail on these options:

Define Your Criteria

      With your partner, decide how to judge which relatives accept your stepfamily identity, For example:

      I now believe this adult or older child…

1)  can _ accurately describe what "a stepfamily" is, and _ can name at least five main differences between a stepfamily and an intact biological family. And s/he...

2)  _ realizes that when my partner and I committed to each other, we formed (or joined) a normal multi-home stepfamily; and _this relative knows what that means; And s/he...

3)  accepts without doubt that…

  • each of our minor and grown children's bioparents and stepparents is a full member of our multi-home nuclear stepfamily; and that…

  • each genetic or legal relative of each of our three or more co-parents is a full member of our  multi-generational stepfamily whether they agree or not.

If someone doesn't fully accept these realities, they don't really understand what a stepfamily is, and/or they have some major psychological issues and/or losses to resolve.

      And this family member now agrees that…

4)  if an adult's or child's behaviors, feelings, genes, and attitudes have significant effects on other family members, s/he is a full functional member of our stepfamily whether s/he wants to be included or not. And this person accepts our identity if s/he...

5)  freely uses stepfamily role-titles to talk about our members in public and at home - e.g. stepmother (father); stepdaughter (son); stepbrother (sister); our stepfamily (or equivalent); etc.

      Considering these five factors, I (or we) see this child or adult as clearly accepting our identity as a normal multi-home stepfamily now.

Wounded, uninformed people who are uneasy about or ashamed of being in a stepfamily may choose evasive "family" adjectives like blended, second, bonus, restructured, co-, combined, and reconstituted, to avoid the unpleasant connotations of "step-" (e.g. second best, inferior, abnormal, weird, and unnatural.) RED  LIGHT!!!

      Next, use your criteria to...

  Assess Your Relatives' Beliefs

       Starting with your mate, parents, grandparents, and older kids, use your criteria to judge (a) who accepts your stepfamily identity and (b) knows what it means. That might sound like "Uncle Walt, do you agree that when I married Marla, that made us all a stepfamily, and made you a step-uncle to her kids?" If you're uneasy about asking, there's probably some other unfinished business worth problem-solving...

      Keep your step-identity criteria simple and neutral, and note that vague answers ("I dunno - never thought about it."), ambivalence ("I'm not sure.") and direct denials ("NO, we are not a stepfamily!") usually indicate psychological wounds and unawareness. That usually means unrealistic expectations.

      Be ready to explain why you're asking. It's a chance to do some useful stepfamily education. If "Uncle Walt" (or whoever) asks "Why is that important?" say you're working to avoid family problems and to build a high-nurturance stepfamily.

      Repeat this evaluation with each stepfamily adult and older child. Stay aware that this is not a hunt to determine who's "wrong," but to identify who may have unrealistic expectations about your stepfamily roles, relationships, and dynamics.

       You'll probably end up with some relatives who...

  • genuinely accept your stepfamily identity, and have a good idea of what it means; and others who...

  • accept your identity and don't know what it means; and other adults and teens who...

  • are uncertain, vague, or ambivalent about your family identity and what it means, and..

  • some kinfolk who flatly reject or deny you all are in a stepfamily.

Raise Your Family-member's Awareness

      Give a copy of these articles to each adult and older child who accepts your stepfamily identity:

Discuss these together at family gatherings - specially if "non-believers" are present.

Help Your Kids Understand Your Stepfamily

      Typical pre-teens are often confused about stepfamily realities, roles, and relationships - specially if their adults are too. Younger kids lack the concepts (like "divorce" and "remarriage") and don't have the vocabulary to express their confusion and ask clear questions.

      An effective way to help them is to compare simple stick-figure or cartoon-face diagrams of their biofamily and their stepfamily. Another is to ask your local library for kids' age-appropriate books about stepkids and stepfamilies.

      Keys to emphasize are (a) stepfamilies and step-people are normal and OK, and (b) stepkids, step-parents, stepsibs, and step-relatives don't have to love each other.   

      If you have family members that reject or ignore your stepfamily identity, or are uncertain about or disinterested in it, what can you do?


      You can (a) wait for some significant family role or relationship problems to occur, or (b) try to prevent such problems. Either way, you'll need to confront "resistant" relatives and supporters on the reality of your stepfamily identity and their unrealistic expectations. The rest of this article offers ideas on how to do this effectively.

