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Key Steps for Steps

  • 2004 21 Apr
Key Steps for Steps

"It's been a real struggle trying to be a stepmother to my husband's son. We knock heads quite often, and my husband doesn't know how to help. Usually he and I start arguing about his son, but before long we're arguing with each other. It's been three years, and I just thought things would be so much better by now. But they seem to be getting worse."

Developing a healthy stepfamily is a journey. Knowing which steps to take in order to move from "Egypt" to the "Promised Land" is quite a struggle for most. The Promised Land can seem so far away when daily problems continually drain your energy. The real question is, can you persevere while trying to understand what obstacles stand in the way and what solutions will help you overcome them?

Key Stepping-Stones

A few key stepping-stones will enable you stepfamily to overcome obstacles and take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. Essentially, stepping-stones are important attitudes and perspectives that will enable you to endure the wilderness and cross through whatever sea of opposition you may face.

Spiritual Integrity and Christlikeness. This stepping-stone goes straight to the heart of any successful family. Hopefully, all individuals within your stepfamily are in the process of voluntarily putting themselves under the lordship of Jesus Christ. This involves an internal, personal commitment to follow Christ and to accept his gracious forgiveness of the sin that separates us from God. Living in faithful response to this grace will ripple into every other relational aspect of your stepfamily. For example, only when we truly understand how much we have been forgiven by God can we extend forgiveness to those that have hurt us deeply. Furthermore, just as Christ was not swayed from acting fairly toward those who falsely accused him, stepparents who seek to imitate Christ, for example, can find ways of rising above their stepchildren's manipulative ploys. Christ's spiritual integrity, that is, his doing what was right despite the negative attitudes of those around him, becomes a much needed model for how we are to treat one another. When his integrity becomes yours, a transformation will begin in your home that defies the odds.

Listening. The second stepping-stone involves on of the hardest skills in relationships-listening. If stepfamily members are not willing to hear one another, they can't know how to love and honor one another. Listening is a process by which persons set aside their own agendas long enough to tune in to someone else. This allows you to see another perspective and gain insight into that family member's feelings, desires, and goals. In contrast, an unwillingness to listen and value the perspective of another results in feelings of invalidation and unimportance.

Outsiders in stepfamilies are those who are not biologically related to other stepfamily members. They frequently feel discounted and pushed out of discussions and decision-making because, as they are frequently told, "you just don't understand" the history behind a given problem or circumstance. Such invalidation brings about resentment and a sense of unacceptance. Even though opinions will differ, everyone in a stepfamily has the need to be heard.

Understanding. Listening is the skill that makes understanding possible. It can be difficult to fully understand someone else's perspective, but standing in another's shoes in order to see the world from that person's point of view is a good first step. Individuals within stepfamilies have each traveled a different journey. Biological children and stepchildren, for example, experience their stepfamily quite differently. Biological parents experience the stepfamily differently than do stepparents. The adult experience is different than the children's. To put yourself in the shoes of the other persons in your family is a tremendous act of courage. You may find, for example, that a stepdaughter's resentment of you is not farfetched given how she has been hurt by others in the past. Or you may discover that you husband's style of discipline makes sense once you understand what he experienced in his first marriage and family of origin.

The key is to put yourself in the shoes of another and wonder what it must be like to be that person. Ask yourself:

1) What losses has he or she experienced? (Make a list of the losses your children have experienced, and you'll be humbled by what they have been forced to give up.)

2) How do the other members of our stepfamily treat this person? How do I treat him or her?

3) What is it like for children to live in the other home?

4) What challenges does he or she face in trying to belong?

5) What responsibilities, roles, relationships, etc. does he or she have that I don't have to deal with?

6) What is his or her favorite part of this family?

7) What part does he or she care for the least?

Then, ask this family member to share the answers to some of these questions with you. Listen intently and strive to understand how these aspects impact his or her daily life with you. Such understanding will help you develop empathy for each member of your family, which in turn helps you relate more effectively.

Perseverance. Life is filled with trials, tribulations, and challenges. It is the norm for all types of families (biological, single parent, and stepfamily). This is especially true at the beginning of the stepfamily journey; in fact, uncertainty, disillusions, and discouragement commonly characterize the first few years. But the stepping-stone of perseverance can carry you through these difficult times.

What I'm talking about is being determined and sticking with your marriage and family when the going gets tough. Henry Blackaby in "Experiencing God" talks about the "crisis of belief" that Christians experience when God's will becomes evident. When God speaks his desire for us, whether through Scripture or circumstance, we face a crisis of belief. Will my belief lead to action and take me wherever God has directed-even if I personally don't want to go there-or will my therapy office and said they were unwilling to persevere, even though they knew God didn't want them to give up on the marriage. Determination is not a convenience. It is a crisis of belief. In effect, determination says, "Trusting God to be faithful as the Lord of Possibilities, I will be faithful and persevere in my marital responsibilities even if this marriage and family is not what I want it to be." Determination, then, can be quite costly, but it also paves the way for a growing relationship.

Commitment. Determination, when combined with the decision to persevere, results in a strong commitment to building your stepfamily. The bedrock of this commitment is dedication to your spouse. Nothing can be more important in any family; after all, the stepfamily begins as two people vow to love, honor, and cherish one another for a lifetime. But sometimes we need to be reminded that our marital vows were not multiple-choice. The preacher probably didn't let you choose: "I'll take richer, for better, and in health-but I won't commit to poorer, for worse, or in sickness."

