From Enemies to Intimates

Becoming a stepfamily is a process, not an event. It takes time, counted not in days or months, but years. My experience, corroborated by the research, is that even “fast” families take a couple of years to begin to feel some shared sense of “how we do things.” It takes another couple of years to feel a solid sense of “we-ness” at least in some areas. Sometimes one child moves more slowly and others more quickly. Becoming a thriving stepfamily also takes longer for stepcouples who begin with very unrealistic ideas and cannot shift, those who handle differences with attack, criticism, or withdrawal, those with an especially vulnerable child.

A story from my own stepfamily

My daughter was twelve and a half when, after ten years as a single parent, I met my second husband, Steve. Statistically, my daughter was at precisely the age and gender when joining a stepfamily is most difficult. She also had a very painful relationship with her own father, which made the presence of a new man in my life even more threatening. My husband’s kids, who were a little older than my daughter, were fairly accepting. However, for almost four years, my daughter could barely stand to be in the same room with my husband.

All my expertise could not help me to make my daughter care about my husband. However, I could, at least, stay connected and loving with each of them, and I could keep them from hurting each other. I spent time alone with my daughter without my husband and time with my husband without my daughter.

Like many stepparents, my husband often felt that my parenting was too wimpy. I told him that he could tell me when he was upset and I would set the limit if I felt it was reasonable. I made sure that he did not speak harshly to her. I told him he could speak to her in “I” messages (“I sure would appreciate you saying hello when you walk into a room with me.” Not “you” messages (“You are being disrespectful and you need to straighten out.”)

While I didn’t always agree with my husband’s ideas about her behavior. I did insist that my daughter be at least civil to my husband: “You don’t have to love him or even like him. You do need to be decent. Look him in the eye and say hello. I know it’s tough. I know you wish he wasn’t here. I expect the same from him.”

The breakthrough did not come until about four years into our relationship. I, originally a Southern Californian, wanted to paint our dining room a nice warm terra cotta color. My daughter and my husband, both New Englanders, began arguing adamantly, on the same side, for what was, to my eye, stodgy and dreary, dark teal blue wall paper with garlands and urns. They outnumbered me and won, thus beginning several years of forging a bond by ganging up on me over everything from light fixtures to shoes.

My daughter and my husband could not be closer now. If you had told me in year 3.5 that this would happen I would have said, “I am a nationally recognized expert on stepfamilies and you are out of your mind. ” Now I would say, if you can keep everyone safe, be a good shuttle diplomat, and make sure that no scars are created, you never know.

Tell your real stories in the comments below, about coming together as a stepfamily with and without struggling.

Published on: November 26, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Patricia Papernow

Dr. Patricia Papernow is widely recognized as one of the world's foremost experts on "blended families" and post-divorce parenting. Her groundbreaking new book, Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t is available at amazon and on her web site,

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Recent Comments

Dear Danika,
I am so glad you wrote. That sounds like a very painful journey.
It is so true that when stepparents and stepkids don’t like each other, it can be a recipe for a lot of suffering all around.
My experience is that it is especially important, before moving forward, that the parent establishes that your partner-to-be can be caring and kind to your child.
That saId, some kids really do need a LOT of time. Their sense of loss, and/or their loyalty bind with their other parent, can make it very hard for some kids to like anybody you bring home. My experience is that these situations can work over time. The ingredients are:
-Not moving in together right away, and certainly not getting married right away, so that the child can feel really secure that you will stay connected and caring, and has time to get to know the stepparent a bit.
-A stepparent who can hang in with patience and kindness, even when a child cannot be warm or welcoming. Conversely, when a stepparent responds with hostility to a child who is struggling, the injuries can become irreparable. (Stepparents in this position do need a lot of hugs from the parent!)
-A stepparent who is willing to leave you completely in charge of all discipline (more on that in one of the next blogs).
-It also requires someone who is OK with you continuing to balance couple time with a lot of one-to-one time with your child.
All of these elements are central to any stepparent-stepchild relationship, but much more critical, and more challenging, when children are struggling. When they are all in place, I do think some (not all!) incredibly “resistant” kids can come around and form a nourishing, trusting relationship with a stepparent,
Thanks so much for sharing your story!

Thank you so much. I’m sorry I neglected to come back and read your response sooner. I think everything you said here is spot on. We broke most of these guidelines and made things much more difficult than they needed to be. And 9 years later, are still dealing with some of the consequences of how we handled things in the beginning.

But on the bright side, my stepson and I have a good relationship. He loves me, he knows I love him and I’m always here for him. And in the end, that’s the most important thing :)

One thing that seems to be missing from this article though that I read from many family therapists is the importance of the new spouse and your child forging a relationship before you get married, and making sure your spouse-to-be likes your child. You should not be bringing anyone into your home without that knowledge. I’m not saying introduce every person you date to your child, nor let your child decide who you do or don’t marry.

But when you get near the point that you want to make a life together, it’s really important to THEN introduce your child and spouse-to-be and make sure they get a chance to build a relationship before you get married. Forcing a new parent on a child before that isn’t fair to your child or your spouse-to-be and is a recipe for disaster. I can attest to this from experience.