      "Supporters" include friends, clergy, psychiatrists, counselors, case workers, attorneys, mediators, judges, therapists, and medical professionals. Many don’t know  stepfamily basics (e.g. Lesson 7) - but they think they do. This is also true of many stepfamily authors, "experts," and Web-site hosts. For perspective on evaluating stepfamily advice and books, follow these links after you finish this article.

      Terminology can make a difference here. Some people dislike the prefix "step-" because they associate it with being "second best" or "unnatural," and with prior marital and perhaps parenting "failure."  These are symptoms of the widespread psychological wounds of excessive shame and guilt. Note that "blended families" are those in which each remarried mate has one or more prior kids.

      If you clarify what a stepfamily is and relatives still resist accepting your step-identity, you can...

Accept their resistance, and work on...

  • raising other members' awareness of stepfamily realities,

  • evolving and using an effective family mission statement, and...

  • managing your biofamily-merger plan; and/or...

Assess them for psychological wounds and incomplete grief; and..

Confront their resistance respectfully.


Respectful Confrontation

      Here, confrontation means "co-parents...

  • respectfully assert their opinions and needs about (a) stepfamily identity and (b) realistic stepfamily expectations to key adults and kids, and...

  • listen empathically to learn the relatives' opinions and needs, so they all can......

  • do win-win problem-solving together (vs. right/wrong arguing or power struggles) to fill everyone's primary needs well enough." 

How does this compare to your family's definition of confrontation?

Prepare to Confront

      Recall: ignoring, minimizing, or denying your stepfamily identity usually stems from significant psychological wounds + ignorance of stepfamily facts + incomplete grieving of significant losses (broken bonds).

      Ideally, stepfamily mates will each accept their stepfamily's identity and know what it means, before confronting other family members. If one mate doesn't, you have a high-priority values conflict to resolve. Not resolving it will promote confusion among other family members - specially minor kids.

      Both mates also need to be fully aware of...

  • the symptoms of psychological wounds (Lesson 1) and of unfinished grief (Lesson 3); and....

  • how to spot and resolve loyalty and values conflicts and relationship triangles; and...

  • their right to assert their opinions and needs, and to disagree with senior family members.

Example: Confronting "Dad"

      Let's assume that you mates have agreed you want to confront your father, who adamantly rejects your stepfamily identity. Let's further assume that...

  • none of you have lived in a stepfamily before,

  • you've never talked with your Dad honestly about your divorce,

  • you have two minor kids living with you - his new stepgrandkids; and..

  • your Mom usually "goes along with Dad." and defers to his opinion here.

      You've asked if he agrees that you're all a stepfamily, and he blusters and say's something like "That's ridiculous. Step-schmep - we don't need to use silly words like that, we're just a family!"

      How might you do an effective confrontation

      This example is meant to illustrate your key options, not be a rigid formula. Adapt these steps to fit your personalities and unique situation. Use the numbers to help you partners discuss specific options together if you're each reading a copy of this page.

      Your odds for success rise if you mates plan a confrontation with your father, rather than barging in impulsively.

Planning Options

      Some links below will open a new window. Wait until you're done here before following any.

      1)  Do a "Self check." Are your and your partner's respective true Selves planning this assertion? If not, which subselves have taken over, and why? Do you each know how to free your Self (capital "S") to guide you? If not, lower your expectations about this confrontation succeeding, and give Lesson 1 higher priority together.

      2)   Assess Dad for significant false-self wounds. If you believe he's often ruled by false selves, see this for perspective and options.  

      3)  Affirm your rights to assert your needs, opinions, and values to Dad without undue guilt or anxiety. Refresh your belief that respectful confrontation here will...

  • strengthen your self esteems and your relationship,

  • raise your stepfamily's nurturance level, and...

  • improve your and your kids' long-term security and well-being;

      4)  Affirm Dad's dignity and rights to his own values and opinions. He's not wrong, he has needs and values that shape his stepfamily-identity rejection. He and his wife may also lack some factual information about stepfamilies since they've had no prior reason to learn it.     

