Step Families – Beauty or Beast

Many step families experience problems in adjusting to the new situation but with help these can be resolved. Feelings of failure, resentment and disappointment are common.

Step Families – Beauty or Beast

Source: Family Life

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Marriage and becoming a parent are both major turning points in a person’s life. Although both these events are very exciting when they occur together they can be quite overwhelming. Many step families experience problems in adjusting to the new situation but with help these can be resolved. Feelings of failure, resentment and disappointment are common.

Common beliefs about step families

  • Step families should be the same as nuclear families.
  • There should be instant love.
  • Death of a spouse makes adjustment easier.
  • Step children are easier when they are not at home (eg when they are at boarding school).
  • ALL step mothers are wicked (as in nursery rhymes, fairytales).
  • Divorce ends the relationship between parents.
  • The new wife has an obligation to perform the domestic chores for her husband and his children when they turn up.

Common difficulties

The marital relationship:

  • In a first marriage the couple have time to develop and consolidate their relationship before children are born.
  • In step families the couple frequently have very little time for themselves and no time to consolidate their own intimacy and closeness.
  • Often the biological parent feels considerable guilt about the trauma he/she has imposed on the children and so tries to over compensate for this, frequently causing resentment in his/her partner.
  • Differences in expectations of each other and of the family can cause conflict.
  • Often communication is not clear and honest.
  • There may be difficulty with problem solving.
  • Confusion over roles and rules, and beliefs about what is important in life can cause conflict.
  • The couple need time to adjust to each other’s personalities, styles of behaviour and learn to tolerate their differences.

The children’s experience:

  • They experience anger at the re-marriage as their fantasy of their biological parents getting back together is shattered.
  • Their children may still feel sad or angry at the loss of their original family.
  • The children fear that this marriage too won’t last so they withhold too much investment in this family.
  • They frequently feel guilty about causing the first divorce and fear a repetition.
  • They feel ambivalent about the new step parent, both wanting and not wanting the marriage. This often results in disruptive behaviour.
  • There is considerable role confusion from a single parent home to accommodating a new parent and possibly new step siblings.
  • The children often experience divided loyalties and fear betraying the biological parent of the same sex as the step parent if they like the step parent.
  • There is confusion over different styles of parenting.

The former spouse and his/her family:
Where the couple have not emotionally divorced each other conflict often arises between the former spouse and ex-spouse for the husband/wife’s attention. Even where there has been an emotional divorce the frequent contact between former spouses can produce considerable anxiety in the new spouse.

The new marriage will have to accommodate the fact of the ongoing parenting relationship but without a strong couple unit this is not possible.

The children need to continue their relationships with both parents as well as with their grandparents, aunts and uncles. For the step family to survive the support and approval of these people is invaluable.


This is frequently a source of conflict. The couple need to discuss very thoroughly how the money will be allocated both in terms of budgeting and who is responsible for what in this home, and also how payments will be made as a result of the divorce agreement.

What to do:

  • Find time for the couple to be together.
  • Talk about expectations and fears.
  • Don’t try to change too much too quickly.
  • Develop your own relationship with each child.
  • Recognise the importance of the non-custodial parent.
  • Allow the children to have a special relationship with their biological parent.
  • Be flexible and co-operative about different rules and different disciplining styles.
  • Don’t expect to be close, all that can be expected is politeness.

The option of counselling

Every period of adjustment comes with its problems and if you would like to talk about these changes, counselling is available. Family Life Centre offers counselling for individuals, couples and families. It is a process which involves mutual acceptance, respect and confidentiality. It entails a series of interviews of approximately one hour each.

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