Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

What's Normal In a Stepfamily?

 60 Realities

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member, NSRC Expert Council


The Web address of this two-page article is https://sfhelp.org/sf/myths.htm

Updated June 10, 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.

button  Directions

      This page is meant to be printed and used with a printed copy of 60 Common Stepfamily Myths. The bracketed [  ] numbers below refer to these myths (unrealistic expectations). Several myths may be lumped together in one reality below.

      These items summarize what I've come to believe is real in typical U.S. stepfamilies, after 36 years' clinical work with over 1,000 typical stepfamily adults. There are exceptions to these baseline stepfamily realities, so what follows is a general profile, not absolute. If any of your adults feel skeptical about some of these realities, check them out with veteran (i.e. re/married five+ years) stepparents and bioparents and with other stepfamily authors.

      From my experience as a stepson, stepfather, and stepfamily researcher, therapist, and educator since 1979, every one of the 60 myths is partly or completely untrue in average multi-home stepfamilies! Until they are corrected, these unrealistic expectations will cause confusion, disappointment, frustration, hurt, anger, and guilt in adults and kids, and inhibit healthy bonding.

button Here's What's (Usually) REAL...

        The online Lesson-7 articles provide more detail on each of these topics.

[ Myths 1 - 3 ] A stepfamily is a multi-generational, multi-home group of related adults and kids in which one or more adults chooses the of part-time or full-time role of stepparent for their mate's prior kids. Thus, any bioparent seriously dating or committed to a new partner after a prior divorce or their prior mate's death forms a stepfamilyThis is true whether they live together or not.

        Re/married couples who conceive a child together and/or whose prior kids are all grown still form a stepfamily. Couples  with adult stepkids usually bypass stressful conflicts over child visitation, financial support, and custody. They do not bypass significant stress from psychological wounds, unawareness, ex-mate relations, incomplete grief, and conflicts over stepfamily identity, loyalty, membership, parenting values, money, names, holidays, family priorities, and traditions

[ Myth 4 ]  An intact nuclear biofamily (parents and dependent kids) normally lives in one home. Typical nuclear stepfamilies (co-parents and visiting and custodial minor kids) live in two or more homes bound together for years by child visitations, legal agreements and responsibilities, genes, last names, history, finances, special events, and deep emotions.

      The only stepfamily that lives in one home is one where all biokids or non-custodial bioparents are dead or uninvolved. Even then, there are usually emotional and other ties with the absent people, living ex in-laws, and with stepkin living in other homes.

[ Myths 5 - 7 ]  Because they are adults and kids living and growing together, sharing concerns with work and school, health, pets, bills, chores, church, friends, etc., average stepfamilies are just like typical intact ("traditional") biofamilies.

      Paradoxically, they also differ in structure, tasks, and norms in over 60 ways! These differences usually combine to cause unexpected confusion, frustrations, guilts, and conflicts for years. They often render "common sense" biofamily rules ineffective or even harmful to relationships and stepfamily bonding.

[ Myth 8 ] Co-parents' relatives and friends often mistakenly expect the new household and kin to feel and act pretty much like their image of a traditional intact biofamily. They also may secretly or openly disapprove of prior divorces and/or the parent's new union. Therefore, friends and relatives may be startlingly unempathic and critical, and/or offer unrealistic (i.e. biofamily) suggestions when co-parents run into unexpected role and relationship problems.

[ Myth 9 ]  Divorce and/or spouse death end the primacy and legal and religious contracts of a marriage. They may not end the psychological bond between the former partners, specially if they raised kids together. This is common if one mate didn't want the divorce, and/or if either of them is blocked in mourning their losses. It's also common if any of these barriers to ex-mate harmony exist.

[ Myth 10 ] My clinical experience with over ~1,000 average stepfamily adults suggests that over 80% of average U.S. divorcing parents and stepfamily couples carry significant psychological wounds from low-nurturance early-childhoods (e.g. neglect and abuse).

      These wounds combine with up to four other widespread hazards to promote (a) unwise courtship choices (b) escalating stepfamily stress, (c) eventual re/divorce, and (d) passing on the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle. The online Break the Cycle! self-improvement course can help you prevent this.

