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Celebrate Intimate Weddings


with Relationship Speaker/Author/Coach...
Larry James

When Stepfamily Reality Sets In:
Hitting and Scaling the Brick Wall as a StepCouple

Kelly Kirkendoll Shafer, Guest Author

Part of making a stepfamily work is facing and accepting the realities of stepfamily life. One of these realities involves a wall of disillusionment we all hit. When we do, it hurts!

Even first-time marriages hit this wall. But for stepcouples, it can often loom higher and stand thicker than any we may have encountered in the past. Often, the stepfamily wall even has built-in mazes, tunnels or secret passageways surrounding it, complications and baggage from previous relationships we never expected.

How do you know you've hit the wall? One clue is that you find yourself thinking things like, "What have I done?!" or "What did I get myself (or my children) into?!" or even, "I can't do this!"

The wall can seem insurmountable, and our old life as a single parent or single person may beckon. Even a previous marriage (viewed from a distance) may seem attractive. However difficult our former life may have been, when we encounter unknown stepfamily terrain and feel overwhelmed, frustrated and ill-equipped for the emotional upheaval inside and around us, the comfort of even a miserable existence can become appealing.

When David and I married, we knew we had been given a precious second chance for ourselves and for our children. We also knew the stepfamily road would be tough, so we did our homework, dealt with much of our personal baggage and prepared ourselves before embarking on this journey. We walked into our new life confident that we would be one of the stepfamily success stories!

Well, it didn't take long before we found ourselves wrestling with some of the same issues we had faced in our previous marriages. We also encountered difficulties we never imagined, laced tight with strong emotions and significant complications. During that time, I sometimes thought, I wish we could just go back to dating.

We had hit the wall, and it shocked us. We thought that because we had prepared, owned up to our respective parts in our divorces, found the right one this time and invited God to more than just our wedding that we would be immune to significant struggles as a stepcouple. And the possibility of not making it over this barrier terrified us. We loved each other deeply, and we never wanted to put our collective five children or ourselves through another divorce.

With time and effort, we did scale the brick wall. It wasn't easy, but it was worth the effort, because on the other side of that wall we found a more fulfilling, joyful and growth-filled life.

How did we do it? And more importantly, how can other stepfamilies do it?

Remember. . . You Are Not Alone - First, take comfort in the fact that almost every other stepfamily hits this point early in their marriage. If you think you are alone, or try to tackle all your difficulties solo, the obstacles before you will become magnified by isolation and fear.

To endure the journey, reach out to various resources for help each other, other stepfamilies, helpful books, marriage and stepfamily workshops or retreats and professional counselors. Seeking help from professionals doesn't mean you aren't smart enough to solve your own problems or that you are on the brink of divorce. It means you're willing to devote time and energy to your relationship and stepfamily to ensure that it thrives.

Within our first two years of marriage, David and I sought couple counseling (from a therapist familiar with stepfamily dynamics), attended several marriage workshops/retreats, read various books and sought counseling for several of our children. It wasn't enough to just be married. We wanted a healthy and happy life together!

Adjust Your Expectations - Most of us embark upon this complex, rewarding stepfamily journey with high hopes and enthusiasm. Keep your optimism! A positive vision for your stepfamily is a huge asset. But you must balance your optimism with realistic expectations. Otherwise, your high hopes may turn into resentments, frustrations and bitterness.

Some keys to adjusting your expectations include: letting go of your fantasy of creating a traditional family, accepting the fact that remarriage is a gain for the adults but children often see it as another loss, accepting that you are just the stepmom or stepdad (no matter how wonderful, horrible, absent or involved the parent outside your home may be) and exercising enormous patience because creating a stepfamily that gels takes time.

Leave the Baggage Behind - Before beginning our new life together, David and I each worked hard to heal from our respective divorces. So we were surprised when some of the same issues from our first marriages cropped up with each other. These issues were such hot-buttons, because of the internal bruises that remained within us, that we decided to enlist the help of a marriage counselor. When we first described what was happening, she laughed light-heartedly and said, "That's supposed to happen."


With her help (and the knowledge we gained through a Marriage Encounter retreat) we learned that when we struggle with similar issues in our new marriage, God is providing a chance for us to heal from our past hurts and grow together.

This means that if money or sex or trust were a significant issue in a previous relationship (or as your grew up), don't be surprised when it comes up in your new marriage. Instead of running scared or throwing up your own personal protective wall, embrace this opportunity to love each other more deeply and serve as safe and trustworthy helpmates to each other.

It took a while (and definitely some help) for me to embrace certain opportunities because old, negative, painful tapes would play in my head. I would sometimes react to situations with my new, sweet husband as if I were in my previous, unhealthy relationship.

