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Keeping stepfamilies afloat

Life in a blended household won’t be a fairy tale, but there’s hope for a happy ending

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The Cinderella story, however much it makes us believe in happy endings, did a disservice to stepfamilies. The ugly stepsisters and the wicked stepmother did not create a pretty picture.

While some stepfamilies may bear some resemblance to Cinderella's, most do not. That's not to say they are perfect, either. Life is not a fairy tale.

Cheryl Robinson Merrell prefers a ship analogy when she thinks of stepfamilies. "They have to sail through a sea of adjustment. It will sometimes be calm, sometimes stormy. But information and education can help you ride out the storm; whereas lack of correct information and unrealistic expectations can sink the ship."

Stepfamilies are becoming more and more common, she says, "but there's not a lot of help out there." Too many myths and misconceptions can wreak havoc.

Merrell has both professional and personal experience with stepfamilies. She has bachelor's and master's degrees in Family Sciences from Brigham Young University and has national certification through the National Council on Family Relations as a Certified Family Educator.

She is not a family therapist, she points out, but as an educator she has done private consulting on divorce adjustment, single parenting and stepfamily issues as well as writing, speaking and teaching in these areas.

She also is a stepparent. Following a divorce, she remarried; she had two children, he had three. And although her husband died two years later, while they were still experiencing the adjustment process, Merrell knows what it is all about.

Above all, this is what she knows: There are no perfect stepfamilies. But the temptation to want one, to try to prove to the world that you have one, is strong.

The truth of it is this, she says: Everyone has problems; everyone needs help. It's normal; it's what is expected. People who have come to her classes or have come for counseling feel such relief, she says, in simply knowing what they are going through is normal.

A good place to start, she says, is understanding some of the characteristics of stepfamilies and how they differ from other families.

For one thing — and maybe the most important thing — you have to realize that the relationship with children predates the couple relationship. "This can be a challenge," says Merrell. "But it is very important that you present a united front as a couple and not put the children in between."

Stepparents must also deal with the "instant family" phenomena. There's no honeymoon period; the couple is immediately faced with children and responsibilities.

"With a first marriage, a couple usually has at least nine months before babies arrive. This gives them time to discuss and develop rules and procedures for dealing with them," says Merrell.

But with an instant family, there can be confusion about roles and rules: who is responsible for what; how is discipline handled; how do different styles of parenting mesh.

"Stepparents have immediate responsibility for — but not necessarily a lot of authority with — children that they may not know well or feel attached to."

Nor is it just the children the couple must deal with, she says. There is a whole new, more complex family structure. All of a sudden, you have in-laws and grandparents and cousins. Children may belong to two households, have two sets of parents, eight sets of grandparents — and they all may have different family styles, different rules, different discipline styles.

Birth orders of children may be disrupted, and that may require some adjustments. New family traditions will take some time to develop. Households may need to accommodate visiting and non-custodial children.

Flexibility in dealing with all these differences is vital, says Merrell.

Another important factor to remember, she says, is that stepfamilies — however happy and positive they might seem — are created out of loss. "Whether it's death or divorce, there has been a loss, and children may need time to get through the grieving process."

Sometimes, it is hard for children to put names to their emotions, and it takes a savvy parent to recognize and look for clues, she says. Children may misbehave or seem to pull away, but they are really trying to deal with unresolved grieving issues.

There can also be a tendency to idealize a past relationship, or there may be other emotional baggage to deal with. "It's easy to have 'hot buttons' that may get triggered, and sometimes you have to stop and ask, 'Is this a leftover issue or a current problem?' You need awareness of what is the real issue."

Forgiveness in past relationships is important. You also need patience and sensitivity to deal with these problems.

Finances, too, can be more complicated, especially if child support is involved.

This is why the process of building a new family takes time, Merrell says. But knowing the adjustments you need to make, knowing where to find help and resources, knowing that you are no different from other families can make a big difference.

There's a tendency to think that love can conquer all these problems. And it can help. But, she says, you also need communication.

She has been amazed as she has counseled couples, she says, about the things they have not talked about: an addiction to prescription drugs; a desire to not have any more children; being $80,000 in debt. "My rule is the more uncomfortable you are in talking about something, the more you need to talk about it before. It will not be easier after marriage."

The best thing couples can do, she says, is give each other plenty of time; try to see each other in a wide range of circumstances; get to know the children and build family unity before.

Because, she says, for all the talk about problems and adjustments, the most important thing to remember is that stepfamily relationships can be a wonderful, positive experience.

It's true that statistics show divorce rates are higher for second marriages than for first marriages — and they aren't all that good for first marriages.

"But remember that you are dealing with people, not statistics. It takes everyone working hard, but you can beat the odds."

You can keep your ship afloat; you can find a happy ending, after all.

E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com