Lesson 7 of 7  - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

New-stepfamily Challenge:

Merge Several Biofamilies,
 and Resolve Many Conflicts

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member, NSRC Experts Council

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

Updated 05-22-2015

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      This YouTube clip previews what you'll read in this article:

      This is one of a series of Lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance (functional) 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 stepparents and bioparents managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.  

      A complex multi-year task that all new-stepfamily members face is how to merge their three or more multi-generational biofamilies over time. This article identifies 16 things member must merge, and offers ideas on how to minimize stress along the way. The article assumes you're familiar with...

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

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 6

  • this perspective on personal and family change

  • stepfamily facts and Q&A

  • this example of a real stepfamily

      A single-parent's serious dating triggers the blending of both partners' biofamilies and the biofamily of their kids' "other parent/s." If each courting partner has prior children, and each of their kids' "other parents" re/marries, then there are three couples and six merging multi-generational families related by kids' genes and ancestry, memories and tokens, rituals, names, legal documents, history, needs and emotions, and finances.  

   What Do New-Stepfamily Members Merge?

1)  Dwellings, physical possessions, and pets

2)  Communication, parenting, and conflict-resolution styles

3)  Family roles, rules, and "ranks" (who leads?)

4)  Kids’ and adults’ friends and socializing styles

5)  Legal contracts, including mortgages, real estate and vehicle titles, insurance policies, wills, divorce decrees, and parenting agreements

6)  Personal and family priorities, values, morals, standards, and boundaries  (tolerances)

7)  Home and family beliefs, customs, rituals, and traditions

8)  Personal and family goals and dreams

9)  Definitions of "family," family identity, and of who belongs to the new stepfamily

10)  Individual and family experiences, and stepfamily expectations

11)  First and last names, and family- role titles

12)  Daily schedules and routines

13)  Privacies and personal spaces

14)  Personal wounds, losses, and ''unfinished business.''

15)  Financial debts and assets, including insurances, investments, and savings accounts 

16)  Ancestral family "scripts" ("This is what our family must be." - e.g. rich, prominent, successful, liberal, radical, religious, etc.) 

       Combining all these factors over time is like three or more small companies merging and negotiating new organizational roles, rules, common goals, and priorities in an ever-changing world. Typically these complex family mergers take five or more years after courtship to really stabilize. Some never do.

      To make this concept more real, meet the McLean-Cohen-Tilmon stepfamily. Sarah McLean and her 13 year old daughter moving into Jack Tilmonís home after the adult's  wedding triggered a series of complex changes rippling through their three lives, and the lives of Patty’s biofather Ted, Jack’s two (non-custodial) kids, and their biomom and stepfather. Other key relatives’ lives were significantly affected too. In their many scattered homes, all of these people began to reorder and rebalance hundreds of things, in groups, like... 

      Physical belongings: Jack and Sarah had to combine their furniture, utensils, dishes, beds and linens, pictures, pets, vehicles, appliances, toys, tools, books, clothes, etc. Because these are tangible and many items are used often, they’re usually the first things that merging adults and kids negotiate about ("Your couch or mine, in the living room?")

      Combining the sets of invisible assets in three or more co-parents’ extended families is just as real and potentially conflictual. For example…

      Customs and Traditions: "Now that we’re a family, you all will join us in saying grace before we eat, won’t you?" "We never put uncovered food in the refrigerator, okay?" "I file every paid bill and cancelled check. I didn’t know you throw all yours out…" "We always open presents the night before. That’s not a problem, is it?" "We’ve gone to the lake every summer for many years. You all will love it!" "We’ve always had salmon at Easter, since I was a kid. Your mother and sister don’t like salmon?"

      Priorities: "We’re used to doing our work before playing, so I think you should do your homework before TV, OK?" "Well, I think all of us eating together is more important than your son making basketball practice." "My need to talk with our lawyer on the phone outranks your son’s need to jabber with the buddies he spent most of the afternoon with!" "You’re so afraid your ex will sue for sole custody that you let her blow off child support and walk all over you."