[ Myth 11 ] Typical courtships evoke (a) extra politeness and thoughtfulness, (b) reluctance to confront, and (c) high tolerance for values-differences and irritating behavior - specially in the beloved-others' kids. Partners' and adult-child relationships often change dramatically after exchanging commitment vows and cohabiting

      Partners' committing to each other alters key roles: biomom's boyfriend turn into "stepfather;" "your daughter" becomes "my stepdaughter;" "your woman-friend" is now stepmothering my granddaughter, and is my new daughter-in-law; your ex-spouse's delaying child support now affects our finances (vs. yours); "your" nerdy (or cool) son becomes "my stepbrother"; etc.

       These many concurrent - and often sudden - role changes often cause stepfamily members to (a) unconsciously alter their expectations of themselves and each other ("Now I must love you, and you must obey me"), or to (b) feel suddenly confused on what to expect.

      If all co-parents and kids aren't expecting these overnight changes and a long period of confusion and readjustment in and between their homes as normal, they can feel stressed, self-doubtful, anxious, and disoriented.

       Bottom line: courtship relationships and behaviors are often not a reliable guide to what will happen after a commitment ceremony. Similarly, living together before exchanging vows probably won't accurately foretell post-commitment harmony or strife. Expect the unexpected!

[ Myth 12 ]  Legally and socially, re/marriage or mate-commitment does create a new family. However, it often takes four or more years after committing for most stepfamily households to begin to feel closeness, bonding, and loyalty similar to a healthy intact biofamily. This is true even if one or more "ours kids" are conceived by the new couple.

      Because of the number of adults, kids, relationships, and biofamily-merger complexity, it can take four or more annual cycles of birthdays, holidays, visitations, vacations, etc. to forge and stabilize a new stepfamily identity and a shared sense of "us-ness." The greater the dissimilarity of customs and values in the several merging families, and the lower the co-parents' skill at effective communication, the longer such stabilizing can take.

       This stepfamily identity-formation involves members' gradually clarifying and melding ideas on who has what roles and responsibilities in their family - including noncustodial bioparents, their new spouses (if any), step/grandparents, ex-in-laws, and half siblings.

       Conflicting traditions on managing special events need to be compromised: e.g. graduations or  retirements; major sicknesses; births, marriages, or deaths; altering wills and paying taxes; house moves or redecorations; school, job, or church changes; acquiring pets; communions, baptisms, or bar/bas mitzvahs; special anniversaries; reunions; etc. How to "do" these "right" has to be renegotiated among all members of two or more families.

       Sometimes these variables are so complex and/or the merging biofamilies' values are so different, that a new stepfamily never fully bonds or grows a coherent identity or loyalties like a high-nurturance biofamily. This doesn't mean it can't be a viable family, it means it feels very "different." Co-parents who define clear stepfamily goals early on, and commit to working patiently toward them as mutually-respectful teammates, often achieve the most satisfying bonding over time.

[ Myth 13 ]  Recall the difference between being accepted as a full member of some group, and being a guest or outsider (non-member). Here acceptance and inclusion mean "all other members of our family...

  • know who I am, and...

  • what my family roles and titles are, and they...

  • want to include me and my relatives in important family decisions and activities, and they...

  • genuinely care about my needs, feelings, and opinions, as I care about theirs."

Partial or mixed inclusion happens when some family members include a new person and others don't.

      Significantly-wounded (unaware, needy) courting co-parents often underestimate the difficulty of trying to get all members of a new nuclear stepfamily to fully accept and include each other. This is specially likely if any adult or child in the existing divorced or bereaved biofamily - including ex mates, minor and adult children, and "close" relatives - isn't well along on grieving their many family losses.

      Most stepfamily analysts suggest that it can take four or more years after co-committing (vs. cohabiting) to achieve stable-enough mutual inclusion. For perspective, acceptance spans 16 categories of things, not just "accepting a stepparent (the person)" or "stepsiblings liking each other"!

      The most sensitive inclusion arenas are between a new stepparent, each stepchild, and the kids' "other bioparent," if living. If the stepparent has kids, they need to accept their new stepparent and each stepsibling and "close" step-relative.