      Option 5)  Get clear on what you mates need from the confrontation. Typical goals...

we need this assertion to come from both of us, not just you or me; and... 

we want Dad and Mom to hear why we think this identity-agreement is important for all of us. Then we need...

him and Mom to genuinely accept our identity as a stepfamily (or some equivalent term), and then to...

agree to use some role-titles we all agree on to refer to their relationship with their new daughter-in-law and two stepgrandkids - without sarcasm, ambivalence, or embarrassment; and...

we want Dad and Mom to feel respected and heard by us, and we want the same from them; and finally...

we want the kids and their other co-parents to know what we're doing here, and why.

      If we can't get these needs met, we'll settle for Plan "B"...

Mom and Dad agreeing to read the information about stepfamilies that we provide, and then discuss it with us; and then...

we need both of them to try out seeing and calling us a "stepfamily," to see what it "feels like." Either way (plan A or B), we need...

Dad and Mom's acceptance that we'll choose to use stepfamily terms and role-titles even if they don't agree with them yet (".. so Alex is your step-grandson, and you're his step-grandfather.").

      6) Decide on a time and place which will minimize distractions (like phones, kids, TV) and optimize effective mutual listening. Then you mates discuss who you should be present. If Dad is specially proud (competitive, defensive), perhaps a 1-on-1 is better than having Mom there. If you choose that, also decide if you want to tell Mom in advance of what you're doing. 

      A related decision is whether to have your kids or selected others present to (a) experience the confrontation process and (b) feel like they're important and included. Depending on many things, this is a chance to model how grownups resolve significant values conflicts respectfully for everyone.

      7)  Imagine compassionately what responses Dad is likely to make to your assertion, and prepare for them. If this is a potentially explosive situation, you mates can role-play how you'd (a) use empathic listening to his likely responses, and (b) re-assert your specific needs calmly and respectfully.

      8)  Be prepared to give Dad (or both parents) a copy of Common Stepfamily Myths and review it with him or them. This is the best way to factually illustrate the reason for accepting your stepfamily identity. Stay aware of the real goal: that all adults adopt realistic stepfamily expectations and avoid re/divorce trauma - specially for any minor kids in the family

      Option 9) Agree on a way of affectionately reminding your partner to stay focused if someone brings up another family issue before you're done with this family-identity assertion. This might be a hand signal, a sound, clearing your throat, or a word or two...  

      10) Note that effective assertions can bring up unfinished business - e.g. Dad's feelings about your divorce. If that happens, be prepared to shift gears to problem solving the new issue, and deferring resolution of this identity-conflict to another time. Stay flexible and resilient, and pace yourself... "Progress, not perfection..."

      11) Do an attitude check: are you looking at this confrontation as a chance to improve your stepfamily relationships long term, or is this an onerous, scary chore that you (your ruling subselves) resent? The former usually has higher odds of success. Finally...

Act on Your Plan

      Assert your opinions and primary needs to Dad (and any others), and assess the outcome. Did you (a) get enough of your needs met (b) in a way that felt good enough? Affirm your effort, and clarify what you learned together.

      Notice what you're thinking and feeling now. Have you ever planned an assertion as thoroughly as this, in a high-emotion conflict? If it looks like a lot of work, it probably is. And the payoffs are probably high for you all, long term. Do you care enough about your stepfamily relationships to invest this effort? Your actions demonstrate your real priorities here more than your words.

Example: Handling "Resistances"

      Here's how a new stepfather might respond to his Dad's resistances to "acknowledging that we're a stepfamily." He uses...

  • an attitude of genuine mutual respect, and...

  • communication awareness, assertion and empathic listening skills.

      In this example, "You" are the stepdad, your new wife is Penny, your Dad is Frank, your Mom is Janet, and your resident stepkids are Nate and Becky. You're asserting to your father with Penny present, and your Mom and the kids absent.

You - "Dad, we really need your help with something. You've said you don't feel it's necessary to call us all a stepfamily, and we do. Will you listen to our reasons?"

Dad - "I still feel it's nuts..."

You - "You see no point to this." (Empathic listening - Dad nods and grunts in agreement, feeling heard.) "And we really need you to listen to our reasons - will you do that now?" (Patient re-assertion)

Dad - "Well don't take all day about it. What do you want to tell me?"

You - "As you know, a stepfamily has at least one stepchild and one stepparent. That's true of us. I'm obviously not the biological father of Nate and Becky, yet I'm co-parenting them with Penny. I'm their stepfather, Dad, and they're my stepkids."

Dad - "I understand that. What I don't see is why you need to use this term 'step.' Why not just say they're 'our kids'?"

