For Emily Maynard (you don’t have to admit you know who she is or even (gasp!) that you watch “The Bachelorette” – it’s o.k., everyone needs brain candy), it’s difficult enough to find love, but to find love and happiness with a mate with whom she is going to form a stepfamily is next to impossible.
Or is it? For Emily, this remains to be seen (stay tuned to the “After the Final Rose” report); for the 60% of today’s families that are stepfamilies, happiness is possible.
Courtesy of ABC
It’s true that two out of three stepfamilies break up because people don’t know how they function and professionals they go to for help don’t know either, according to Dr. Jeannette Lofas, PhD and founder of The Stepfamily Foundation, who declares the stepfamily as “the most dangerous relationship you can be in for survival.”
Related: Confessions of a Stepmother
You can, however, create and enjoy a wonderful stepfamily life with preparation, education, and negotiation.
Prepare yourself. Don’t expect to function as “a regular family,” Dr. Lofas warns. “The stepfamily cannot and will not function as an intact family.” She explains that there are both “natural rejections” and “conflict of loyalties everywhere” in the stepfamily that do not occur in the regular family.
For example, when a stepfather takes the territory of the father, he may be rejected by the kids. Children in a stepfamily have a natural rejection of “the non-self,” which basically is anything other than their blood. This is natural and animals do the same in the wild, Dr. Lofas explains. Conflict of loyalty can also involve wrestling with such questions as: “Who comes first, my kids or my husband?”
Beware of morphing into a “Disneyland Parent.” Dads morph into “Disneyland Dads” an estimated 90% of the time: “He has lost his job as father…He’s trying to win the kids’ trust and love,” Dr. Lofas explains. She notes, “As women are working, they’re getting more and more like men with their behaviors – they overindulge them” (the kids), which is another reason that step families break up."
Educate yourself. Do not “play chess with the rules of checkers.” Checkers is a regular family while a stepfamily is chess, which is far more complicated, Dr. Lofas explains. The same rules do not apply to the two different types of family. Nor do the challenges. Learn what challenges are unique to stepfamilies and how to address them effectively.
Negotiate. “Couples need to respect each other’s point of view – each person’s reality,” suggests Dr. Lofas. Stepparents must present a united front. They must agree on the rules for the house and relate this to the children: “In this house we…. “
What role works best for the stepparent? “Being the head of the household together with the partner,” Dr. Lofas advocates, emphasizing that couples must work together.
What are the most frequent complaints by stepfamily members that Dr. Lofas and her colleagues hear? “I never knew it would be this way until after I married him or her…” “I never knew it would be so hard…” “Our relationship is failing because of our reaction to the kids…” (i.e. “She doesn’t discipline the kids”).
The best thing you can do? Get help from a professional who works with stepfamilies, says Dr. Lofas, even before you create your stepfamily.
T.V. is becoming more and more real, as is the changing face of our family. It might not be beautiful like Emily Maynard’s, but with preparation, education, and negotiation, it can be great.
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Anna Katzman is a Clinical Nurse Specialist in psychiatry, certified in child and adolescent mental health and a freelance writer and an intern for GalTime. You can visit her blog for additional information.