Falling in love can be heaven on earth.
When you find love “the second time around” this is no different. Not only do you appreciate having found each other, you’ve hopefully learned about yourselves as individuals and as partners from past experience. You’ve recognized mistakes that you made in your first marriage. Now you’re ready to take the leap and blend your families.
Now you’re a stepparent.
You may have had some concerns prior to saying ‘I do” as you watched your partner with their children, or with yours. You may have noticed that they allowed their children to do stuff that you’d never allow your children to do, or the opposite. The two of you talked about it, and perhaps agreed, “You parent your kids and I’ll parent mine.”
So, it didn’t feel seem too daunting that her eighteen year-old son had never had a job, mostly hibernating in his room. Or that his fourteen year-old daughter was good in school and generally responsible, but was flippant and bossy at home.
It seemed manageable. But you soon found out that pulling a blended family off can be hard work.
How Long Does A Successful Blending Take and Why Is It Hard?
Research shows that it takes much longer than most people believe to feel bonded as a stepfamily. Much longer — like 5 to 10 years.
And the amount of time and difficulty are heavily influenced by these five things.
- The context of how everyone met.
- How long they’ve known each other.
- How old the children were when their parent’s divorce occurred.
- Whether or not it’s a second or third or fourth marriage (because there’s lots of alimony, child support, and ex’s in general).
- How amicable the divorce of the child’s biological parent is.
If you’re pulling off reading that bond, then absolutely congratulate yourself. You’re working hard and making something work that’s usually emotionally and often pragmatically difficult. And those kudos go to stepparents, ex’s and the kids themselves.
But what makes for trouble?
Four very common mistakes a stepparent can make…
1) Jumping in too fast as an authority.
If you and your new spouse dated for quite a while and let the children get to know you slowly, then step-parenting can be smooth sailing. However, many adults rush the process, only giving their kids a few weeks or months to make the life-altering transition from “me and mom” to “me and your new mom.”
If you jump in too fast as an authority, you set yourself up for a struggle, even failure. You’re suddenly there in the home. But you haven’t earned the respect that goes along with being an authority figure. You don’t have that child’s trust, simply because his mother or father loves you. You have to wait.
Meanwhile, perhaps if you both like soccer, you could kick the ball around? Or work on puzzles or make a TikTok video.. This will allow you to find common ground and grow your relationship. It’s best to offer your opinion privately to the biological parent regarding issues you might have with the child, and support them as the biological parent.
2) Seeing the kids as an extension of the ex.
They may look like the ex. They may have character traits of the ex. They might even be parroting things the ex says, “I bet she told her to say that to me.” Or, “The only reason he’s doing that is because his mother hates me, and he knows it.” Sadly, the child may have overheard the ex talking about you.
However, they are individuals in their own right, not miniature versions of the ex nor their messengers. They may be stuck in the middle of an ugly adult situation that they didn’t choose, and you’ll only make it worse by not understanding how difficult that may be for them.
Try to make it easier by not putting them in the middle. Be yourself, be kind and loving and accepting, and give them the opportunity to see the real you. Eventually they will figure out that you’re a positive addition to their life.
3) Blaming the kids for the difference in your parenting choices.
You always put your kids to bed by having a set time every night. The light is turned off, prayers are said, kisses and out you go. Your new spouse, on the other hand, doesn’t have a set bedtime. It could be 8 one night, 9 the next. He believes that there should be some time that they have to just relax and be on their cell phones or get some last minute studying done. Then, if they want, a little talking or reading and then lights out. Their bedtimes are all kind of spontaneous and organic.
She secretly decides that his kids are spoiled and needy; he thinks that her kids are over-pleasers and way too rule-bound.
You obviously have different parenting styles. It’s best to leave the kids out of it as you navigate these new trials; try to decide how you are going to respect each other, now that you’re one family.
That can take some adjusting to decide how this new combined family is going to tackle things. Will you have two separate set of rules? Find middle ground? Adopt a third strategy?
4) Discounting the impact of an affair.
If you had an affair with your new spouse, you’re likely to say, “Oh, the kids will be great. They’ll have no trouble accepting Jane (or John).” You’ll minimize the difficulty of divorce on a family — as well as the feelings of not only grief but a sense of replacement that your ex has had to deal with. If you marry, and especially quickly marry the person that you had an affair with, it may take a fair amount of time for your family to accept him or her. Your kids want to please both parents.
On a happier note, I’ve talked with many people through the years who’ve told me that it was a stepparent who made their life complete — who walked them down the aisle when their own biological father had abandoned them long ago — who sat and listened to them because their biological mother wasn’t nearly as understanding or empathic.
Being a stepparent is one of the hardest jobs on the planet. And one of the most vital.
After all, the love and nurturing of their stepchildren is their choice.
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Originally published on July 21, 2018; updated and republished on January 24, 2021.