David and I realized that even though we had addressed much of our personal baggage before getting remarried, we couldn't address all of it alone. Part of Gods plan for our marriage was to help us discover and shed some of our issues as a team. Today,

I'm amazed at how far we've come. Areas once very tender and easily re-bruised for each of us are now substantially healed. It has taken ongoing commitment, effort and unconditional love, from both of us, to get (and stay) here.

Dare to Risk - You knew you were walking hand-in-hand with risk when you ventured into stepfamily terrain, but there comes a time within the first year or so of stepfamily life when we must embrace risk to an even greater degree. We must dig deeper into ourselves, our own insecurities, hot-buttons and fears. We must risk sharing who we really are, at a deeper level than ever before, with our spouse. We must take the risk of trusting, forgiving and venturing into the unknown.

Oftentimes, we must also risk our relationship with our children. What this means is that when we are confronted with a situation where we have a choice between backing up our spouse (and making our child unhappy) or backing up/defending our child (overriding, perhaps, a call our spouse made), we back up our spouse! Opportunities like this present themselves almost daily in our home, and how we handle situations like this significantly impact our marriage.

Here's one example from our first year of stepfamily life:

I wasn't feeling well one day and took a nap, leaving my husband in charge of my two children. While I was asleep, my 7-year old son made himself a snack and didn't clean up his mess. When my husband noticed the mess and saw my son playing the computer, he asked him to get off the computer and clean up his mess. My son complained that he was in the middle of a game, and said he would clean it up before his mom woke up.

My husband insisted that he do it right away (then go back to his game). My son said, "But Mom said just to have everything cleaned up before she wakes up." My husband insisted again, and my son stormed off to his room. My husband then revoked his computer privileges for the rest of the day.

I woke up, learned what happened and. . . thought my husband was too hard on my son, who obviously took me literally, because I had asked him to make sure that whatever mess he made in the house while I was asleep was cleaned up before I woke up. I also saw my husband's point of view, and he was certainly operating under our established house rules and consequences. I had a decision to make and I chose to back up my husband, taking the risk of my son being upset with me.

In similar situations, most nuclear families do not encounter this kind of risk. But in a stepfamily, most of the children involved have already suffered significant pain due to death or divorce. As parents, we often feel guilty and extremely protective of our biological children, and the mama bear and her cubs or papa bear and his cubs syndrome surfaces.

When it does, we must reach out to include our new spouse and put him or her in a position of authority in the home by backing them up. When were unhappy with how our spouse handles a situation with our children, its vital to present a united front to the children, then discuss the situation later with our spouse (behind closed doors).

Put Yourself in the Childrens Shoes - Our relationship as a couple is the foundation of our stepfamily. We must lead the charge up and over the brick wall. But there are children traveling with us, and we must strike a delicate balance between putting our marriage first and also putting the children first.

A sure way to solve (or avoid) many difficulties in stepfamily life is to put yourself in the children's shoes and realize that when stepfamilies are formed, children are often still grieving. They hurt with shattered dreams, loyalty issues, fear of abandonment, fear of losing time with their parent to the stepparent and more.

They often show their emotions through acting out, holding back or even trying to break up their parent's new relationship. Stepparents must walk the delicate line of not pushing the relationship with their stepchild or giving up on the child.

Enjoy the Journey - In the midst of all the complications and adjustments of stepfamily life, focus on the bright spots of your new life together. Take time to have fun as you scale the wall. Play together as a stepfamily, date your spouse, work together to help others, spend one-on-one time with each child and enjoy your vacations and holiday time.

But remember that it takes time for stepfamilies to gel. Everyone needs time to adjust to each other and their new roles. So be patient. According to several stepfamily studies, it takes three to seven years for a stepfamily to develop into a family unit. Time is your ally. These are lifetime relationships you're building, so enjoy the journey, and take it one day at a time.

Focus on the Payoffs - When we encounter the wall, its natural to feel overwhelmed and wonder, Is it worth it?

Well. . . is it?

You bet! On the other side of that wall awaits happiness, healing and lifelong benefits to the adults and children involved in your stepfamily. But it doesn't come easy, and once you make it over the BIG wall, you will naturally continue to encounter other walls as you travel through life together.

When you do, you will be able to tackle these hurdles head-on, knowing that you've already hit and scaled the wall of disillusionment, perhaps the toughest one you'll ever climb.

•    •    •

Copyright © - Kelly Kirkendoll Shafer. Kelly is a freelance writer, speaker, mother of two, stepmother of three and the author of "29 Ways to Make Your Stepfamily Work" (Spirited Life Press). She serves as a regular contributor to "Your Stepfamily," the official publication of the Stepfamily Association of America.

  If you would like to talk one-on-one with Larry James about relationship issues related to this article, you are invited to arrange for a private coaching session by telephone. Go to Personal Relationship Coaching for specific details.

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