3 Tough Stepfamily Challenges to Overcome

My wife and I work with remarried couples as counselor and coach. At the beginning of our work with stepcouples, we create a map of the family system. Often we hear, “I bet you’ve never seen this big of a challenge before!” Politely we reply, “nothing surprises us since there are 67 types of stepfamilies.” “Relax,” we say, “your family fits into one of those types. It’s nothing to be embarrassed by or nervous about as it is your family with all its quirks. We’re all a little quirky in some way!”

As we listen and hear the story of complex layers of relationships between former spouses paired with dynamics impacting children we provide assurance; albeit unique to them, what they are facing is not unusual. Beautiful expressions of relief roll over their faces as we see them take deep breaths of “we’re not going crazy!” We quickly affirm that what is happening emotionally and logistically is common ground and has the potential to drive any stepfamily crazy, but that its part of the journey.

Challenges: the kids, the ex, my time, our time!

Next, the issues that are tripping them up tend to be focused on kid disputes. We don’t disagree with them, however, we do ask the couple to list out the priorities of their biggest challenge. Indeed kids tend to be number one but then a close second is communication, closely followed with not enough time for one another or themselves. Usually in the top five are hassles with the other parent. These hassles run from child custody matters, exchange of information that’s explosive between the “exes,” to who is picking up or dropping off the kids and where and when! What was supposed to reduce the friction between former spouses now has grown worse since the divorce.

When death is the reason for a couple to form a stepfamily, living with the memory of a former spouse, like a phantom, can affect the family. Is the spouse that passed remembered as a saint or a demon? No matter the type, the new partner must be invited into the family system before children will accept or even respect this new person. The spectrum of acceptance/respect can vary from glacier to turtle speed. Whatever the case, letting the kids set the pace takes a ton of pressure off the adults. When the adults know how to let up on forcing the blending to happen in a family, things go a lot smoother.

Is Grief part of a Stepfamily?

The biggest hurdle for the kids that many new and seasoned step-couples overlook is the matter of deep grief their children are encountering. On the outside, they are trying to keep on a “happy face” of acceptance of this new family. Inside every kid, I can guarantee you are sad, confused, frustrated and lost for words in how to express their heartfelt emotions. The loss of the dream can be very sad…even for the adults involved. Even if you came from a bad situation, it’s the dream of a healthy, happy family that could have been has been lost. If the children are forced to just “get on with it and buck up” don’t be surprised at some form of revolt regardless if they are 5, 12, 18 or 25 years of age. Grief, if not given room to express itself and be digested, will show up in other forms ranging from anger or withdrawal to all-out rebellion.

Allowing us (as counselor and coach duo) into the mix of your stepfamily as a step couple who’s raised a stepfamily, we can offer perspective and encouragement. We can share experiences and suggest what we’ve seen work and warn you of what has not helped other stepfamilies blend. We offer a dual approach as counselor/coach, husband/wife presenting seminars and other resources to help you gain skills to meet your stepfamily challenges through family counseling.

Stepfamilies have multiple challenges, there’s no denying that! But if the marriage is strong, and you work as a team, you’ll see many successes.

The best gift you can give your kids is a strong marriage. As we say…Always Forward!

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Gil Stuart

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