Survival Tips for the First Year of Stepfamily Life
Ten ideas that helped (or would have helped) my family during our first blended year.
The first few months into my second marriage were a rude awakening. I thought I knew my new husband well: He was a dedicated Christian, a hard worker, and his children loved and respected him. All the major no-nos were absent. What more was there to know?
I’ll never forget the night I went to bed on the verge of tears. I felt he snapped at me all day. Nothing I did was right. I didn’t feel loved or appreciated, and I was confused how my gestures of love were met with such lack of enthusiasm. About the time my eyes were ready to pour out like Niagara, my husband sighed.
Oh, great! Now what? I thought. “What is it?” I asked.
He replied, “I’m just so happy.”
Emotionally, we were miles apart during our first year of marriage. The children were just as confused. They didn’t know their place. Even though both of us previously had successful marriages (we were both widowed), our knowledge in those relationships did not help our newly blended family. If anything, it created more confusion.
But we were committed to the marriage, and that meant we had a lot of work to do. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I compiled a list of 10 survival tips for your first year of blended family life that may help.
1. Lower your expectations.
According to stepfamily expert Ron Deal, it takes an average of seven years for a blended family to blend. Ron uses the image of a crockpot to explain how long it takes to start to feel like a family. You can’t soften carrots quickly in a slow cooker, and you can’t expect your stepfamily to congeal in a month.
While marriage deserves a place of honor, we must realize it is two imperfect people making an imperfect life together. And blending a family means three or four or 12 imperfect people are making a life together.
It’s like one of those reality TV shows where a group of people are stranded on an island alone. Nerves are involved; conditions are involved; fears are involved. But for some reason, we expect our family life to be perfect and always cheerful.
The apostle Paul gives a handy reminder in Romans 3:10, “None is righteous, no, not one.” Expect problems, and expect them for a long time. Treasure moments of happiness and joy, and trust God will eventually bring healing.
2. Practice the Golden Rule.
We all make mistakes, and we all need forgiveness. Everyone needs some grace poured out every now and then. Grace is giving someone favor, even when they don’t deserve it. In the words of Jesus, “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31). In other words, if you want grace and forgiveness even when you don’t deserve it, then that’s how you should treat the people in your stepfamily.
When it comes to grievances, set an example for your family to follow. Be the first one to let things go. It may not return in your favor right away, but by taking the high road, you are showing your family the way to peace.
3. Don’t avoid hard topics.
The hardest parts of blended families are the awkward conversations. There is no way to predict how the kids will react. And when parents step on the landmines of hurt feelings, it’s hard to get the courage to go back to the battlefield again.
Experts recommend a regular family meeting time. It’s the best forum for open discussion on hard topics. My husband’s family didn’t feel comfortable with that, so my husband and I were forced to gather up the courage to talk to the children when difficult subjects reared their ugly heads.
I’m thankful we did. Sometimes our fears were unfounded. Other times we discovered the children had fears we didn’t know were there. No matter how the issues came out in the end, I felt good knowing everyone was included in the conversation. They had a voice, and that was important to me.
4. Go on regular date nights with your spouse.
During the first two years of our marriage, date night saved me from insanity. We set aside every Friday night for dating. There were times I would hold my breath until Friday night came. It was the only hope of a break from the angst.
Other times, the last thing on earth I wanted to do was go on a date with “that man.” But we had a regular sitter scheduled, so I felt forced to go. Otherwise, my husband would have been talking to the back of my head all night. Date night got us away from all the distractions and reminded me why I married Robbie. He is fun, romantic, interesting, handsome … and I could actually slow down enough to admire that. I would think to myself, I remember now. I actually like this person!
If you can’t afford a regular sitter, trade every other week with a family from church. At the very least, set aside a date once a month. If you can’t afford dinner out, take some candles, a blanket, and cupcakes and go to a local park. Ride bikes together. Go on a hike. Do something together alone.
First marriages establish this kind of relationship before they have kids. There are very few distractions to keep them from solidifying their friendship bond. So in remarriages, we have to create space for that to happen. If you don’t create it, it won’t happen.
5. Establish order and respect.
By saying this, I don’t mean draw hard lines or start a discipline regiment. I simply mean parents as a unit should talk to their children about the order of authority and expectations on how the adults should be treated. This is something I wish we would have done in our stepfamily.
