10 Survival Tips for Stepfamily Life

Many couples travel to the “foreign country” of stepfamily living with little or no preparation.

Photo by Ted Wilcox

When someone prepares for a trip to a remote, rugged part of the world, he would be wise to do some research so he can know what to expect. He’d look up the country on the internet or read some books, and he’d make a checklist of key survival tips.

Forming a stepfamily through marriage or remarriage is much the same. Yet it’s amazing how many couples travel to this foreign country of stepfamily living with little or no preparation. Consider the following your survival companion for the early years of stepfamily life.

1. Consult a travel agent. Before going to the foreign land of stepfamily living, find out as much as you can about the culture, social expectations, spirituality, relationship rules, and expectations of those who live there. Keep in mind that you will not be a visitor but a new citizen, so you will need to understand life as it is. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to navigate the terrain. (Find more resources on remarriage and stepfamilies) 

2. Keep perspective. Traveling to a foreign country will require emotional adjustment and many transitions on your part. And you will find yourself in unfamiliar territory many times.

  • Expect to feel lost and don’t panic when you do!
  • Learn to find your way around even when anxious, ask lots of questions, and listen to the replies of those traveling with you. Remember, they are not your enemies (even though you may be traveling in different directions at times). Learn how to "cook" a stepfamily.
  • Eat slowly. Foreign foods often make your tummy upset. Don’t expect perfection from your family; do expect burps in your home life. Try not to overreact.

3. Nurture your marriage. All stress in a stepfamily, even if it begins with ex-spouses or children from another home, eventually ends up in your marriage. The key antidotes for stress are:

  • Take a communication and conflict-management skills course in your church or community. A study I completed with Dr. David Olson found that communication and conflict resolution skills are the number two and three (respectively) predictors of highly satisfied couples. When you make this aspect of your marriage work in your favor, you build a shield against divorce and distress!
  • Keep having fun! Make sure you keep the fun-factor alive in your marriage. A healthy leisure component in marriage is the number five predictor of a great marriage in stepfamilies.

4. Connect in. Focus on activities that build relationship between “insiders and outsiders” (steprelationships). Be sure to take advantage of the natural connecting points (interests and activities) that people in your stepfamily share.

5. Connect out. Don’t become isolated from outside support:

  • Keep old friends and social connections alive.
  • As a couple, create new friendships with other married couples.
  • Be part of a family of faith. Reconnect, if necessary, to church and stepfamilies on a similar journey. Utilize our small group DVD resource to guide your study together.
  • Find a mentor couple or educational group that can encourage you along the way with words of wisdom.

6. Remember the value of traditions. Keep some old ones (for the sake of the kids) and create a few new ones over time (to give the family a new sense of identity).

7. Help the kids.

  • Biological parents should spend one-on-one time (even if it’s just 15 minutes) with their children weekly the first year and regularly thereafter.
  • Tell children to expect to feel a variety of emotions – from anger to fondness – and help them to articulate them to you. Be a resource to them; don’t make them afraid to tell you how they feel. Remember, they are in foreign territory, too.
  • Talk about what terms you will use to refer to one another. Agree how you will introduce each other in public (see The Name Game).

8. Be a team. Parents and stepparents should find consensus in family rules and how they will work together. This will require many ongoing conversations.

  • Have lots of ”parental business meetings” to become a united front.
  • Focus your efforts the first few years on building relationships with your stepchildren rather than trying to become their authority. Be sure to move at their pace.

9. Be considerate in how you deal with the “other home.” Ex-spouses are part of your expanded stepfamily system; when you attack them, you attack yourself. Learn more about co-parenting.

  • Keep visitation schedules for children consistent; try not to make radical changes after the wedding.
  • If you are a stepparent, communicate a “No threat” message to the biological parent in the other home. The purpose is to reduce the amount of fear they have toward you, and therefore, the amount of animosity they throw at you. Here’s a brief script: “Hi Tom/Betty. I just wanted you to know that I realize that I am not your child’s parent – you are. I will never try to take your place (and couldn’t even if I wanted to). You hold a very special place in your child’s heart and I will always honor that. I am simply an added adult-figure in your child’s life. I will try to bring good things to your child’s life and offer guidance as one of their teachers or coaches would. If you ever have any questions, please let me know. Thank you for your time.”

10. Buy a souvenir. Purchase something as a family that marks your new identity and begins building memories. It could be a new house, a new pet, or a new dining room table (where people will sit frequently while enjoying meals together). Find something you can call “ours.”

Copyright © 2013 by Ron Deal. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Ron is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is Founder and President of As For Me And My House Ministries, LLC and now serves as director of Blended Family Ministries for FamilyLife. Learn more.

For articles, ministry tools, and conference events visit FamilyLife.com/blended.