Stepfamilies Must Make Adjustments

 Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

The divorce rate is reaching up to fifty percent. First marriages, on average, last only for about seven years. 

Break-up of a marriage undoubtedly is a very painful process for both partners. Divorce is the second most distressful event in life; the first one, as you can imagine, is death of a spouse. 

Logically, one would surmise that divorced partners have learned all they needed to from the mistakes of the past and become more "skilled" from the experience, so the second marriage should be smooth sailing. The fact is, that compared to the seven years duration of the first marriage, the second marriage, on average, lasts only three years. 

If things are not going to the satisfaction of both partners, or there is conflict and tension in the marriage, the chances of break-up of the second marriage are much greater and sooner. 

"A mother with her children and a father with his children married and they all lived together, happily ever after!" Sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it? It is. 

"Brady Bunch" families are hard to come by. Real-life stepfamilies have a lot more ups and downs, trying times and challenges before everyone learns to live together. In learning to live together, members of a stepfamily have to find a way to preserve their separateness and individuality, and yet, pride in their togetherness. These tips are given by families that learned to blend in a less painful way.

l. Communicate extensively. Unlike the first marriage, there is no period for couple - intimacy to grow without the presence of children. Likewise, the couple does not go through a phase in which to plan, dream, and ask each other questions to develop a mutual understanding regarding how they will raise their child. That whole process is eliminated in a stepfamily as children are already there when a couple enters married life. 

Moreover, children in a
stepfamily are coming from two different families with different sets of rules and different expectations. A stepparent may naturally expect the same rules to be observed by the stepchildren. The couple can minimize this "culture clash" by finding a middle ground for these different rules. Have a family meeting in which rules may be explained. 

2. Be flexible in the family rules. For example, if you set a rule that everyone has to be together at all mealtimes, it may be wise to relax it for specific circumstances. Especially, for teenagers, allow one or two occasions a week when they may be excused for a reasonable cause 

3. Accept occasional disagreements as part of life. Do not get too alarmed or too disappointed when family members disagree.

4. Do not insist that a child has to give a hug or a goodnight kiss to a stepparent or call the stepparent "Mom" or "Dad." Let the love grow in its own course and the child will spontaneously do all those things. Your insisting may only increase the tension. 

5. A stepparent need not be in a rush to assume the parental role, especially, the disciplining, rule setting, and limit setting. One does not become a parent instantly. In an extreme example, a man and a woman go out for the first date, and the next day, woman hands over her child for a "father-son talk" about the problem her son is having at school.  Allow the relationship to grow between the stepparent and a child so that the child can accept the  stepparent in that role. The parent marrying him or her doesn't in itself bring the child- closer to the stepparent. The relationship between the child and stepparent has to grow in its own right and on its own merit. 

6. In order to avoid conflicts between adults and the child playing a parent against a stepparent, decide and seek agreement as to who will discipline a child for what behaviors and with what method. Also have a plan for unexpected situations where instant decisions may have to be taken. 

7. In a stepfamily, one spouse and his or her children leave their own home, and in some cases, geographical area, school, and friends. All members living in a stepfamily should have a personal and private space which they can identify as their very own, such as a room, a corner, toys, bed, blanket etc. This can go a long way in fostering the feeling, "I am not an outsider. It is my place. I belong here." 

8. Feelings are easily hurt in a stepfamily between stepchildren, parents and stepchildren, and children and the biological parent because of jealousy and increased insecurity. Episodes of hurts and emotional bruises can be minimized if there is a grand rule that everyone will treat the other with respect and dignity. To resolve issues and complaints, have "family meetings" occasionally to discuss problems, explain your expectations and set new rules, if required.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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