Most of the discipline should come from the biological parent. This is something I did terribly wrong. As a single mom, I felt my children were undisciplined and in need of a man. So when I married Robbie, I wanted him to get them in line.
He did, alright. But they were scared and confused. They didn’t know who this man was and why he suddenly had authority over their lives. No other man had had that kind of authority. Why him? And the more they asked “why?” the more he felt disrespected, and the cycle continued.
By the time I took discipline back over, the damage had been done. Before my children could form a healthy bond with Robbie, a wedge of fear formed between them that took years to get over.
So establish an order of authority for the kids’ sake. Tell them what words and actions are and are not respectful. Explain who has the final say when orders are conflicting. Give them an explicit idea of how the rules in your family will work.
6. Let the kids spend time alone with their biological parent.
When a blended family forms, the married couple is happy to have someone to share life with and grow old with. But the children of those two didn’t have a choice about with whom they would spend the rest of their growing up years.
In addition, not only is one parent lost due to death or divorce, the caretaking parent is now lost to his or her new family. Biological children can feel overlooked or even in the way. They may feel like an outsider in their own home. It’s another level of grief and loss, and it can cause depression or rebellion in an otherwise happy, healthy child.
The family should never revolve around the kids, no matter how needy they are. But the biological parent is the only one who can interpret for the stepparent. They speak the same language. The kids need to be heard, and they need to know that they are still important to mom or dad.
My husband would go play golf with his teenage son to maintain some kind of bond. Since my children were little, I spent 15 minutes with each one every night tucking them into bed. I asked about their feelings and their fears. And I always assured them of my love no matter what.
7. Don’t let the children make any final decisions for the family.
Single parents often give their children too much authority in family decisions. Afterall, it’s easy to let the children decide what to eat and what to do for fun. There is no other adult around, and a single parent is already too tired to dispute meals or whether to watch a movie or go to the park.
Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and when the single parent gets married, the bio parent often turns to her children to get their input on what to do as a family. The only problem is when both parents are doing that you create a war over who is the favorite child.
You can take suggestions from the children, but make sure they know it is only a suggestion. The parents will make the final decision of where to go, and they do not have a final say in the matter. This is another area that comes down to authority and respect.
8. Pray, pray, pray.
I know I don’t have to remind you to pray. It’s almost a natural part of a stepfamily’s daily routine. But I do want to remind you that God is in control. You can’t change the members of your stepfamily. You can’t make them do what you want them to do. But you can appeal to the One who is in control.
Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
There is too much to handle in a stepfamily on your own. The good news is you don’t have to. There are times when you need to step away from the situation and say, “God, this is a heart matter. I’m going to leave this one up to you.”
9. Let grieving take place.
Grief isn’t just for death. Divorce brings almost as much grief as death does. Grief is what we feel when the dreams we took for granted are suddenly taken away forever with no hope of preventing it from happening.
That’s exactly how your kids feel in a remarriage. It opens up all kinds of wounds and stirs thoughts like: What does mom/dad think? I have to be loyal to my mom/dad. How could my dad/mom do this to me? Doesn’t he/she love me? Was I not enough? The list goes on!
What you need to know is people do weird things when they grieve. It affects a person physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They may have emotional outbursts or withdraw. They may try out new activities or stop having interest in something they used to love. They may confide in you one day and treat you like the enemy the next.
You need to allow space for grieving to happen. If children don’t work through their grief, it will build up and fester. Don’t get your feelings hurt over little things. Understand there will be conflicting emotions. Allow children to talk about their losses. Help them put words to what they feel. And don’t ever say, “Don’t feel bad” or “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
In their world, this remarriage is one of the worst things that could happen. Let them feel bad, and offer a shoulder to cry on. Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” Don’t take their grief away. If you allow the pain to release, they will eventually heal.
10. Don’t give up!
Second marriages don’t have a reputation for lasting. It’s no wonder with all the unexpected frustrations and pressure that comes with remarriage. Some people stop trying after nothing seems to work. They feel guilty and convince themselves they made a mistake.
But God has proven time and again He can bring beauty from ashes. He can turn mourning into gladness. If He can do all the miracles we see in Scripture, then he can make a family out of your broken homes. Don’t give up. God still has plans for you and your family.
Copyright © 2018 by Sabrina McDonald. Used with permission.