      Bottom line: expect full mutual inclusion to be a multi-year process after (a) any commitment ceremony, and (b) after overcoming many significant  values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles. Typically, full inclusion after co-habiting without formal re/marriage is even more complex. The most difficult inclusion scenario is new co-parenting partners cohabiting before one or both are legally or psychologically divorced.

[ Myths 14 - 16 ] Normal stepfamily structure forces bioparents to repeatedly choose between filling the needs of their new mate, one or more biokids, and sometimes their ex mate. Over time, all adult and child members of typical multi-home stepfamilies find themselves "caught in the middle" of such conflicts. Repeated stepfamily loyalty and inclusion clashes are inevitable for years. They're often unexpectedly stressful for everyone.

       All families have loyalty conflicts. In them, one member feels caught between the opposing needs of two or more others. However, such conflicts feel and sound very different in typical stepfamilies. Instead of "You want 'x' and our child wants 'y'," it's "You want (or your child wants) 'x' and my child wants 'y'." Or "You want 'x', and my ex-mate wants 'y'." Usually "x" and "y" are about child visitations, money, or parenting-values and/or priorities.

      Loyalty conflicts in and between stepfamily homes occur often in an average week, for years. So can associated relationship triangles. These may decrease with time, if co-parents are consistently unified on identifying and managing them cooperatively.

[ Myths 17 & 18 ]  Longing to build an (ideal) new (bio)family, typical stepfamily mates and their relatives commonly expect their family members to eventually exchange the equivalent of biofamily love. This can happen, over time - especially if (a) stepchildren are very young, (b) adults are minimally wounded, and (c) prior divorces were amicable and well-healed. It also may never happen. Adults can unintentionally stress  their kids and each other by expecting them to love their stepkin. Like respect, trust, and friendship, love must  be earned, not demanded

      Even if a stepchild does feels warmly toward their stepparent, their (wounded, insecure) bioparent/s  may resent and/or fear such affection. That biomom or dad may openly or subtly criticize, manipulate, or discourage their genetic child/ren from feeling or openly expressing that warmth. This puts their kids in a major loyalty conflict, which they usually don't know how to resolve.

       A painful reality is that some adults or stepsibs can't find a way to like a particular stepchild (or vice versa), let alone love them. Despite hope, effort, and prayer, their "chemistry" just doesn't mesh over time. Experts advise making mutual respect the first relationship goal for stepparents, stepkids, and stepsibs. Gradually, this may ripen into friendship, affection, and - with luck - real love. If this doesn't happen, it can't be helped - no one is wrong or "bad."

[ Myth 19 ] Some stepkids steadily reject a stepparent's genuine affection and support for no apparent reason. Perversely, the nicer the stepparent is, the more hostile or indifferent the child may seem. Or a stepparent can offer caring friendship, discipline and guidance to their stepchild/ren, to find that their spouse disagrees with these or resents their "interference" with their biochild. Both result in stressful loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles. They may stem from one or more of these:

  • Incomplete grieving

  • Denied or overt sexual tension or attraction

  • Excessive guilts

  • Premature or inappropriately-strict stepparent discipline;

  • A bioparent's codependence on, and over-protectiveness with, their child, and/or...

  • The child's normal testing of stepfamily stability and safety ("Will this family bust up too?")

       A confused (or alert) stepchild may feel "If I show appreciation to my stepparent, my 'real' (same-sex biological) parent will feel bad!" Their custodial biomom or biodad can feel "If I side with your (the stepparent's) discipline of my child, my child (or my ex or other kin) will resent, criticize, and reject me." If adults are unable to admit and discuss these honestly, escalating stress is very likely.

       Bioparents and bio-kin usually don't expect thanks from their kids for their loving caregiving efforts and sacrifices. Average       s do expect and need spontaneous acknowledgment from their mate and their stepkids for their co-parenting efforts. 

      Since typical minor stepkids didn't ask for their parents' divorce and re/marriage or have a say in selecting their step-kin, they may not appreciate even the kindest stepparent. This is specially likely if they and their parents and siblings haven't progressed well on grieving their web of family-adjustment losses (broken bonds). In the best case, stepparents may hear sincere "thanks!" years after their stepkids have left home.

