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Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFTSally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT
A blog about mental and emotional health

Stepfamily, Blended Family, Remarried Family or Married with Baggage Family?

Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT Updated: Jan 26th 2011

What do you call yourselves?

What do you call the person who is married to your parent?

How do you refer to your spouse’s children?

What you call yourselves affects the way that you relate to others in your family.

Think about it. The term, “stepfamily” tends to have negative or evil connotations. How would you describe one of the most famous stepfamilies … Cinderella’s family? Most people automatically think of wicked stepmothers and stepsisters.

blended familyThe term “blended family” has problems of its own. The dictionary definition of blending is “to create a harmonious effect or result” and in many remarried families, harmony might not be noticed very often at all! It is extremely difficult for many families to “blend”. Relationships are complicated and feelings, history and loyalties make blending impossible for a large percentage of stepfamilies.

Remarried family numbers are growing. In a nationwide Pew research study released recently, 42 percent of 2,700 adults polled said that they had at least one step-relative. Three in 10 have stepsiblings or half-siblings, 18 percent have a living stepparent, and 13 percent have at least one stepchild.

More of these newly constituted families also come from single adults with children who had previous relationships but never married.

Unrealistic expectations are common.

Setting unrealistic expectations, which the idea of “blending” seems to do, invites family members to expect that everyone will get along, like, and maybe even love each other … and be as happy as the two adults who fell in love and married.

The divorce rate for stepfamilies with children at home is higher than for any other marriages. Living with children who are not your own is difficult. Add to the mix those children who may still be struggling with their parents’ divorce, teen age years or other situations and you have a mix that can be extremely difficult.

It can take years to for stepfamilies to form the emotional bonds taken for granted in nuclear families and stepparents have to accept and respect that these connections take a long time.

Different parenting styles are enhanced in stepfamilies.

In nuclear families, parents often have different styles of parenting which may cause problems. In stepfamilies, the differences are intensified as each tries to employ their own style of parenting on the children in the family. The stress and tension that this causes can reverberate in all aspects of a couple’s relationship.

There are some tips for stepfamilies that will help families develop calmer and respectful ways of being together. The most important of these are to

go slowly,
be patient,
have a good sense of humor and
look for and highlight any positive changes.

In future blog entries, I will share some tips for stepfamilies and stepfamily members, stepmoms, dads, children and couples. I also invite those of you who live in stepfamilies and have had success in blending, to share your stories and tips.


Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT

Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT has been a therapist for over 30 years, specializing in work with couples, families and relationships. She has expertise with clients both present in the room as well as online through email, phone and chat therapy. She has written numerous articles about solving couple and relationship dilemmas. Many of them can be found on her website, Counseling Relationships Online, or her blog, Relationship Dilemmas.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Too Many Factors - Kathy - Mar 10th 2011

I cannot tell you how much your article hit home.  I would like to share my story and appeal for any advice. My situation is starting to make me physically ill-I internalize everything.

My first marriage was dissolved over 5 1/2 yrs ago. My husband's first marriage was dissolved a little over 5 yrs ago. My husband and I have been together 4 1/2 yrs-married 1 1/2 of those yrs. We have 4 daughters between the two of us. Mine are 17 and 13, his are 21 and 16.

From the beginning, our relationship and the acceptance within the others’ daughters' hearts has been a roller coaster. To help explain my situation, I need to begin by revealing that my husband is retired (by way of 100% disabled) military. He is an adult-onset-type I-brittle diabetic. He is also an alcoholic (trying to recover-but not well). My ex-husband I get along very well, in fact he is renting a house that I own so that our oldest (17) can graduate from the school system she has gone to her whole life-a town 30 miles away. My current husband’s ex-wife is the complete opposite. I didn't realize that one person could possess so much hatred and meanness. Truly-until exposed to her, I didn't have experience dealing with such negativity. I also did not have experience with alcoholism. I am smart enough to realize that what I hear from my husband is very one-sided and after having to deal with alcoholism for even this short time, there is more to every story I have been told. However, having dealt with his ex-wife, much of what he tells me is not exaggerated.

My youngest (13) lives with us, the oldest, as mentioned lives with her father. My husband lost custody of his two daughters in his divorce, largely due to his alcoholism. His oldest (21) is on her own and his youngest (16) lives with her mom in the same town that we live in. When we first met, his oldest seemed more or less resolved to her dad having a new relationship. His youngest, while respectful, was distant. My girls were the same, respectful, but distant. There came a point in our relationship, about 1 ½ yrs into it, that my girls were still distant. I had gotten tired of the negative and undeserved comments. I finally told them that their feelings toward my then boyfriend were fine, I was not demanding they change them; however, they were to respect him and realize that he would be a part of our lives. Eventually, his youngest daughter came around. She would tell me she loves me. She would spend a lot of time with us. The three younger girls got along great. Things were great. All four girls had agreed to be Maids-of-Honor in our wedding. Low and behold, the day before the wedding, his oldest backs out. She still attended the wedding, but did not stand-up with us.

In 2007, I almost lost my husband due to his drinking, which complicated his diabetes. He was in ICU for 15 days and in the hospital a total of 21. It was during that time, that I realized he was an alcoholic. As I said, I did not have experience with this previously. It was also during this time, that his mother cornered me and laid the blame on me for the hospitalization and stress that he was under. My emotions were raw at that point and to this day, we do not have a good relationship. She has apologized to me through her son, but not to me. We are civil during the few times we are together, but that’s all. My husband finally went into in-patient treatment in 2008. Without that, we would not be married. The kicker is, shortly after we were married, he “fell off the wagon”. After this last time in January or February (I can’t remember any more), when my youngest came home from school and had to call 911, I told him either he goes back to treatment or I would move out. He is now in an intensive-outpatient program.

I could go on and on with stories. But, I will get to the most recent issue causing my roller coaster to be at the bottom of the hill. Last year, his oldest needed financial information from me to apply for financial aid for college. Having dealt with her mother for over 4 years, I was reluctant to just hand over my tax forms. Based on my decision, both of his daughters wrote him out of their life. My husband’s father passed away in October of last year. While unfortunate, this event brought his oldest daughter back into his life, which is wonderful. But, since the oldest is back in his life, his ex-wife has manipulated the youngest to now not speak with her sister. My husband had sent one last email in an attempt to connect with his youngest daughter. It worked. Just this week, they were able to get together.

I am truly happy for him. I would be even happier if he would have shared this with me. The fact that he was communicating at all with his youngest came up in passing. This communication began over 2 weeks ago. I am completely honest with my husband, despite his numerous lies to me. I have been open about my discontent with his daughters’ attitudes. I equally share frustration when my daughters act up. When I went on Facebook (that has been our only means of knowing what has been happening in his youngest daughter’s life) just this week, I see that my husband has been regularly communicating with a lot of people-most of whom I don’t know. These two actions make it seem like he has another life.

I am completely comfortable with taking things slow.  I couldn’t handle much more than that right now. What I am struggling with is the recent “other life” that I feel is developing. I feel that by not informing me, something is being hidden. Why? Am I being unrealistic? How much of the “alone” time is acceptable? Isn’t there a possibility of the parents having the wedge drive them farther apart, considering the children are already a tinderbox? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Enjoyed this article! - StepMom Magazine - Jan 28th 2011

A very accurate description of stepfamily dynamics.  Hope you'll visit our website and use us as a resource:

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