      Communications styles: George D’Amato and his clan are used to all talking at once, and expressing anger, love, hurt, and frustration loud and clear. Family problem-solving routinely involves arguing, interrupting, demanding, threats, and sarcasm. Like their staid and stern German and English ancestors, Margaret Friedrich’s pre-teen daughters have been taught to be quiet, respectful, and (fairly) unemotional, in public. They’re used to debating conflicts calmly, and "never fighting." The D’Amatos and the Friedrichs are about to get remarried, and all six will live in the Friedrich’s home together...

      Parenting Styles: Sarah Mclean was affectionate, warm, patient, and easy-going with her custodial early-teen daughter Patty. They were used to talking together about their lives and problems. Sarah often didn't follow through with limits she set. 

      Sarah's new husband Jack was rigid, authoritarian, impatient, critical, condescending, and punitive in disciplining his stepdaughter Patty. He lectured, rather than discussed, and rarely talked about himself. Patty's biofather was uninvolved, erratic, and he usually deferred problem-solving: "Talk to your mother about that."

      Jack's ex-wife and her new husband had a different parenting style than the Tilmons - they favored natural consequences, listening to their three kids, and compromising when their parenting values clashed.  

      Values ("standards"): "You discipline to teach, but I discipline to punish. Kids won’t obey or respect you, unless they feel some loving pain!" "No, your phone calls should stop at 10 P.M., period!" "Well I don’t think it’s too much to expect an apology from her ..." "Ned should have the support check here by the third, at the latest!" "Tommy, in this home, we don’t eat dinner without shoes on." "You guys put things off too often. We’ll all do better if we never let the sun set on a problem, don’t you see?"

       More invisible things kids and adults must choose between as their multi-home stepfamily evolves after (each) re/wedding:

      Household and extended-family roles and ranks: "But I've always carved the turkey!"; "I feel like a non-person when your son talks only to you at the dinner table!"; "I used to get the best grades, but now my snotty stepsister does!"; "Since she remarried, my daughter doesn’t call nearly as often."; "Dad, do I have to buy a present for my step-cousin?"; "Could my son like his new stepfather better than me?"

      Privacy and space: "I used to have my own room, but now I have to share it with my new sister Paula."  "You mean I can’t have my own bathroom in their (vs. ‘our’) house?"  "But where’ll I park my car?" "Looks like we’ll have to combine your home-office and mine in here." "I know you’re used to coming into your Mom’s room any time, but we need our privacy, Nina, so please respect our closed door now unless it’s an emergency, okay?"

      And so on...

      Each of the 16 merger categories has scores of individual items that new-steppeople must sort out, rank, and compromise on over time, for harmony and stability in and between their related homes. Consider this three-generational stepfamily diagram. Now imagine groups of adults and kids in your stepfamily map working to blend and stabilize these 16 groups of things co-operatively:

      Stepfamily pioneers Emily and John Visher suggested "In 8 (years after re/wedding) itíll be great!" - i.e. your combined biofamilies will probably be pretty stable. Typical new-stepfamily mates assume rosily "Things will settle down in several months." Wrong. Their expectation is usually based on the far simpler two-family merger that average childless first-marriers work at.

      This complex multi-year merger inevitably causes conflicts within and between stepfamily members. The adults' shared challenge is to learn to resolve many conflicts over values, resources, and priorities or loyalties effectively together, in ways that leave everyone involved feeling good enough. A key part of this challenge usually involves divorcing parents resolving major relationship  barriers between themselves, and their kids and relatives.

      Couples who have progressed well on Lesson 1 (assess for and begin healing psychological wounds) and Lesson 2 (learn and use seven thinking/communicating skills) are the most effective at resolving their merger conflicts. Average co-parents haven't progressed on these and other vital Lessons. In America, over half of them eventually re/divorce psychologically or legally, despite prior breakups.

  Merger Suggestions

      If you're considering forming or joining a stepfamily, your adults can minimize merger stress and confusion by...

      1)  Discussing the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and it's relevance to you all and your descendants. Taking the cycle seriously will provide motivation to...

      2)  Study and discuss Lessons 1-6. At the least, help each other identify and reduce any psychological wounds (Lesson 1), learn to problem-solve (Lesson 2), and learn stepfamily basics (Lesson 7). If you don't, the following suggestions probably won't help you avoid merger stress.