[ Myths 20 - 21 ]  Even if all co-parents agree that a stepparent  has "authority" to discipline their stepchildren, the kids may not agree. Unless very young, stepkids usually feel the new adult has to earn the right to tell them what to do. Also, the kids' other bioparent or key bio-relatives may not acknowledge the stepparent's authority, and/or may dislike the stepparent's disciplinary "style" (lax / harsh; consistent / inconsistent). This traps the kids and co-parents into repeated loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles, often causing the child/ren to resist and/or "get depressed."

      A common error is people feeling new stepparents should share in disciplining their stepkids right away. Ideally, the bioparent/s will do most major disciplining for months after vowing commitments and co-habiting. until the new co-parent and stepkids have had a chance to build some mutual trust and respect. If that's not practical, the bioparent should authorize the      to act for them in front of the children.  

[ Myths 22 - 24 ]  Many well-meaning stepparents and relatives - specially some idealistic and religiously-devout people - believe "New stepmoms and stepdads should (immediately) care about their stepchild/ren as much as their own." This is unrealistic.

      Typical stepparents and stepkin may genuinely feel equal concern for biological and step kids, after a long (e.g. five or more years) pre-re/marriage friendship or custodial stepfamily history. Otherwise, the reality to accept without guilt is: "I love my (bio)kids more (or differently) than yours so far, and that's natural and OK!" If a stepdad or mom is childless, the birth of an "ours" child may activate this "mandatory fairness" myth well after exchanging commitment vows.

[ Myths 25 - 26 ] Reality: my research since 1979 suggests that after child-related disputes, financial matters are the second most conflictual surface issues among typical stepfamily adults (and adult kids). Typical issues include...

  • divorce settlements

  • prenuptial agreements

  • child support amounts, promptness, and "fairness"

  • wills and estate plans

  • values: saving vs. spending

  • allocation of income

  • asset and debt ownership - his, hers, and ours

  • bill-paying style and responsibility

  • child allowances

Disputes over each of these cause recurring loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles in and between stepfamily adults and home. None of these are the real problems. See this.

[ Myth 27 ]  Depending on state laws, re/marriage usually doesn't endow       stepparents with the legal parental rights or responsibilities of bioparents. For example: unless authorized by a legal document cal-led "In Loco Parentis" signed by both bioparents, typical stepmoms and dads can't legally demand to see their stepkids' school or medical records, and don't qualify as a legal guardian in hospitalizing a minor stepchild.

      If the most loving stepparent dies without a will, their assets will usually not go to their stepchildren. Specific rights and laws vary by state, so ask a local family-law professional what pertains in your county - ideally before exchanging commitment vows!  

[ Myth 28 ] Studies suggest that in about one of three U.S. stepfamilies, one or more minor kids will move from one bioparent's house to the other's at some time. These moves may be well-planned and harmonious, or unexpected and highly disruptive, emotionally, financially, and logistically. Many things may lead a stepchild to move in unexpectedly with their non-custodial parent and stepparent, even years after their parent's re/wedding.

      Even if well planned, such moves and custody changes often send shock waves through the sending and receiving homes' routines, finances, holidays, space allocation, and roles. So: stepfamily co-parents in each home should expect and plan for the possibility of kids' changing homes, however initially unlikely.

    [ Myths 29 & 30 ]  For personal and family health, all stepfamily members need to thoroughly mourn major personal losses (broken bonds) from (a) prior divorce/s or death, and (b) stepfamily cohabiting and  merging. Previously-single, childless  stepparents usually lose prized quiet, privacy, and home-control by choosing to join an absent-parent family with visiting or resident stepkids and "interfering" ex mates and kin.

           The natural human reflex to mourn broken bonds can be hindered or blocked by low-nurturance family and social environments. If a "loser" (one with losses) was taught as a child to fear, numb, or self-medicate painful emotions, s/he'll have trouble feeling and expressing the shock, confusion, rage, and sadness that major life-losses evoke.

          Our profit-seeking media emphasizes speed, excitement, sex, and pleasure - which distracts us from the healthy discomfort of grieving. This increases major personal, family, and societal stress and illness. Lesson 3 In this online self-improvement course focuses on building "pro-grief" families.

[ Myth 31 ]  None of the 1,000+ typical Midwestern divorcing-family and stepfamily adults I've worked with could pass this quiz about effective communication They used various lose-lose strategies instead of win-win problem-solving which promote family stress and re/divorce.

