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.