The Instant Family
We are living in an age that seems to put a premium on immediacy. Instant coffee, instant credit, instant replay, and the ubiquitous fast food services are all part of of our “now culture”. It is not surprising that we would have the same expectations for a perfect instant family when a couple marries and at least one partner has children from a previous relationship.
While the parents say “I DO,” the children often say, “I DON’T.” The new spouse may say, “I take you as my “lawfully wedded spouse, but I’m not so sure about being a parent to your children”, or “I take you as my lawfully wedded spouse, and I really look forward to the challenge of serving as a stepparent to your children.” Whatever the hidden, or not-so-hidden agendas of the individuals involved, expectations play a major part in shaping the happily or not so happily ever after of the new family.
While remarriage is not a new phenomenon, the number of remarriages has increased rapidly in the last several decades. Today, step-families are more likely to be created by divorce than by a death of a spouse. It” estimated that 60% of children born today will spend part of their life in a single parent household and in one or more step relationships. Seventy million Americans are involved in some form of step relationship, whether remarried, dating, living with a partner or as an absent birth parent. It is predicted by the same, that three-quarter of all step- relationships will break up and that more people will be part of a second marriage than a first.
In my more “fascist” moments, I fantasize that stepparents should be certified or licensed as foster parents and adoptive parents are. Recognizing that is far from a possibility, I have chosen to spend part of my professional life alerting present and future step-families of the perils and challenges of “Getting and staying in step. Future articles will focus on issues that step-families face and will provide some suggestions for living a more satisfying step-life. Here are some helpful hints for avoiding the trap of buying the myth of an “instant family.”
- Whenever possible, it’s best to have future stepparents and stepchildren meet long before the marriage that legally unites them.
- Once the couple has achieved a degree of seriousness about one another, the children can be included gradually in activities. Then when the prospective members of the step-family are reasonably comfortable with one another, some time alone for the future stepparent and children is helpful. The relationship is more likely to develop successfully if the adult is seen simply as a friend, not as someone who is replacing the absent parent.
- Avoid buying into the myth that has tyrannized step-families, “instant love”. “Love me, love my children”. The belief that stepparents “should” or “must” love their stepchildren and the stepchildren “must” love them, (when they might not even like one another) contributes to a lot of resentment and guilt. All we can expect is that they treat one another kindly and respectfully as human beings. If love develops it is a bonus.
- As the adult in the new family it is important not to personalize the stepchild’s behavior. More often than not, they are either testing you, or their behavior has little to do with you. “Just for-today, I will not personalize my stepchild’s behavior”, perhaps is the best advice a stepparent could be given.
- Although most new step-families don’t like hearing this, it takes between two and four years to become a functional family unit. It’s important for remarried families to realize that the problems they face are usually developmental and not pathological and are indeed subject to resolution. Living in step can be a rewarding and challenging experience for both parents and children.