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

How to Protect Your Marriage in a Step Family

Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT Updated: Feb 7th 2011

It is not easy to rear children. Each child is different and requires thoughtful work and planning for the best way to teach and discipline. It may be hard when you are married to your children’s parent. It can be many times harder when you are not married to your child’s parent...and you are married to someone else!

In all marriages, there are disagreements. (While some couples may say that they never disagree, that does not mean that they like and agree with everything that their spouse does, they may just not talk about it.)

family portraitDifferences in parenting may also be one of those perpetual issues that couples argue over. When the children are the birth children of your spouse, it is often easier to believe that you both have the same goal in mind. When the other parent is a step parent, however, that is often not so easy.

It is too easy to let the parenting disagreements bleed over into the fabric of the marital relationship. When someone that you care about criticizes your child or your success as a parent, good feelings erode and, over time, can erode good feelings about each other and about the marriage.

Nurturing a marriage is hard as well when there are children. Life is just busier and time together is often hard to get. When some of those children are not your own and may actually resent you being a part of their family, it is hard to find quality time as a couple. High quality time (it’s not always possible to have high quantity) is crucial to maintain a healthy and viable marriage.

Step families also have “insiders” and “outsiders”. It requires a lot of maturity, patience, self-confidence and grit to get through the feeling of exclusion, let go of hurt and resentment and keep the positive thinking and behaving alive.

Here are some tips for couples with step children to use to protect their marriage.


  • Set a positive tone. Look for what is good and acknowledge it. Let go of the negative whenever you can.
  • Recognize that success is measured one experience at a time. Giant steps are celebrated but small steps must be noticed and appreciated as well.
  • Protect time for the marriage. Find ways to spend time together each day or night to just keep each other updated on your love map...what is going on in your lives individually as well as a couple.
  • Keep affection and intimacy alive and well, even if you don’t particularly feel like it. There are physiological reasons to touch, kissing and sex that aid in bonding and overall good will.
  • Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Believe that neither of you is an opponent and that you both want the same for your family, you may just think about it or go about it in different ways.
  • Talk a lot about parenting. Learn about each other’s philosophy about parenting and desires for their children. Respect differences. While your partner may value discipline and structure over nurturing and you value nurturing and communication, neither is inherently better and neither of you has the best answer for all of the children.
  • Be careful with any complaints about your stepchildren or your partner’s parenting. Rather, empathize with your spouse’s struggle and provide a “sounding board.“
  • Respect the importance of protected alone time for natural parents and their children. In the long-run, this will actually help your marriage and your relationship with your step-children.
  • Take good care of your own personal health. You will need to be able to go the distance with children, stepchildren, other parents, in-laws. You will need good physical and mental health.

Remember, you will not be rearing children forever. Both of you got into the marriage with a plan to go the distance. Keep your love alive and your marriage protected from the stress and challenges inherent with step families.

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.

Stepfamilies: Then there are the grandchildren - - Feb 16th 2011

Sally Connolly noted that children do not stay childen forever. True, but then there are the grandchildren.  When I met my husband his son was 10 and having a hard time dealing with his parents' divorce and a mother who was extremely bitter. The son developed emotional problems and alcoholism while he was still in his teens.  Although the boy did not live with us, except for a short period, my husband spent a good deal of time with him and away from me.  I waited for the day when I would have a full-time husband but it took more than 20 years for a healthy degree of separation to take place between father and son. Then the son had a little girl and my husband became a grandfather for the first time. My husband turned all his attention to his grandchild and I was out in the cold again. Our marriage deteriorated.  Instead of working things out with me he was unfaithful and moved out of the house. He thought I didn't love him anymore and told me he did not love me. We're together now and very happy but I'm still feeling bruised. I have no relationship with the grandchild; she wants her grandfather all to herself, as it has been from the beginning.  When I complain he tells me that I don't understand how much he loves children.

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