Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Seek Mutual Respect,
Not Love

Avoid a toxic stepfamily myth

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council 

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/love.htm

Updated 05-17-2015

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      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 three or more stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.  

      This article hilights (a) the "instant-love" expectation in many new stepfamilies, (b) the primary causes of this error, and (c) options for reducing these causes over time. Before continuing, say out loud why you're reading this article. What do you need?

      This article assumes you're familiar with....

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

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 7

  • common stepfamily myths and realities

  • Q&A about stepfamilies

  • this example of a real stepfamily


color button.gif What's the (Surface) Problem?

      Typical stepfamilies differ from intact biofamilies in over 60 ways. Most stepfamily members aren't aware of these differences. Adults and kids long for their stepfamily to feel and act "normal" - i.e. like an idealized biofamily.

      Among dozens of myths (unrealistic expectations) this unawareness causes, one of the most stressful is "we new (step)family members should love each other (like healthy biofamily members)." This is specially true for stepparents and stepkids, stepsiblings, and kids and stepgrandparents.

      As new-stepfamily members merge their several biofamilies over some years,  an implacable reality often emerges: step-kin's real feelings for each other range from dislike to indifference to friendship (liking) - but rarely become (biofamily) love. When stepfamily adults and kids feel they're "supposed to" love each other and they don't, they can feel blame, self-doubt, guilt, anxiety, confusion, resentment, and hurt.

      If adults and supporters don't know how to discuss this problem openly, and/or feel unsafe doing so, these normal feelings promote dishonesty (pretense) and double messages - like saying or writing "I love you" when you really don't.

      This "instant love" myth can stress couples if a bioparent expects their new mate to love their stepchild/ren and feel and act like a bioparent. The reverse problem occurs when a stepparent or other relative criticizes a bioparent for not urging their child to love their new relatives. Stepsiblings can feel confused and stressed if they're told - or assume - they should love each other. Each of these situations causes stressful relationship triangles and loyalty conflicts.

      If the "instant love" myth is causing significant problems in your stepfamily, what are the underlying causes, and what options do your adults have to resolve them?

color button.gif  What's Really Going On?

      As a veteran stepfamily researcher and therapist, I propose that this "instant love" stressor is a symptom of up to five primary problems:

      1) One or more adults - including grandparents and in-laws - have inherited  significant psychological wounds, and they deny or ignore this or don't know what to do about it. This is a common root of most significant stepfamily role and relationship problems. One of six common wounds is reality distortion, which can manifest as expecting a stepfamily to feel and behave like an idealized intact biofamily ("so we all should love each other.")

      This brief YouTube video explores reality distortion. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site - I've simplified that to seven.


      Identify which of your adults is expecting "instant love," and use Lesson 1 to assess them for psychological wounds. Then consider these options for relating to them. 

       Another widespread core problem is...

      2) One or more adults or kids are denying or ignoring their identity as a normal stepfamily, and they don't (want to) know what that identity means. One result: They mistakenly expect their family roles and relationships to feel and act like those in an intact biofamily.

      They may deny their denial or minimize it ("OK, so we're a stepfamily - so what?"). A common reason for this is semi-conscious shame - believing "I'm in an inferior, abnormal type of family." Stepfamily-identity-denial and ignorance breeds many problems, not just the "instant love" myth. This article provides options for correcting this problem.     

      3) Even if stepfamily adults agree "We are a stepfamily," they and their supporters may not know what's normal in a typical stepfamily - i.e. they're applying biofamily norms and expectations to their alien new roles and relationships, and they don't know that.

      To test for this unawareness, study and discuss these stepfamily facts and Q&A items and these common myths and realities. If your adults, kids, and supporters truly accept your stepfamily identity and norms and still expect "instant love," several other core problems may need to be resolved. A common one is that...

      4) one or more adults or kids haven't grieved their major family-adjustment losses. Typical stepfamily members each need to identify and grieve major losses (broken bonds) from...

  • childhood, and...

  • parent death or divorce, and their family splitting into several homes; and...

  • parental re/marriage, cohabiting, and biofamily merger;

before they can accept their stepfamily identity and form stable new bonds with each other.

      Psychological wounds and ignorance of stepfamily realities and "good-grief" basics hinder healthy mourning. Lesson 3 suggests practical ways adults can evolve a ''pro-grief'' home and stepfamily.

      Another possible core problem promoting the "instant love" myth is...

      5) Someone's time-sense is distorted (unrealistic). For various reasons, adults or kids may feel "We've all been together in this home or family long enough, so you/we should love each other by now." Reflect on this: how long does it take for genuine adult-child love to bloom? How long to grow true, stable respect between two people? 

      Most stepfamily researchers propose that it usually takes four or more years after re/marriage for typical stepfamily members to know, accept, and trust each other. That may or may not include respect and liking. Learning and accepting this time span is part of adopting realistic stepfamily expectations. If someone in your home or stepfamily is exceptionally impatient (needy) for step-relatives to love each other, they're probably wounded and unaware. See #1 above.

      We just overviewed five common problems that can promote unrealistic "love" expectations among new stepfamily members and their supporters. Usually several of these problems are present and reinforce each other, until they're reduced.

      So what can stepfamily adults do about these problems?


      To convert unrealistic expectations - including "instant love" - into stepfamily realities, adults need to...

  • check themselves and each other for psychological wounds, and commit to reducing them over time (Lesson 1);

  • help each other - specially kids - grieve many losses, so everyone can...

  • accept their identity as a normal stepfamily, learn what that identity means,  and help each other grow realistic expectations; and...

  • patiently merge their several biofamilies over some years, seeking to grow friendship and respect, not love; and adults can...

  • help each other learn to spot and resolve loyalty and membership conflicts and relationship triangles; and...

  • Ask key people in their stepfamily to read and discuss this article, and to study Lesson 7 for everyone's sakes..

      How do you feel about these options? Are you motivated to discuss and try them?

color button.gif Recap

      A stressful misconception that some stepfamily members and supporters carry is that new-stepfamily members - specially stepparents, stepkids, and stepsiblings - are supposed to "love" each other like (idealized) biofamily members. When this doesn't happen, adults and kids can pretend love they don't feel and feel confused, self-critical, hurt, and guilty.   

      From 36 years' clinical experience, this article offers five primary reasons why new-stepfamily members may expect to love each other (and have other illusions), and suggests practical options toward accepting stepfamily realities. 

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

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