      3)  Agree on an attitude of teamwork and a long-term vision. Acknowledge that you're all partners in a complex, challenging family-building enterprise with a common goal: to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily, and guard your descendents against inheriting ancestral wounds and ignorance. Option - evolve and use a stepfamily mission statement together.

      Help each other stay aware that this merger project is one of up to 30 concurrent tasks that your members will need to do together over many years. This task requires divorcing parents to commit to reducing any major co-parenting barriers for their kids' sakes.

      4) Co-parents agree that to put dependent kids' first long term, family adults must often rank their kids' needs below co-parents' (a) personal wholistic and (b) marital health. That protects kids from psychological wounds and re/divorce trauma. Adults who discount or disagree with this, are probably psychologically wounded, and may have avoided grieving some major losses (broken bonds).

      5)  Invite all family adults and older kids to read and discuss this article, to prepare for making a merger plan. This combats the powerful re/divorce hazard of unawareness.

      More suggestions to minimize merger stress...     

      6)  Improve your stepfamily members' communication effectiveness as needed. You're probably ready to resolve merger conflicts well together if each adult can...

  • answer _ these communication-basics questions and _ this related quiz.

  • _ define the four kinds of conflicts (internal, tangible resource, values, and communication needs), _ how they relate, and _ how to resolve each of them;

  • _ describe the difference between surface needs and primary needs, and _ how to identify the latter;

  • _ define the difference between surface and primary changes and _ how to recognize each of them;

  • _ define what loyalty conflicts are, _ how they evolve, _ why they stress re/marriages, and _ what to do about them;

  • _ define a Prosecutor-Victim-Rescuer relationship triangle, and _ how to avoid or dissolve them;

  • _ describe what E(motion)-levels and R(espect)-messages are, _ what an "=/=" interpersonal attitude is, and _ why it's essential for effective relationship problem-solving; and...

  • describe at least ten of the ~30 common blocks to effective interpersonal communication (more is better), and what to do about them.

My experience counseling over 1,000 typical stepfamily co-parents and supporters since 1981 is that very few typical adults can meet even half of these requisites. This plus U.S. public apathy promote low family nurturance ("dysfunction"), divorce, and the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle. See self-improvement Lesson 2.

      7) evolve a merger plan together. Stepfamily leaders agree on what you want your 16-level, multi-family merger to look like when you're "done" - e.g. -

"We'll be 'done' when all our adults and kids honestly feel we've really resolved all significant conflicts over our merged multi-home stepfamily roles (responsibilities), rules, rituals, goals, priorities, membership, assets and liabilities, names, titles, and expectations." 

      Once you agree enough on your merger goals, then intentionally forge co-operative strategies to achieve them. This requires co-parents to admit merger conflicts promptly without blame; and to evolve a way to resolve conflicts effectively - e.g. by using these seven skills. That hinges on all adults wanting to help each other heal any significant psychological wounds (Lesson 1).

      Effective conflict-resolution strategies clearly answer questions like these:

  • When one of us identifies a values or loyalty conflict and/or a relationship triangle in or between our stepfamily homes, what should we do?

  • If we adults can't agree on what we should do (a values conflict), what do we do?

  • How do we know when we need professional help with our merger conflicts and triangles? How can we find qualified professional help together?

  • How can we judge what stepfamily advice and resources are effective?

       8)  Be alert for power struggles and trying to convert new step-kin to your standards and values ("Our way is better than your way.") Mutual respect and negotiating win-win compromises will minimize stress.

      9)  Learn how to distinguish changes (no broken bonds) from losses (broken bonds). Then help each other be aware of - and talk about - the losses that your adults and kids will experience as you merge.

      10) Teach your kids stepfamily realities and your merger goals and plans in age-appropriate language. Help them learn how to talk about how the merger is affecting them. Finally...

       Suggestion 11)  Enjoy affirming each other (including kids!) as you all merge and stabilize your biofamilies over several years! If you're part of a co-parent support group, consider introducing participants to the ideas here.

      So what does all this mean to most stepfamily co-parents and kids?


