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

Stepfamily Success: How Do You Know When You Can Relax?

Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT Updated: Mar 28th 2011

  • Do you wonder if your stepfamily will ever “blend”?
  • Do you know what happens in a “healthy” stepfamily?
  • How will you know when you and your family can say “we will have smoother sailing from here”?

happy family outsideStepfamilies, as all families, are constantly evolving and changing. None of them are exactly alike but healthy ones are more alike in many ways. In this article, you will read about some of the characteristics of healthy step families.

Many of these qualities are similar to biological families. Some, however, are unique to families that have come together through a marriage where at least one of the partners already has children.

Healthy step families:

1. Tolerate differences in ideas and desires and respect those differences along with those who hold them. There are no dictators of any sort or in any generation. Certainly, there are leaders and adults who are responsible for overall family life, which sometimes involve unpopular decisions, but they recognize the importance of collaboration and respect.

2. Are able to reach decisions in ways that respect everyone’s needs and opinions, even if they do not agree. This certainly means that some decisions are not reached by consensus, but rather by parents; however, everyone feels that their opinion was heard, most of the time.

3. Acknowledge that each of them are “insiders” on some family groupings and “outsiders” on others and accept and recognize the benefits of that difference. In fact, healthy stepfamilies will look for times to encourage the different groups in the family as a way of acknowledging and celebrating their diversity.

4. Have shared rituals that they will predictably do on a regular basis. These rituals can be anything from shared meals to holiday or birthday celebrations. They might involve a way that the family celebrates the transition when the children return home from being with their other family or a way to connect while they are away.

5. Are able to openly talk about their other family members without experiencing inappropriate anger or hurt. Children can feel free to share good and bad news as well as worries about their other family without feeling judged or criticized. They do not worry about “taking sides” or hurting a parent’s or step parent’s feelings.

Everyone recognizes the struggle for the stepchildren to be able to remain loyal to both natural parents while also growing a relationship with their new stepparent.

6. Understand their own and each other’s role in the family. Each person recognizes what stepparents do and what natural parents do in their family. They understand what they can expect and what is expected of them. All recognize the difference between being a “step” and being a “natural”.

7. The parents have protected and private time together on a regular basis. Couples find ways to nurture the marriage and their relationship with each other. They find ways to do this apart from the children and the responsibilities of parenting. The positive time together is one way that they are able to keep a positive attitude while experiencing the complexities of step family life.

8. Parents are able to talk with the children’s other parents calmly and collaboratively. Adults have worked through their own feelings about the divorce and remarriage enough so that, as far as the children are concerned and, especially in front of the children, they are able to be cordial and peaceful with each other.

9. The biological parent remains the primary disciplinarian. There is also a healthy respect for natural parents by stepparents, even if they do not agree with or even like the way that their partner is handling discipline, with their natural child.

The adult couple is able to keep the “big picture” perspective. They recognize that the family will benefit far more from healthy relationships than from a heavier hand with specific problems.

Children certainly do better when they have many adults who are interested in their well-being. One 24 year old woman, Lisa, recently told about her dilemma … who should walk her down the aisle at her wedding. She said that she had 4 parents in her life and she loved and knew that each of them loved her very much.

While Lisa recognized that times were hard in both of her families over the last 14 years, she also knew that everyone tried hard to make it easiest on her and her sister because they loved and cared for her very much.

In her life, Lisa could have 2 fathers and 2 mothers even though she knew that they each represented different things to her, they were men and women who guided and taught her with love and care.


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.

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