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Stepparents: Are You Trying to Fix What You Didn’t Break?

Stepparents: Are You Trying to Fix What You Didn't Break?There’s a line I’ve read again and again when it comes to stepparenting…

“You can’t fix what you didn’t break.”

When thinking about how to wrap up this short series on stepparenting, I thought that this piece of advice is a good way to conclude the types of issues many stepparents face.

When going into a relationship with a divorced, separated or single parent, your partner’s past comes along for the ride. And truthfully, once you get to a certain age, everyone you date will have some sort of ‘baggage’ you must attend to.

In the midst of relationship newness and optimism, it can be difficult for people to fully understand the depth of issues or conflict that can come when dating or marrying a person with children and an ex-partner.

The issues or arguments you witness as a new-to-the-party outsider can seem downright silly at times and blown out of proportion others. In your mind, a simple conversation would fix it all. A small compromise would lessen the tension. A small token of gratitude could right the ship.

Unfortunately, this is the trap many new stepparents fall into because they don’t have all of the information or understand all of the emotions that come along with each discussion. Many stepparents start with the good intention of trying to smooth out a problem. They believe that their non-partisan involvement may in fact be not only welcome, but beneficial. Why not have a 10-minute conversation to resolve a misunderstanding or issue?

Here is where that advice comes into play – You Can’t Fix What You Didn’t Break.

There is more beneath the surface of every exchange, and there is a history that cannot easily be explained. Years of conflict, arguments, pain or anger can seep into everyday topics. It’s important to remember that a blow up about soccer practice likely doesn’t have anything to do with soccer practice, and an angry text about missing shoes does not have to do with the shoes.

The hardest part of a remarriage or recoupling is understanding the boundaries, and this area is usually right in the midst of that struggle. Finding a way to support your partner while not putting yourself in the line of fire can be extremely difficult. Where is the line between helpful advice and jumping into the ring? Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear cut answer, which often results in additional conflict and hurtful situations.

This plays into one of the issues that can be seen time and time again, which is the resentment that begins to build in many stepparents. They want to help, they want to dive right in, and they want to make their new family great. The rejection or hostility that some then receive in response can, over time, be turned into resentment towards the spouse, the ex-spouse, the children or the marriage as a whole.

It can be difficult to step back when you feel you could calmly navigate an issue. It can be heartbreaking to see the same issues emerge again and again, but it’s necessary to remember that you cannot fix the core problem. You cannot right a past wrong or clean their slate.

Instead of getting involved with a past you did not have a hand in creating, choose to dedicate your energy towards strengthening your marriage and growing a bond with your stepchildren. These are areas that can always use additional work, and it may help you to avoid the resentment trap that many stepparents find themselves in.

As a stepparent, have you found ways to navigate this issue?

Do you have any positive words of advice for others going down this path?

Stepparents: Are You Trying to Fix What You Didn’t Break?

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. (2016). Stepparents: Are You Trying to Fix What You Didn’t Break?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Apr 2016
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