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Do We Expect Too Much From Stepfamilies?

MichaelCoghlanStepfamilies are difficult. There is no way around that  truth. Whether you are a child being pulled between two homes, a parent losing sight of the other half of your child’s life, or a stepparent wondering what direction to move, life after divorce is tricky. With remarriage or recoupling, there is baggage and a past that influences your day-to-day life. It can be difficult to know the right steps to take when boundaries are shifting and conflict arises. We can do our best every day and still at times be left feeling like we are failing.

Why is that? Why is the guilt, the frustration and the weight of it all feel heavier than with a nuclear family?

Maybe the real issue with remarriages and blended families today is the fact that there are impossible expectations placed upon them. The standards of an intact nuclear family are taken and duplicated onto a family that does not have the same history or loyalties. It isn’t an apple-to-apple comparison, and the two families shouldn’t be judged by the same rules. By comparing our stepfamily to a nuclear family, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We are putting too much pressure on a situation that may already have a large amount of stress mixed in.

But how do we get to a place of realistic expectations? How do we, as a society, gain an understanding of what’s “normal” for a blended family? And how do we identify and acknowledge our prejudices and judgments?

For one, it takes honesty. So many times people are afraid of discussing their true feelings because of the judgment that can follow.

Lets look at an example…

A group of parents are waiting at the gym for their daughters to finish a gymnastics class. They start making small comments about the attitudes of teenagers and changes they’ve been dealing with. One parent says – “I’m going to throw a party once she’s out of the house!” Everyone else chuckles and nods in agreement at the obvious joke. Nothing more is thought about the comment, conversation continues and no judgement is made.

Same situation, but now picture that one of the parent’s is a stepdad or stepmom. They make the comment – “I’m going to throw a party once she’s out of the house!” There may be a few awkward chuckles, some eyes exchanging glances and a lot of thoughts of – “Geeze, what a terrible stepparent! How could they say that? I bet their relationship is just awful.”

Judgement comes quickly and we are all guilt of it. Joke or not, things like that “shouldn’t” be said by a stepparent. There are different boundaries and standards that are automatically put into place. But is it fair? Are these thoughts and expectations something that should be openly discussed in order to understand the differences between a nuclear family and a stepfamily? Why in some circumstances are stepfamilies unrealistically held to the same standard as a nuclear family, and in others held to an even more unrealistic higher standard?

This change would really compare to the honesty shift that has happened in recent years with parenting. For so long parents have been working to maintain an image of ‘having it all,’ and it’s taken courage for people to stand up and say –

This is hard. The first year post-baby is hard. I struggle some days to keep it together. I’m still learning how to manage it all and to keep everything organized. I’m trying to figure out this new role as a mom/dad and I’m making mistakes. I sometimes feel like I am failing.

It’s okay to say that as a new parent you are struggling. When you do, you will quickly have those around you chime in with stories of when their kids were little or with words of encouragement. They will echo your struggles, tell you to lower your standards, to be kind to yourself, and to know that things will get better.

Hopefully one day that same level of support and acknowledgement will come when someone says…

This is hard. The first year post-remarriage is hard. I struggle some days to keep it together. I’m still learning how to manage it all and to keep everything organized. I’m trying to figure out this new role as a spouse and stepmom/stepdad, and I’m making mistakes. I sometimes feel like I am failing.

No matter what your family looks like, we all have strengths and struggles that should not be casually compared to others. We need to work to understand that families after a divorce and remarriage have more moving parts than the typical nuclear family. Trying to impose the same standards or a higher level of scrutiny can actually be damaging to the health of those families. Unrealistic expectations are a breeding ground for lost hope, anger, resentment, and conflict. Offering understanding, or at least compassion, for those struggling in these situations can be more helpful than you would ever imagine.

Do We Expect Too Much From Stepfamilies?

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). Do We Expect Too Much From Stepfamilies?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Dec 2015
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