      Like their ancestors, they were unable to model and teach their descendents these essential life skills - and they didn't know that or what it meant. Lesson 2 in this self-improvement course will teach you what you need to know about effective communication.

[ Myth 32 ] Premise: it's essential for divorcing bioparents to explain to each minor or grown child why their family is dis-integrating, in age-appropriate language. If the kids are to grieve well and have a chance to build healthy relationships with new step-kin, parents' helping them to make clear sense out of the chaos of their biofamily reorganization is vital.

      This doesn't mean each bioparent should blame and smear their former partner or themselves. It means each father and mother should work toward...

  • Realistically understanding what caused their divorce, including the possibility one or both mates were significantly needy, wounded, and unaware, and made up to three unwise courtship choices;

  • Forgiving themselves and each other;

  • Sketching the main reasons for their divorce objectively, in age-appropriate terms, to each child; and...

  • Listening to the kids' reactions empathically, without judgment, guilt, or defensiveness.

       Unless in personal wound-recovery, typical survivors of low-nurturance childhoods often have a hard time doing these divorce-explanation steps. Not doing them risks chronic bitterness and hostility between ex-mates; bewilderment, confused loyalties, high shame and guilt in their biokids; and growing frustration in new mates.

[ Myths 33 - 34 ]  After parental divorce, typical minor or grown stepkids have two to three dozen adjustment needs that peers in healthy intact biofamilies don't have. If kids are...

  • In a high-nurturance stepfamily; and...

  • each of their co-parents are wholistically-healthy or reducing their wounds and ignorance; and...

  • each co-parent knows the kids' developmental and family-adjustment needs, and they...

  • cooperate as teammates to provide effective help filling these needs (nurturing), then...

... there is no inherent reason that stepchildren won't "turn out" just as well as kids in healthy intact biofamilies. However, because typical co-parents can't meet all these criteria, average stepkids are at risk of inheriting the toxic [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

[ Myth 35 ] - From childhood and social training, some co-parents - specially women - may feel very responsible for "making a happy home." Because divorce and stepfamily co-habiting inevitably cause significant hurts, frustrations, disappointments, losses, and conflicts for years, "keeping everyone happy" is an unrealistic, toxic expectation. Over time, it can promote significant guilts, lower self respect, increase daily anxiety and frustration, and stress a re/marriage - i.e. it can lower your home's and family's nurturance level. 

      Co-parents who "can't help" feeling over-responsible are usually dominated by a protective "false self." self-improvement Lesson 1 (sfhelp.org/gwc/guide1.htm) provides an effective way to enable a co-parent's true Self to guide and harmonize their personality and reduce excessive shame, guilt, and fears to normal levels.

[ Myths 36 - 37 ] Typical stepparents' caregiving goals are usually the same as bioparents - to nurture and enjoy resident and visiting (step)kids. However, the family and social environments around typical stepparents can differ from bioparenting environments in up to 40 simultaneous ways. One major difference is that typical minor stepkids have 20 or more concurrent family-adjustment needs to fill that kids in intact biofamilies don't have.

      These environmental differences can combine with concurrent stepfamily-merger tasks to make caring for stepkids feel very alien, frustrating, and confusing. This is true even if a stepparent was raised in a stepfamily.

       Folktales and widespread public ignorance about stepfamily realities have given typical stepparents a bad reputation. They're usually caring, well-meaning women and men optimistically undertaking a complex, high-stress role that they and other family members are very unprepared for.

       If stepmoms and stepdads are...

  • in real (vs. pseudo) recovery from psychological wounds; and...

  • fully accept their stepfamily identity and what it means; and...

  • stay clear on - and act on - their personal priorities; and...

  • work patiently at understanding and adapting to their alien environment; and...

  • get informed empathy and loving support from their mate, kin, and friends; then...

...they can gain great satisfaction from nurturing the young people in their lives. Restated: average stepparents can learn to be "just as good (effective) as" wholistically-healthy, informed bioparents!

[ Myth 38 ] People who feel "stepfamilies 'aren't as good as' traditional biofamilies" probably mean...

  • "stepfamilies don't feel or act the same," and/or...

