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Succeeding as a stepfamily

Navigating the stages of remarrying with children

It’s harder than I thought it would be,” my friend commented of her new marriage. “I don’t understand his kids, and we’re not on the same page when it comes to parenting. I hope it gets easier with time, or I don’t know if we’ll make it.”

Remarrying, when children are part of the package, is challenging. Understanding the unique relationships created and how to navigate the stages the new family will face can help determine the success or failure of the marriage.

A stepfamily is formed when one or both of the spouses bring children from a prior relationship. A stepfamily looks and functions differently than a nuclear family. Emotional “blood bonds” formed by parents and their biological children are stronger than bonds of the new spouses. Children grieving the loss of a parent to death or divorce experience major adjustments and crippling emotions. But with intentional effort, a willingness to grow as relationships evolve, and plenty of time and patience, remarrying with children involved can result in harmonious relationships.

“New Faces in the Frame,” a workbook created by Dick Dunn to guide remarried couples with children, outlines six stages that stepfamilies can experience. If a family gets stuck in one stage for an extended period, it can result in failure for the marriage. Navigating the stages requires healthy communication by the couple, the ability to adapt to change, and the resolve to solve conflict as it occurs.

The first stage of infatuation occurs when two people fall in love and decide to marry. Many couples at this stage are blind to the difficulties they will encounter as a stepfamily. They negate their children’s feelings about their relationship and refuse to listen to others’ opinions. Infatuation, however, usually gives way to reality after a short period.

The questioning stage follows as the spouses begin to recognize the challenges they are facing with their new family. One or both partners may begin to seriously question why they married. During the questioning stage of my remarriage, I reflected on how it seemed easier to be a single parent, rather than cope with the daily challenges in our new family. I had committed to my new marriage, however, “for better or for worse,” and endeavored to continue the journey. For many remarriages, the questioning stage will make or break a family.

The most critical stage — the crisis stage — comes next. Levels of crisis vary from minor bumps to major explosions, but this stage represents a turning point in which family members seek change. Challenges build until someone reaches for help. It’s a productive stage if families confront the problems and begin to find solutions. Unfortunately, many couples give up and call it quits at this stage. But those who persevere will turn the corner and look toward easier days ahead.

The last three stages usually occur somewhere between the second and fifth year of remarriage. Complicated stepfamilies that include children from both partners will likely take longer. It’s also not unusual for stages to be re-visited. But as families reach the latter stages, hope begins to surface and tensions begin to ease.

The possibility stage offers positive thinking toward improved relationships. Following the crisis stage, the couple emerges with renewed energy to seek family harmony. After struggling for years, the family begins to unite. Broken relationships begin to heal and day-to-day life appears easier.

The growth stage follows on the heels of possibility. Although there has been some growth from the beginning, families in this stage recognize a steady pace of growth, with more steps forward than backward. Family members feel accepted by one another and problems are resolved quickly when they arise. Stepparents feel comfortable in their roles and tension with ex-spouses has eased.

The last stage: the reward stage is reached only after years of intentional effort. For many stepfamilies, it is never reached, because they give up. But for those who persevere, the reward of harmonious relationships and sense of accomplishment from a united family outweighs the burden of what it cost to get there. Once reached, the rewards continue for years as family members treat each other with unconditional love and respect, erasing the memories of difficult years and replacing them with hope and anticipation for the future.

Stepfamilies offer children a chance to heal from broken relationships while learning how healthy relationships relate to one another. Researcher James Bray published results from a 10-year study with stepfamilies that indicated a healthy, stable stepfamily can help overcome some of the negative psychological effects of divorce. And while remarriage with children involved may be challenging, intentional effort and commitment can lead to satisfaction and reward in the long run.

Gayla Grace is a freelance writer who has been remarried for 17 years. She and her husband have five children in their blended family, ages 12 to 28.

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