Can a Step-Family Actually Work?

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In my previous column, I took some time to talk about living through divorce as a child, 34 years after the fact. Some of the lessons I learned through that experience contain parallels I have since seen with other individuals, especially those who have been fortunate enough to grow up in a healthy way despite the divorce. In fact, I would say that this trauma was actually much less challenging in some ways than discovering the “art” of growing up in a step-parent family. Having a family learn to function with one less member is one thing, asking that family to re-engineer itself with a new and non-blood related parent (and potentially siblings) is quite another. So how did this experience become one that I can look back upon fondly, rather than with resentment?

  • Step-Parent Connection

My stepfather turned out to be a very positive influence in my life, and I was very fortunate to have this. Such is certainly not always the case! He also brought no children of his own into the home; while it might have worked out fine hypothetically if he had, it probably reduced the number of conflicts that might have occurred in the process of reinventing our family. He had at least some degree of interest in connecting with my two sisters and I, which meant that there were at least occasions where we were able to go with him to the corner store, listen to stories, and even play catch with a ball and glove in the nearby park. While his interests were largely different from those of my father, and I was a little more hesitant to open myself up to this new relationship quickly, my stepfather and I over time created a unique and enjoyable bond that fed me in ways I would never trade back. This could not have occurred without his wish to create a healthy connection with children that were not his own – something that has been instructive to me in my counseling practice.

  • Continued Support from Mom

As much as the relationship with my stepfather went in a positive direction, it would have been easy for my own mother to have become preoccupied with her new relationship and marriage, and all but forgotten about her own children on some level at the same time. There are many mothers (and fathers) remarrying or entering into a new common-law relationship who, without ever intending to, provide far less attention and support to her children than might have been true previously. The allure of the new relationship is usually most powerful in the early stages, and both this and the connection with children all demand significant time and energy from Mom.

My own mother knew that each person in our family needed a specific degree of time and energy in getting their needs met, from tutoring homework assignments, to solving friendship challenges at school, and ensuring everyone received rides to and from extracurricular activities. Though I can’t tell you specifically how she handled this monumental task on a daily basis, I can certainly share that without her desire to provide the best for her children, it would not have happened. My sisters and I would likely have turned far more to our peers for needed support and connection, and our family would inevitably have become less united over time.

  • What About Dad?

Periodically I still get asked about my own relationship with my father, and what it’s like all these years later. Consistently, I can feel an expectation from many people that I must hold a grudge against him, or am otherwise angry or resentful of his role in leaving the family. The reality is that I really hold nothing against him at all, and long ago let go of any hard feelings that may have lingered for a time. The secret was a key practice my mother stayed true to: never share opinions and frustrations about the other parent with the child, and risk a feeling by that child that he/she must empathize and adopt similar views. When both parents share such opinions openly, that child is put in an impossible position of wishing to please everyone, but being pulled in two completely opposite directions.

On the contrary, having a meaningful and lasting relationship with my father, as long as he was choosing healthy behaviours himself, was encouraged by Mom. This eliminated almost any sense of competition between parents, as well as any feeling that my sisters and I had to “choose” which parent to be loyal to. As it turned out, this was an incredible gift that everyone has benefitted from, even several decades later. Without question, I am still on very good terms with both parents; and while those relationships are very different, both have helped me to grow into the person I have become all this time later.

Divorce and step-families are an undeniable part of our society, and current trends give every indication that they will remain so for a long time to come. When divorce becomes a reality within our own families, we have an opportunity as parents to help reduce the degree of negative impact that such a trauma is likely to present. Similarly, the introduction of a step-parent (and often step-siblings) into a family creates its own challenges, none of which are insurmountable when there is an openness to building new healthy relationships, and ultimately a new family.

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