  • "stepfamilies aren't as 'normal' (common) as (intact, high-nurturance) biofamilies."

Both observations are currently true. Stepfamilies feel "different" because there are about 60 differences between the two family types, and they develop differently. Though U.S. Census data doesn't confirm this, U.S. stepfamily re/marriages may break up legally or psychologically more often than typical biofamilies.

      So typical multi-home stepfamilies are normal, if not the current "standard." They're estimated to be 15-20% of U.S. families now. I know of no credible evidence to support the popular claim that stepfamilies will outnumber American intact biofamilies in the near future.

       It is not true that steppeople, specially kids, can't get the same nurturing, support, and appreciation that biofamily members can. There are more stepfamily stressors and merger-adjustment tasks which may limit these.

      Reality: If all stepfamily adults are aware, informed, and recovering from any significant psychological wounds and committed to building a high-nurturance multi-home stepfamily over the years, it can "work" (nurture, comfort, protect) just as well as a functional intact biofamily.  

[ Myth 39 ] Healthy adults raising children from infancy seems to naturally inhibit sexual attraction between them. The instinctual incest taboo is weaker in typical stepfamilies. Attraction and sexual behavior between a stepparent and an alluring stepteen or between adolescent stepsibs isn't probable, but is more likely than in a typical healthy intact biofamily. Recent research suggests that American girls under 18 are four times more likely to be sexually abused by a male step-relative than a male bio-relative.

       So: thoughtful co-parental modeling, sexual guidance, and enforcement of personal modesty and privacy rules are specially important in nuclear-stepfamily homes. Note: co-parents and supporters can get distracted or conflicted by debating what the provocative word incest means - in general, or in their stepfamily. See this for more perspective.

[ Myth 40 ] Stepparents may agree intellectually that their mate "should" spend alone-time with their biokids, but unconsciously resent this (an internal values conflict). This is specially likely when:

  • The stepparent is childless and/or dominated by false selves  (wounded);

  • Courtship activities usually excluded the stepkids;

  • Their primary relationship is troubled;

  • The stepparent often feels unappreciated and "second-best" in her or his spousal and co-parental roles;

  • A stepchild and/or their other bioparent is strongly discounting or rejecting the stepparent, and/or...

  • The spouses choose too little quality couple-time, and/or have ineffective communications.

       Healthy pre-teen kids need times alone with their bioparents, specially after major life changes (i.e. losses). Healthy teens need alone-time with bioparents too, though more selectively. Healthy bioparents have similar relationship needs. Ideally, a new stepparent won't view this as "being shut out," but as a natural part of the bioparent-biochild relationship that can promote stepfamily strength and health.

       A co-parent who believes "We're a (bio)family, so we should do everything together" (denies their stepfamily identity) risks eroding stepfamily bonding over time. To avoid resentments, it helps if co-parents talk about the situation non-judgmentally.

      This includes each bioparent periodically asking their partner "How're you feeling about my time alone with (my kid/s) recently"? The reciprocal option is the stepparent telling their mate clearly and non-blamefully of any growing resentment, so they can problem-solve together. .

[ Myth 41 ]  Forcing minor kids to call stepparents "Mom" or "Dad" or take a stepfather's last name risks major home and family conflict. Unless this is a free choice and all affected members' reactions have been polled and equally considered, such demands can cause major confusions, loyalty conflicts and divisive relationship triangles.

      Successful stepfamilies experiment with first and last names and role titles over time, and avoid imposing them. The "right" way to title stepparents, stepkids, and step-relatives promotes harmony and bonding among all members, and everyone accepting their stepfamily identity

[ Myth 42 ]  Guilt is the normal emotion that occurs in healthy adults and kids when we feel we've "been bad" - i.e. we've broken an important rule - a should (not), must (not), ought (not), or have to. Guilt feels like shame, but has different roots and is reduced differently. There are lots of reasons why each member of a typical new multi-home stepfamily may feel significant guilts as they all merge their several biofamilies.  For instance:

  • "I should love my stepfather, but I don't"

  • "I'm closer to my own daughter Susan than to my husband's girl (and I shouldn't be)."

  • "I like my son's first wife better than his new one, though she's very sweet."

  • "It's too weird - I'm really turned on by my stepbrother!"

