Experts say stepfamilies face a plethora of problems that can be more intense than those faced by traditional families, in which children are raised under one roof by their married, biological parents.
By one estimate, 30 percent of weddings now performed in the United States give birth to a stepfamily. A more sobering fact: 60 percent or more of those couples will end up divorcing each other, many within five years of marrying.
Their children, having lost their original family structure when their biological parents’ union ended, can be further wounded by the loss of this second family. Later, as adults, they’re at increased risk for leaving their own marriages prematurely and also may find it difficult to embrace a traditional Christian faith.
Yet churches largely have failed to recognize the special challenges stepfamilies encounter.
“We just kind of stand back and watch two-thirds of them divorce again,” said Ron L. Deal, 42, author of “The Smart Stepfamily” and president of Successfulstepfamilies.com, an Amarillo, Tex., ministry that conducts seminars for stepfamilies and clergy.
“It’s definitely in society,” agreed James Stillwell, 50, of the stepfamily trend. “The problem with it in the church is that it’s under the radar.”
Stillwell, adult life pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., wrote his seminary doctoral research project on young-adult children of divorce.
Stepfamilies originate in various ways, not just from divorce. Sometimes a parent loses her first spouse to death. Sometimes a parent had children outside wedlock.
“Stepfamilies are born out of loss,” Deal said. “No matter what that loss is, there is a loss that’s laid a foundation for that home.”
The bride and groom, having discovered a fresh love, giddy from romance, may fail to anticipate the looming problems of trying to blend two households.
“Everybody gets blindsided by dynamics they didn’t anticipate, nor did they understand,” Deal said.
Stillwell even dislikes the term “blended families,” a common euphemism for stepfamilies, because it sets up false expectations. Most stepfamilies don’t blend well, at least for a long, tumultuous time.
Stillwell, Deal and Dick Dunn, 74-a retired Methodist minister, author and recognized authority-all said it can take up to seven years for, in Stillwell’s words, “a family to come to a point where there’s a feeling of normalcy and stability and unity.”
Often, the adults in a stepfamily are still wrestling with unresolved grief or unforgiveness toward their previous spouses. That carries into their new relationships.
If there’s been a divorce, ex-spouses may argue over custody, or may disagree with the lifestyles or parenting skills of their exes, with whom their kids share time.
But it’s the children themselves who most complicate the situation.
“The kids are the big thing,” said Dunn, a retired minister of singles and stepfamilies at Roswell United Methodist Church in Roswell, Ga. His books about stepfamilies include New Faces in the Frame. He now lives in northern Ohio.
Children find themselves with a new parent they didn’t ask for.
“They have no say,” Dunn explained. “They’re upset, and so they act that out.”
Children grieve on a different timetable-they lag a year or more behind their parents in their ability to cope with the loss of their original family, Deal said.
Also, children often harbor fantasies that their divorced parents will get back together. A parent’s marriage to someone else kills that hope.
Ironically, the stronger the new marriage proves to be, the more likely a child will try to sabotage it. The child sees himself as cast aside for the new adult in the house.
The biological parent, sensing this, often goes out of his or her way to pay extra attention to the child and to excuse the kid’s rude behavior toward the stepparent–which then leaves the spouse feeling rejected. It’s a Catch-22.
If a stepparent corrects a misbehaving child, that opens up another battlefield.
“Discipline never seems just in the eyes of the child if it comes from the new parent on the scene,” Stillwell said.
There can even be issues over what the child is to call the stepparent. Children of divorced parents balk at calling a stepparent “mom” or “dad.”
“They still have a dad, they still have a mom,” Stillwell said.
All this becomes more acute if the children are teenagers. Developmentally, teens are trying to establish their independence. The pressures of having a new stepparent and perhaps stepsiblings can ratchet up that desire.
Whether or not they openly rebel, teens don’t put much effort into making the stepfamily cohere, Dunn said.
Even 65-year-old, widowed, empty-nesters discover remarriage can lead to difficulties. Their adult children and grandchildren frequently exhibit the same misgivings about their remarriage as younger children would.
The Effects on Churches
There are spiritual ramifications, too.
“When marriage breaks down, so does the ability of parents to shape the faith of children,” said Deal, author of The Smart Stepfamily.
Children who shuttle between two homes may have to navigate between one set of beliefs at mom’s new household and a wildly different set at dad’s. They want to please both parents, don’t want to take sides, so they try to assimilate both sets of tenets.
“They’re less mature as Christians,” Deal said. “Everybody’s opinion is OK. It’s really fueled this notion of, ‘there’s no truth.'”
For church leaders, stepfamilies affect how they conduct congregational programs-often in subtle ways.
Dunn said it’s now hard for those who direct children’s education to plan continuity between weekly Sunday school lessons. Many kids alternate weekends with their divorced parents and are rarely at the same church two Sundays in a row. So leaders have to develop lessons that can be fully taught in one session.
Despite all this, stepfamilies aren’t doomed. Some stepfamilies, for whatever reasons, avoid many of these problems. And most stepfamilies can conquer their troubles.
One remedy is for everyone involved to realize that difficult issues aren’t signs their family is unusually dysfunctional.
“The relaxing part is knowing this is normal,” Stillwell said.
Before they remarry, adults should seek grief-recovery or divorce-recovery counseling to help them work through their previous losses.
After a stepfamily is formed, communication is vital, Stillwell said. Adults ought to hold regular family meetings where problems can be aired and solutions discussed. The adults should plan a fun activity the family can enjoy immediately afterward.
“You want to provide more pleasure than you have pain in the situation,” he said.
But the two most effective aids for stepfamilies are for the adults to improve their marriage and for them to join a stepfamily support group.
If the marriage is nurtured, the couple can weather difficult children and exes.
Seminars and support groups give couples tactics for dealing with unhappy children, safe places to vent and the recognition they’re not the only ones struggling.
Dunn said finding a seminar on stepfamilies saved his second marriage, which was about to end in divorce.
When he and his wife later started stepfamily support programs for couples at their own church, they saw the divorce rate among participants drop to 16 or 17 percent.
Churches can help here. Ministers should invite in speakers to address stepfamily dynamics, offer adult-education classes for stepparents and encourage support groups.
Under those conditions, 80 percent of stepfamilies could succeed, Deal said.
“Stepfamily living is complicated,” he said. “It isn’t impossible.”
Successful Stepfamilies: www.successfulstepfamilies.com
National Stepfamily Resource Center: www.stepfamilies.info