      Step back from the details, and consider the big picture. Note several things about the overall multi-year task of merging and stabilizing your biofamilies:

Losses and Grieving

      As your stepfamily members merge these many things, most kids and adults will experience invisible and physical losses (broken bonds). They'll need to admit and grieve these losses over many months or years to regain their emotional balance. If adults have done their homework on Lesson 3, they'll have started to evolve and use a ''Good Grief'' policy in your homes to guide and support everyone as they mourn.

      Merger losses add to those from (a) childhood trauma, (b) transition to adulthood, (c) marriages an child births, and (d) family divorce or mate/parent death. If any of your adults or kids hasn’t had enough time to mourn their prior losses enough, they can feel emotionally overloaded and "act out" (i.e. depression, apathy, "rage outbursts," "crying jags," addictions, (including overeating), illness, etc.

Watch for Overwhelm

      Loyalty and values conflicts + losses from combining these 16 categories of things are concurrent. This suggests the value of adults' co-operatively sorting, ranking, and focusing, as they resolve each conflict. Co-parents dominated by short-sighted, reactive  false selves can lack the self-discipline, concentration, and empathy to do this effectively. They may be impatient to gain the ideal family they long for.

      To minimize stress, new-stepfamily adults should be aware of how fast they're changing things in their homes and family: they should watch for signs of overwhelm in their kids and wounded adults. Signs can include "depression," anger outbursts and belligerence, isolation, apathy, illness, addiction, rebellion, sullenness, etc. If you see signs like these, s-l-o-w  d-o-w-n!

Kids' Behaviors

      Healthy minor kids in a new environment instinctively need to test and retest until they learn...

  • how they rank in their new stepfamily (important > unimportant),

  • the new roles and rules in and between their parents' homes,

  • what happens if they (the kids) break the rules,

  • who makes the rules and any consequences, and...

  • how much power they have in each co-parenting home.

So "acting out" may be symptoms of this normal testing and local overwhelm from all the merger changes in kids'  lives. New and older teens are specially vulnerable to this as they evolve toward adult independence and sexual maturity 

Reactions Differ

      Some merger conflicts and losses that are very stressful for a child may feel trivial to family adults, or vice versa: e.g. "We had to give away my cat Midnight because my wimpy stepbrother is allergic!" So adult empathy, compassion, and mutual respects are priceless assets in this multi-year merger process. Typical survivors of low-nurturance childhoods often lack these traits…

      Another merger factor to be aware of is...

Little Informed Support

      Most lay and professional supporters are unaware of stepfamily realities, and won't empathize with the scope and stress of this long, complex, biofamily merger. Unawareness, media distortions, biases, and lack of stepfamily experience and realistic training all hinder their ability to empathize with new stepfamily members. This suggests the value of starting to build an informed support network together and using it!

Talk About the Merger!

      New-stepfamily members can...

  • Ignore their stepfamily identity ("Naw, we're just 'a family'") and minimize or ignore their merger process (other than obvious physical things); or ...

  • Admit their new identity but don’t talk about the merger process; and/or they can...

  • Repress adults' and kids' merger needs, thoughts and feelings; and/or...

  • Minimize or deny merger conflicts and loss-impacts on themselves and each other.

      To promote effective problem-solving and grieving and reduce personal and family stress, talk about the merger process, changes, conflicts, and compromises together as you go: "Wow! This (merging) is tougher than we realized. How do other step people get through this?"

      Help each other congratulate family members who find win-win compromises, and console your kids and adults suffering broken emotional bonds: "Itís really hard having to change all your friends and teachers and go to a strange new school, isn’t it? I’m so proud of the way you’re being sad and angry about all these tough changes, Maria! Doing those good-grief things will help you feel better, and enjoy your new friends and school, after a while."


      This article identifies 16 groups of things that typical new-stepfamily members must merge over several years after a single parent starts to date seriously. It adds common implications of this complex multi-year biofamily-merger process, and offers specific suggestions to minimize stress from it.

      The complexity, scope, and importance of this process suggests the high value of courting co-parents and their relatives starting to evolve a merger plan before re/wedding. These common hazards and relationship barriers usually inhibit this. Shared awareness is the key!

      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? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

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