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The Stages Of Stepfamily Development

A marriage that brings with it children from a previous marriage presents many challenges.  According to Dr. Patricia L. Papernow, these challenges go through a Seven Stage Model of Stepfamily Development.

My husband and I are seven and a half years into our Stepfamily, and I can honestly say that we have just recently reached the Resolution stage.  Back when we were in the Fantasy Stage, I never would have believed it would take this long to get where we are today!  Over the past seven years, while going through all of the challenges and issues that Stepfamilies face, my husband would constantly remind me of this beautiful Bruce Cockburn song “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (made famous by The Barenaked Ladies). The lyrics he would always sing to me go like this:

“Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight,

Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight”

Those lyrics pushed me through some really tough times.  Times when I was ready to throw in the towel and find a man that didn’t already have children (and an ex-wife!)  But today, I am so happy that we made it through that darkness.  Because there is so much daylight in my life now!

Dr. Papernow explains that there are three “Early” stages in the pattern of Stepfamily Development. (Fantasy, Immersion and Awareness)

Fantasy Stage

This is the stage of blissful ignorance!!  We don’t even think about the stepfamily complexities and stressors that are sure to come.  Both of you have fantasies about your love being strong enough to carry you through anything that comes your way.  You have fallen in love with the man of your dreams and have decided to join your lives together and often talk about how wonderful the future will be.  The kids will love you and you will love them.  The ex-wife will be around occasionally, but she will surely be grateful for how well you treat her children.  On the other hand, the children will have fantasies of their parents being back together.

Immersion Stage

Sometimes called the Reality or Transition stage, tension producing conflict emerges between the two biological households. Realities of the stepfamily structure set in.  You realize that this life is filled with more challenges than you had expected.  You may be surprised at the feelings you are experiencing (jealousy, resentment, fear, confusion, inadequacy). Stepparents start to feel alone during this stage. Parenting differences are realized over rules, discipline and consequences with the kids.  Loyalty binds appear as the children will start to feel like they can’t get close to you because that means being disloyal to their mother.  The ex wifes presence is more than you expected.

Awareness Stage

Stepparents and children begin to realize that their initial fantasy stage thoughts are not going to become reality.  You may feel overwhelmed by the constant challenges, taking it out on each other because of the emotions and frustration that you feel.  During this stage, couples often look for resources to help them through these tough times.  You start to understand that letting go of your initial vision of stepfamily life has to happen (but how?)  The children may feel more comfortable talking about their dislike of the differences between households. Realistic expectations of stepfamily life help families move more quickly through fantasy and reality into the awareness stage.

The “Middle” Stages of Development include the Mobilization and Action Stages: 

Mobilization Stage

You begin speaking up about your need for inclusion in your Stepfamily as well as your need for “me time”.  Conflicts are increased because of everyone feeling more comfortable with each other.  These conflicts can lead to much needed changes in the family.  Differences are discussed more openly, which can get a little heated.  Arguments can appear to be trivial due to dealing with the many struggles that go along with Stepfamily living.

Action Stage

You start to work with your spouse to create some boundaries.  You discuss how your stepfamily will function.  There is better understanding of how family activities will take place.  You start to feel better about the future of your marriage.  The family can now function without constant attention to “step” issues.  You lower your expectations of how you think the ex spouse should act.  All of these positive changes helps you feel like you are more in control.  Everything feels like it is starting to come together.  You begin to establish routines and new traditions of your own.

The “Later” Stages of Development consist of the Contact and Resolution Stages:

Contact Stage

The changes you made during the Action Stage have created a Stepfamily life that you can now manage more easily.  You, as a Stepmom, have become a significant family figure and you and your spouse assume more control.  There is even less attention focused on “step” issues and relationships between children and stepparents start to grow into a more loving one.  The Stepcouple is more aware of each other’s needs and there is reduced conflict.

Resolution Stage

The stepfamily has developed its own identity.  There is now a shared history and a familiarity with each other.  Conflicts are now considered a normal part of life and handled as such.  There are solid relationships that have formed and your stepparent role now brings you some satisfaction as you recognize that you are a valuable resource to your stepchildren.  Some children actually prefer to talk to a stepparent about certain subjects.  Everyone accepts and appreciates its unique identity as a Step or Blended family.

If you are a new Stepmom, please understand that it will take time to get through these stages.  Familiarize yourself with the challenges that each stage holds. Be patient and remember that nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight.  So kick at that darkness baby! Until it bleeds the daylight that you deserve.

You can purchase Dr. Papernow’s book “Becoming a Stepfamily - Stages of Development in Remarried Families” on Amazon.

By Aimee Allen