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A Road Map for Stepfamilies: The Early Stages


All families have their phases and roller coaster moments. Changes in dynamics, children becoming more independent, or a switch in roles or obligations can have an influence on every person in the family. Stepfamilies are unique in that they have additional outside forces, conflicts, schedules and priorities that play a role in the relationships between family members. These situations and opportunities cause blended families to follow roughly the same types of struggles and feelings. In fact, research has shown that all stepfamilies follow a similar path of development. This developmental path, as explained by Dr. Patricia Papernow, can be broken down into seven stages that stepfamilies go through.

These seven stages are identified in three distinct groups: Early Stages, Middle Stages, Later Stages.

Today we will look at the Early Stages and then proceed to review the Middle and Later Stages throughout the week.

Early Stages

 Fantasy Stage

At the start of a marriage and stepfamily, the couple is likely optimistic about what the new blended family will become and how the relationships within it will develop. The fantasy thoughts may differ from one member to the next, but there are always certainly there…

“My differences from their parent can only be helpful because of all the new things I can teach them!”

“I love my new spouse so much, so loving their children will be easy.”

“We’re committed to making this work so everyone will get along great!”

“They will see how much I care, so the kids and I will have a great relationship!”

“All of our children will get along great! They’ve always wanted more siblings!”

During this time the couple, and sometimes children, have a hard time imagining that situations could get bad enough to cause lasting conflict or to create arguments that can’t be immediately solved. Depending on the relationships within the family and the external relationships with in-laws and ex-spouses this time period could last for quite a long time or end immediately and abruptly.

Immersion Stage

This is when reality begins to creep into the picture. Maybe things won’t be quite as easy as first thought. Perhaps the challenges will be a bit larger and the opposition a bit stronger than previously predicted. This can be because of a conflict in habits or expectations…

One spouse always planned to fill their weekends with projects and chores, while the other would spend each weekend relaxing.

The rules and consequences for one child are found to be much different than with another.

Custody conflicts, schedule changes, and difficulties with in-laws or an ex-spouse cause more stress than the new couple was expecting.

The bond between stepparent and stepchildren is taking longer than predicted. 

This is the stage that the stepparent usually begins to feel like the outsider. They find that creating strong relationships with the stepchildren is more difficult than assumed due to family conflicts, or loyalty binds with the other parent. The unrealistic expectations of what the relationships would be can leave the newest member of the family feeling like they don’t belong. Left unresolved, this can create feelings of resentment, anger, frustration and loneliness. At this stage, the stepparent is often blaming themselves for the state of the relationships and conflicts can arise with the couple due to higher levels of stress.

Awareness Stage

This is the stage that some families can become stuck in and have a hard time getting past. During the Awareness Stage, stepparents are able to see the source of pain and frustration in the relationships, though they likely still experience those feelings. The self blame begins to lift as a deeper understanding of all of the factors and influences become more clear. The best way to move through this stage peaceful is to have a strong partner in their spouse that supports them and helps them to remove self-blame by showing an understanding of their feelings and talking through situations. It’s been found that while the spouse is offering support, their support alone is not strong enough until further on in the stages. Stepparents should create a support system through family, friends, support groups and/or counseling.

The spouse is beginning to understand at this point that roles need to shift to allow room for their new spouse and marriage. To build intimacy and a deeper partnership new rules and patterns will evolve and relationships within the family will shift. This is also when issues can arise if there is unresolved conflict with an ex-spouse. Unresolved issues can cause a change in their relationship and the entrance of a new spouse “causes pressure to move on”. The parent may begin to worry that these changes will impact access to their children or their relationship with them.

To move out of the Awareness and Early Stages, the couple needs to be committed to discussion their feelings, fears and concerns. There is also a need to reach an understanding of the true state of the relationships within the family. While the rate that families will travel through these Early Stages will vary, most move through them within a few of years. It was found that some families could take up to four years to complete these three stages, a few families get permanently stuck in the awareness stage, and some will dissolve by means of divorce before reaching the next stages of development.

Reference: Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families, by Patricia Papernow

A Road Map for Stepfamilies: The Early Stages

Amy Bellows, PhD

Amy Bellows holds a PhD in Psychology and has had the opportunity to work in various settings including leading adolescent group therapy sessions, working with victims of sexual assault, helping woman inmates adjust to post-prison life, conducting parenting education classes and assisting with drug and alcohol dependency treatment plans. The unique challenges and opportunities that come along with being a part of a step-family is a special interest of hers. Amy is currently working in the corporate environment with a interest in group dynamics and change management. You can find her on her website, or on Twitter @AmyBellowsPhD.

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APA Reference
Bellows, A. (2015). A Road Map for Stepfamilies: The Early Stages. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 Dec 2015
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