Stepfamilies are born out of loss - either death or divorce - and parents and children trying to merge their lives in a stepfamily have more complicated obstacles to overcome than those in traditional, biological families.
Stepfamilies often wander through unfamiliar territory. But with God's help, they can reach the Promised Land of a healthy life together.
Here are some ways you can work smarter (not harder) to build a healthy stepfamily:
* Connect with God and His family of believers. No matter what your past, don't let guilt or shame isolate you from the love God wants you to experience.
Understand that everyone makes mistakes and is equally in need of God's grace. Know that you're not a second class Christian.
Find a biblical church and get involved in worship, fellowship, and service on a regular basis.
Ask God to develop attitudes in you that will help you greatly in your journey - integrity, a willingness to listen to others, empathy, perseverance, commitment, patience, flexibility, and humor.
* Grieve your past losses and pursue healing. Don't be afraid to honestly express grief about the losses in your past. Admit your thoughts and feelings of grief.
Ask God to show you what lessons He wants you to learn from the past. Ask Him to take your sorrow, anger, and fear and transform them into peace, confidence, and hope.
* Adjust your expectations. Learn be adaptable and flexible, prepared to handle unforeseen difficulties.
Know that studies have shown it takes an average of about seven years for a stepfamily to integrate to the point where each member has developed a strong bond with each other - and sometimes, that bonding never occurs. Be patient. Strive to simply accept and respect members of your stepfamily rather than expecting instant love.
Don't compare your new marriage to your old one. Don't seek to replace your stepchildren's other biological parent, but see yourself simply as an additional parent who can enrich your stepchild's life.
Derive your sense of personal worth from your position as God's beloved child, not from any of your human relationships. Be secure enough to respect the strong attachments your stepchildren have to their biological parents and seek to simply add to that blessing rather than competing with it.
* Forgive. Ask God to remind you of how much He has forgiven you through Christ's work on the cross.
Then allow that knowledge to humble you and motivate you to forgive those who have hurt you, such as an angry former spouse or a stepchild who doesn't want to accept you.
Choose to forgive one offense at a time, even when you don't feel like it, and pray for God's help to live out that decision. Know that every time you choose to forgive, you free yourself from bitterness that could poison you.
* Build a strong marriage. Understand the vital role your marriage plays in your stepfamily's stability - or lack of it.
Make it a priority to devote lots of time and energy to nurturing your marriage.
Commit to your marriage no matter what comes your way. Get training to improve your communication and conflict resolution skills.
Don't let your biological children or stepchildren interfere with the intimacy you need to build with your spouse. Examine how your previous marriage has influenced you, and try to adjust your responses to similar situations in your new marriage so that your behavior is healthier this time around. Ask God to help you trust your new spouse. Unpack your emotional baggage and ask God to heal your hurts.
* Cooperate with your former spouse as part of a parenting team. Don't drag your children into the middle of your conflicts with each other. Commit together to work as a team to deal work for your children's welfare materially, physically, educationally, emotionally, and spiritually. Never badmouth the other parent or the other household. Never manipulate your children's time to seek revenge against your former spouse (such as withholding visits until child support payments are made).
Encourage your children to enjoy their time in the other household without feeling guilty.
Know that you don't need to worry about your biological children being loyal to you because biological bonds are almost always stronger than stepparent bonds. Know the other household's rules and encourage your children to respect and obey them while visiting, even if they're different from the rules at your own house. Schedule regular meetings with your former spouse to discuss co-parenting matters and keep each other informed.
* Gradually grow into the stepparenting role. Don't rush into handling direct child care or rule setting. Initially, work through your spouse (your stepchildren's biological parent) to maintain a relationship that isn't emotionally threatening.
As your relationship with your stepchildren grows over a few years, you may have earned the necessary respect and authority to step into a more disciplinary role.
* Creatively combine family and holiday traditions. Don't insist on doing things in your new family the way you did them in your old family.
Be flexible and willing to make sacrifices so that your new family can create new traditions.
Let each family member (including the children) give input in your discussions of how to create those new traditions. Be creative, and plan the time you'll need to negotiate with everyone affected.
* Carefully plan how you'll handle family finances. Thoroughly discuss whether you and your new spouse will have separate accounts, shared accounts, or his-hers-ours accounts system. Make sure that each partner has credit in his or her own name and enough discretionary funds available to meet personal needs. Also make sure that enough money is accessible to deal with emergencies without going into debt.
* Hold regular family meetings. Weekly or biweekly family meetings can be great tools for discussing issues and solving problems.
Use them to process emotions, negotiate rule changes, talk about roles in the home, plan vacations, etc.
* Set boundaries to discourage sexual attractions. Realize that stepfamilies do not contain the natural genetic taboo against incest that biological families have.
Set clear boundaries of behavior to discourage inappropriate sexual attraction between stepparents and stepchildren.
Ron L. Deal is family life minister for Southwest Church of Christ and a licensed marriage and family therapist, licensed professional counselor with the Better Life Counseling Center. He presents his Building a Successful Stepfamily seminar nationwide and is on the institute faculty and advisory council for the Stepfamily Association of America. Ron, his wife, and their sons live in Jonesboro, Arkansas.