Stepfamilies are not like intact families. They are splintered and parts may not blend as expected. Knowing this can be a welcome relief to stepparents who are feeling guilty about their building of a relationship with their stepkids.
Stepparents do not realize that it is normal to feel a persistent sense of jealousy, inadequacy, and resentment toward their stepchildren. Biological parents and their kids may not realize the small and subtle ways a stepparent can feel left out of both the marital and parental relationships. At times, they are excluded. The biological parent, who often has a source of nourishment and support in his or her children, may interpret the stepparent’s difficulty as a lack of commitment and feel that the “blending” is a failure or a loss. Both stepparent and biological parent usually consider a shift into a relationship just like a biological one to be possible. Biological parents must let go of a strong wish for an easy transition between their new spouse and children.
Susan Papernow in her classic book Becoming a Stepfamily differentiates between “outsider” (step) and “insider” (biological) relationships. Outsiders can feel jealous (and guilty) that the biological parent gets to live with and have her kids usually under the same roof at night. Unrealized and unspoken resentment may grow in the blended family “garden.” Outsiders may appear resistant to the blending with the biological family but actually may feel rejected because they do not have biological status. Outsiders may appear then as self-absorbed and then be subsequently criticized by Insiders. Arguments may appear trivial but are really about adjusting to serious loss and change. Usually the Insiders control the territory. Ex-spouses are also considered Insiders.
Insiders are torn between establishing new rules and a new culture for the family, maintaining the traditions and expectations of the biological family, and saving time and energy to save a precarious intimacy with their new spouse. The Insiders too are facing loss of a dream of a happy intact family and can feel unsupported. Biological parents can feel frustrated, heart-broken, lonely, and frightened about loosening a close relationship with a child, and feel guilty about their children’s losses.
Normal and expected feelings of healthy Outsiders and Insiders can be judged or diagnosed as a disorder, instead of being understood as part of the process. In the research presented by Papernow, stepparents placed as an outsider in the new stepfamily creates feelings of jealousy and resentment in most normal adults. Nobody likes to feel this way. They are confusing and be a source of shame if not detected and expected. Outsiders cannot reach the status of a biological parent. Papernow reminds us that “Even the best artificial limb cannot replace the real one.” When these intense feelings are combined with lack of information about the normal experience stepparents and biological parents are at risk for feeling crazy, ashamed and inadequate.
Just as the custodial parent feels torn between her kids and her new spouse, the non-custodial parent, often the father, also feels torn between his own children, the new spouse, and the stepchildren. Fathers must divide time, money and affection. Some are not able to sustain their commitments. Now they feel like an outsider in their first and second family which is a source of shame. It may appear that they are unwilling to be there for their own children, spouse and stepchildren.
Feelings of jealousy and guilt reappear over and over with life’s milestones. Fathers whose children begin visiting less are at risk for depression. Their spouses may wonder if his grieving will ever end. Stepchildren reminds biological parent of his children and how much he misses them. Fathers need a place to share the guilt of being asked the parents to children when they can’t parent their own kids.
The children too feel multiple levels of losses and loyalty binds. Usually the child that has lived the longest in the original family may have the most to lose and be the most ambivalent about step-relationships. Usually the stronger the marriage the happier the children. Research shows the opposite in stepfamilies, because the better the new parent the more loss is felt because as one step-daughter put it, “I’m afraid to like my stepdad more than my own Dad.” These losses are especially felt by stepdaughters. Unlike intact families, close step-couple relationships can actually make for more conflicted step-relationships and poorer stepchild adjustment.
The benefits of a step-relationship may not appear until much later in both stepparent and stepchildren’s lives. If these emotions and processes are accepted as expected, less criticism and judgment helps a spouse relax considerably. Step-relationships take extra energy. Stepfamilies work better when parents and children are not trying to force a relationship. Like intact families, each relationship between each parent and child will remain unique. The honeymoon that new spouses need to build commonality is often realized after kids, not after the wedding.