You - "You see no value to using 'step' here." (Empathic listening again - respectfully summarizing what he said, without judgment, explanation, or question).

Dad - "Right. What's the big deal - am I missing something here?"

You - "Yes you are. Penny and I have been reading about stepfamilies, Dad. They're more likely to divorce than first marriages - and we don't want that to happen to us and the kids. Once is enough!"

Dad - "Mm. I didn't know that. And you think us calling ourselves 'steppeople' is going to prevent that?"

Penny - "Not by itself, Frank, no. What we're learning is that if we don't use stepfamily titles - like stepson, stepfather, and stepgrandfather (smile), we risk thinking and acting like an intact biological family."

Dad - "Well what's wrong with that? A family's just a family - people living together, and so on..." 

You - "You feel there's no difference." (Empathic listening - Dad nods). "Dad, we just learned that normal  stepfamilies like ours are different than average biological families in over 60 ways! That means that standard biofamily norms and expectations often don't work in a stepfamily. They cause problems, and Penny and I don't want 'em for any of us!"

Dad - "I don't get it. What's so different about a stepfamily?"

Penny - "Yeah, we didn't get it either, until we began to read and think about this." (She hands Frank copies of this and this.) "Would you and Janet please take the time to read these? They're about all of us. Then let's talk again about who we are, and what to call each other. We really want our marriage and this stepfamily to work!"

Dad - "We want that too, Penny. We sure don't want a repeat of... well, we don't want to go through that again. Sure, we'll read this. Doesn't look real complicated."

You - "Thanks, Dad. We really need your and Mom's help here."

      Does this read like a "confrontation"? How would you have navigated this exchange? Notice how this sequence could have turned out much different if "You" didn't use empathic listening to acknowledge "Dad's" views and feelings. The normal alternative is to argue ("Yes, but..."), interrupt, lecture, generalize, accuse, get irritated and impatient, and/or bring up old baggage ("You never listen!"). 

      Because you expected Dad to resist and didn't judge him badly for it...

  • you avoided an argument and some "bad feelings."

  • Dad felt heard (respected), so his E(motion) level stayed "below his ears" and...

  • he could hear you and Penny.

When that happened, he was willing to do what you asked - read about stepfamilies, and perhaps try calling you all a stepfamily and acknowledging his strange new role as Nate and Becky's stepgrandfather.

      If your Mother and/or anyone else had been present, the process would have taken longer, but the theme would be the same:

  • prepare well together with your partner,

  • expect resistances and know how to handle them (use empathic listening and re-assertion, unless you get new information);

  • help each other stay focused on one issue at a time until you're done,

  • use a genuine mutual-respect attitude with all participants,

  • give new information about stepfamilies as appropriate, to justify your assertion, and...

  • follow up on any agreements.

      Keep your perspective: if balky relatives agree to use stepfamily terms but aren't motivated to learn what your identity means, you're still at risk of their unconsciously causing stress by using biofamily expectations.

A Special Case - Confronting Ex Mates

      Most stepfamilies form after the divorce of one or both new mates. A common problem is trying to co-parent effectively despite residual problems between ex mates. Where this is true, confronting a resistant ex mate to agree to your stepfamily identity can be specially hard. For resolution options, see this after you're done here.

      A key requisite here is new mates and inlaws accepting that the ex mate/s and all their relatives are full members of your multi-home stepfamily - i.e. accepting that their feelings and needs deserve as much consideration as your own.

      If either of you mates or your biorelatives have trouble accepting this, you probably bear psychological wounds - and/or you have not grieved your divorce (and re/marriage) losses well enough. Make Lessons 1 and 3 a high priority for all your sakes, and discuss this after you finish this article..


      Many stepfamily adults and kids are unaware of being in a multi-home "stepfamily," or they resist accepting their step-identity. Even if they accept it, many don't know what being in a stepfamily means.

      This Lesson-7 article explains why accepting your step-identity is vital. It also offers guidelines, resources, and an illustration to help co-parenting mates assert their stepfamily identity to resistant or unaware relatives. This identity acceptance is required for all family members to form realistic expectations about their alien new roles and complex web of relationships.

      After inviting all your members to accept their stepfamily identity and learn stepfamily norms, then seek agreement on who belongs to your stepfamily, and evolve and implement a practical biofamily-merger plan.

+ + +

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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