Seven Tips for Stepfamily Success

by The Gottman Institute January 23, 2018

mother, son and daughter eating pizza at home

The stakes are high in marriage for those looking to get it right the second time around. While remarriage can heal the scars of divorce, and blended families can provide newfound hope and optimism, recent statistics show that over 60 percent of second marriages fail. As ominous as this sounds, there are key steps you and your partner can take to maintain a happy remarriage. In his book “Stepfamilies”, James Bray found that at the heart of every well-functioning blended family is a stable and happy marriage. Research by The Gottman Institute found that the strength of a couple’s relationship ultimately determines the family’s success. Remarried couples need a strong foundation of trust and communication in order to buffer the challenges that arise from stepfamily life. With the understanding that marriage satisfaction determines stepfamily stability, a loving and well-adjusted stepfamily is possible when couples commit to taking the time and action necessary to get there. These helpful tips provide a guide for couples who are navigating the ups and downs of remarriage.

Set realistic expectations

Couples can become disillusioned quickly when they fail to anticipate the number of difficulties unique to stepfamily life. Caught up in love and having a sense of family once again, they can forget that blended families are not a restoration of what once existed, but rather a brand new construction of family life. Once blended families face key issues head-on, like finances, stepchildren dynamics, and navigating ex-spouse relations, then they can create the right atmosphere for a new family to grow and blossom.

Communication is key

It is critical that remarried couples learn how to communicate effectively and not be afraid to discuss sensitive topics as they arise. Conflict is inevitable, and without the fundamentals of effective listening and understanding, a couple can become gridlocked on major marital issues. Over time, poor communication can chip away at the foundation of the relationship – the foundation that keeps the stepfamily intact. Gottman’s research found that 69 percent of conflict is unsolvable; there is no magic cure to eradicate the inevitable. Instead, couples should seek to manage conflict with empathy, compassion, and understanding. Gottman also warns couples against engaging in the four most destructive relationship behaviors, known as The Four Horsemen, during disagreements (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling). Using “I” statements to express your feelings and needs, accepting responsibility, staying respectful, having gratitude and appreciation for your partner’s positive traits and actions, and being able to take a break when things get tough are all helpful ways to keep arguments from escalating.

Parent together, not separately

Loyalty to your own child is real and valid, and can feel very strong. This can make stepparent discipline a very delicate topic. Remember that love and trust develops over time between stepparents and stepchildren. It’s important to establish roles for parenting and discipline early on and adjust as needed to each child’s developmental cycle. According to Bray, the adolescent period of a child’s life can be a very difficult phase in stepfamily development – one that usually catches the couple off guard and can cause great strain to the family dynamic as a whole. Be mindful of this time in your own family structure, and engage in what Gottman calls “emotion coaching” to help adolescent children understand their emotions and to show that you’re there for them.

Create your own unique family system

One way to think of the difference between blended and nuclear families is that blended families are like a crockpot meal, while nuclear families are like a quick skillet sauté. Purely biological families are seared together with fierce devotion and love, yet stepfamilies stew together slowly, taking time to bond and become unshakeable. Bray’s research found that stepfamilies often don’t feel like a unit until several years after formation. Give yourselves time to come together and develop as a family. You can help this process along by establishing some special family traditions, like a weekly pizza and movie night or a monthly outing to your family’s favorite restaurant. Shared experiences like these can help families bond and form their own unique identity.

Stay connected to your partner

Staying true to your shared goals as a couple and supporting each other’s future hopes and dreams is essential for staying unified. Daily check-in conversations, engaging in shared hobbies and interests, and regular date nights away from the kids help to keep the relationship strong, romantic, and deeply connected.

Practice patience and understanding

The blending of families is like a marathon, not a sprint. Commit to the journey and find ways to enjoy and learn from each moment of happiness and frustration that comes with it. Did your stepkids tease you for winning again during family game night? Tease them back and keep it lighthearted. Did your partner go against your wishes on discipline? Talk it through honestly, calmly, and respectfully. With every slip up or misunderstanding, keep in mind that you’re both on the same team.

Stay the course and don’t give up

When things don’t go as planned or you’re having a difficult time integrating as a family, think back to the beginning and remember why you came together in the first place. No relationship is without its own set of challenges. Couples who commit to overcoming the obstacles together build a strong foundation to get through tough issues in the future. Supportive statements like, “This is a rough time for us, but we’re going to get through it,” or “We’re in this together no matter what” can provide powerful motivation. Remarried couples committed to success do best when they understand the importance of having a strong marital relationship that acts as the foundation for the blended family’s happiness. Marriage, including its challenges, can be a wonderful adventure for you, your partner, and your new family. Written by April Eldemire LMFT for The Gottman Relationship Blog.

The Gottman Institute


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