  • "I don't see my (non-custodial) son as often as I should, and it's bittersweet when I do..."

  • "I shouldn't compare my new husband to Jack, but I do."

  • "I really love my new wife, but I confess I think she's not such a great parent."

  • "It's dishonest not to say this is my second marriage, but I'm embarrassed to."

  • "I can't stand my step-grandson. I should at least like him."

There are many other examples.

      If adults and kids don't...

accept their stepfamily identity.

learn how their stepfamily differs from a typical intact biofamily, and...

intentionally identify and convert their stepfamily myths into realities (e.g. this article)...

      Other step-people may validate and empathize with the guilts you feel. Non-stepfamily people - including family-support professionals - may understand intellectually but can't really empathize because they lack similar life experience.

      So: significant stepfamily guilts are normal. They usually subside if co-parents help each other and their kids to heal any psychological wounds (Lesson 1). and learn to use stepfamily norms and these realities as they evolve their alien new roles and relationships (Lesson 7). See this for ideas on managing significant guilts.

[ Myth 43 ] - If a family is defined as "people bonded by genetic, legal, and psycho-social ties," then each stepchild's other bioparent is always a full member of their stepfamily. Even if their noncustodial Mom or Dad is distant and/or inactive, typical kids will surely include them in drawing a family diagram

       Wounded, unaware custodial co-parents may want to exclude their (step)kids' other bioparent/s from full stepfamily membership. They minimize or ignore the needs, rights, dignity, and opinions of the ex and any new partner and stepkids in making family decisions.

      This puts their kids in the middle of major loyalty conflicts they didn't cause, and can't negotiate or control. It also sets up webs of divisive relationship triangles, as step-relatives take sides (or don't). These stressors increase barriers to vital co-parenting teamwork and lower the stepfamily's nurturance level.

       Even if invited "in," stepkids' other bioparents may exclude themselves from the stepfamily. Co-grandparents and other relatives have their own definitions of stepfamily membership, depending on many factors. Membership exclusions and rejections often occur because adults aren't clear on, or renounce, their identity as a multi-home stepfamily.

      Reality: Whether divorced or dead, stepkids' absent bioparents and their new partners and (step)kids have major psychological + genetic + legal + usually financial impacts on stepfamily functioning for many years - including the life-quality and nurturance of biological and step-grandkids. There are no comparable prior-conflict forgiveness and ex-mate inclusion tasks in typical intact biofamilies.

[ Myths 44 - 50 ]  The reality that well over 1,000 divorcing-family and stepfamily adults have taught me since 1981 is: average co-parents should expect the unexpected. My clinical case notes are speckled with stepkids and their "other bioparent" making major behavioral or situational changes that significantly impacted all their nuclear-stepfamily members and close relatives.

       Well after a re/wedding , important family events like births; graduations; job, asset, and housing changes; disabilities; adoptions; marriages; retirements; and deaths can trigger unexpected reactions in all stepfamily members, including kids' other co-parents and ex in-laws.

      An ex mate remarrying or co-habiting with a new stepparent will promote complex inter-home adjustments to minor-child visitations, finances, holidays, vacations, routines, co-parental responsibilities and perhaps child custody.

       The odds of a startling, stressful change in an ex mate's behavior or lifestyle can be minimized by inviting them to be an equal co-parent in your stepfamily, and working patiently to reduce any teamwork barriers with them. Easy to say, and usually hard to do - specially if s/he doesn't want inclusion. If ex-spouses remain hostile or indifferent despite your best attempts to include them, appealing to them to try post-divorce counseling for the kids' sake may yield long-term payoffs.

[ Myths 51 & 52 ] Legal adoption is usually the only way a stepparent can gain legal rights and responsibilities for their stepchild/ren. Stepchild adoption is usually a highly emotional and complex step-family-wide decision. It normally requires the informed consent of both living bioparents. Typically, far more people's lives and feelings are significantly affected by it than in a biofamily adoption.

       Stepchild adoption is most common when a noncustodial bioparent has died, or been long out of contact. It's often motivated by overt or covert wishes to be "more like a real (bio)family" and/or wanting to demonstrate the stepparent's commitment. The high majority of the hundreds of typical American stepparents I've met did not adopt their stepkids.