A few years ago I heard about a young man who approached the minister during the wedding rehearsal and made him an offer. "Look, I'll give you $100 if you'll change the wedding vows. When you get to me and the part where I'm to promise to 'love, honor, and obey' and 'forsaking all others, be faithful to her forever,' I'd appreciate it if you'd just leave that part out." He then gave the minister the money and walked away. At the wedding, when it came time for the groom to state his vows, the minister looked him straight in the eye and said, "Will you promise to prostrate yourself before her, obey her every command and wish, server her breakfast in bed every morning of your life, and swear eternally before God and your lovely wife that you will not ever even look at another woman, as long as you both shall live?" The groom gulped, looked around and of course said, "Yes." He then leaned toward the minister and hissed, "I thought we had a deal." As the minister slipped the $100 bill back into the groom's hand he whispered, "She made me a much better offer!"

Commitment means remaining dedicated to the vows we expressed on our wedding day. Couples then make a decision every day of their life whether they will live up to those words. If they choose not to, their stepfamily will not survive the journey.

Patience. Stepfamily integration hardly ever happens as quickly as adults want it to. It just doesn't happen on their timetable. Stepfamily researcher James Bray discovered that stepfamilies don't begin to think or act like a family until the end of the second or third year. Furthermore, Patricia Papernow, author of the book "Becoming a Stepfamily," discovered that it takes the average stepfamily seven years to integrate sufficiently to experience intimacy and authenticity in step relationships. Fast families can accomplish this in four years, if the children are young and the adults are intentional about bringing their family together. However, slow families, according to Papernow, can take nine or more years. In my experience, very few adults come into their stepfamily believing it will take this long. They want a quick, painless blending process. In fact, if they had known the journey would take so long, they might not have signed on in the first place.

You see, the stepfamily is filled with complex dynamics that take most adults by surprise. Family therapists have long recognized that divorce doesn't really end family life' it just reorganizes it. In effect, it spreads your family out over multiple households. Emotional and relational dynamics that preceded the divorce continue even through the family living arrangements have been restructured. Even new relationships become part of the larger family. Have you noticed, for example, that when your ex-wife's new mother-in-law has a crisis, it impacts your home? Your children are emotionally impacted, and it ma force your ex-wife to change her visitation schedule, which, of course, dramatically affects your life and plans.

Stepfamilies need to realize that all the people sharing a home with your children and stepchildren are part of your "expanded" family. Start counting, and the total number of people can be exasperating! From a mathematical perspective, the number of possible interactions in a stepfamily containing children who move back and forth between two homes, and who have stepparents who have biological children of their own, can be thousands of times greater than a biological family's possible interactions. Family therapists and stepfamily educators Emily and John Visher point out that stepfamilies don't have a family tree, they have a family forest! This complex forest simply takes time to integrate.

Flexibility. Have you ever tried to force a square peg into a round hole? Because the stepfamily is different from a biological family, you need to learn flexibility. The rituals, expectations, and assumptions our society trains us to have about family life become our square pegs that, when forced into the round step family hole, just don't fit.

What would happen if while riding a bicycle you made a 90-degree right-hand turn by turning the handlebars the same way you would a car steering wheel? You'd flip right over the handlebars and face-plant on the ground! The bicycle is a different vehicle than a car and requires different movement to steer it correctly. If you try to steer your stepfamily the exact same way you would a biological family, you're bound to flip over a time or two. Almost immediately some rituals, styles of parenting, and expectations will work just as they do in biological families, and others will eventually work well once the family has bonded together. Other situations, however, will always be different, requiring flexible handling.

Humor. In the midst of a chaotic moment, humor is definitely the best medicine for stepfamilies. Humor brings a perspective that helps you to step back from the crisis or circumstances and see it in a whole new light. In fact, you might even enjoy a good laugh.

I often reference two cartoons that make this point clear. The first pictures a man reading a piece of mail to his wife. "It's bad news, Anne," he says. "The traffic judge assigned to our case is my first wife." The ability to chuckle at the predicaments of life will save your soul from worry and anxiety. The second cartoon pictures two young children standing in the front yard. The little girl is pointing at the boy reminding him, "Your dad cannot beat up my dad because your dad is now my dad, remember?"

Incidentally, that cartoon took on new meaning when I applied it to Jesus-the most famous stepchild who ever lived. Think about it: He wasn't raised by his natural father. Joseph was his stepdad. Yes, it is a unique circumstance, but you still can't avoid the fact that the Creator of the universe entrusted his Son to be raise by a stepfather. Picture Jesus as an eight-year-old talking to his stepsiblings. "Oh, no. Believe me, your dad cannot beat up my Dad!"

Learning to laugh at yourself and your circumstances is not about denying problems or responsibilities. It is about not taking yourself too seriously so you can gain perspective on your circumstances.

Keep Stepping

Without question, stepfamily life is a journey full of obstacles and opportunities. But there is joy in the journey. Keep stepping, the Promised Land awaits.

Taken from The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family by Ron L. Deal (October 2002, Bethany House). He is a family life minister for the Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, Arkansas and on the Institute Faculty of the Stepfamily Association of America. Check out his site at

© Copyright 2003 Smalley Relationship Center