       The proposal or process of stepchild adoption may cause a series of major stepfamily-wide loyalty conflicts unless all affected adults and kids have talked together thoroughly about their true feelings and needs. Last names; bequests and estate planning; and stepfamily roles, member loyalties, and prior legal parenting agreements may all change because of a stepchild's adoption. Getting qualified professional help to facilitate this complex, impactful process can be a high-return long-term investment.

      For more perspective on stepchild adoption see this.

[ Myths 53 - 55 ] Conceiving an "ours" child is a complex decision that affects all members of a nuclear step-family and concerned relatives for many years. It can strengthen a re/marriage if...

  • partners' true Selves make the decision; and...

  • they began discussing their respective conception needs and values honestly and thoroughly during courtship; and...

  • the partners have thoroughly evaluated the possible impact on all existing children and relations with ex mates, and...

  • they have planned carefully how to help each other master the major changes in their schedules, finances, space, responsibilities, and priorities that a newborn would require; and...

  • their relationship is solid and thriving, and neither mate expects having a baby to save their marriage from major problems.

      If any of these conditions are not clearly true, the odds rise that conceiving an "ours" baby will increase composite nuclear-stepfamily and marital stresses.

      If a courting partner wants children and assumes that their partner will too, they may discover a severe values conflict after exchanging vows and tokens - "I thought you knew that I don't want another child!" Even if both mates want to conceive, adults and kids can be stressed by major loyalty conflicts when parental attention shifts to a newborn, and unexpected favoritisms erupt - specially with a previously-childless stepparent.

      Relations among half-siblings are unique in some ways, and can range from compatible to indifferent to  antagonistic. Paradoxically, the birth of a child causes everyone some significant losses that must be grieved. Well-planned and discussed, conceiving one or more "ours" children truly can delight and unify stepfamily members if their many roles and relationships are stable and they've forged a high nurturance level.

      See this for more perspective.

[ Myths 56 - 57 ]
Typical stepfamily adults find there is little knowledgeable support available in their communities and the media. Typical clergy, counselors, teachers, attorneys, journalists, and law-enforcement and medical professionals lack informed training in stepfamily facts, norms, realities, differences, and what to do about core stepfamily stressors (e.g. study, discuss, and apply Lesson 7)

      Their well-meant services may be ineffective or even harmful to new and troubled stepfamily members. Your community probably offers no effective support groups or classes for co-parents and kids.

      As a professional family-systems therapist and researcher, I've read over 40 lay and professional books and several hundred articles about stepfamilies since 1979. Most are anecdotal, superficial, and misleading. That's why I created Lesson 7.

[ Myths 58 - 60 ]  Recent estimates suggest that almost half of U.S. first marriages end in legal divorce. Uncounted millions more rural and urban families suffer from psychological divorce. Though recent Census data doesn't validate this, many authors and researchers estimate that well over half of American re/marriages - with or without prior children - fail within 10 years.

      Whatever the percentage, typical needy, unaware, love-dazed stepfamily couples appear to be at significant risk of committing to the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time. Few have the insight and courage to admit this until their and their kids' pain forces them to do so.

      From 36 years' profession research, I propose...

  • widespread American divorcing-family and stepfamily stress comes from up to five interactive hazards; and...

  • average co-parents can overcome four of these hazards by working patiently together at this self-improvement course; And...

  • If they don't work to overcome the hazards, they risk passing on the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle to their descendents.

      Across eras and cultures, stepfamilies have formed to fill adults' deep needs for procreation, refuge, nurturance, comfort, and companionship. They can nurture members as well as healthy intact biofamilies if co-parents accept their stepfamily identity and what it means; and then work patiently together at some version of Lesson 7 over several years. In the best case, this protects vulnerable descendants from the lethal bequest of unawareness and psychological wounds. 


      This page complements this summary of 60 common stepfamily myths. Based on 36 years' clinical research, this page provides brief summaries of typical realities for each myth.

      If steppeople and their supporters don't identify and correct their unrealistic expectations, they risk escalating frustration, hurt, anger, disappointment, and possible re/divorce. This adds to the psychological wounds inherited by their kids, and slows or blocks healthy development toward stable adult independence. 

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