When you marry a person who has children, there are a lot of new things that happen all at once: you become a spouse and you become a stepparent on the same day. This is a big deal! Here are some important things that brand new stepparents should know when they enter not only a marriage but a family on their wedding day.
1. It Takes Time
This might be the most infuriating piece of advice on any issue, but for stepfamily life it is simply essential. It has been said that it takes about seven years for new stepfamilies to really begin to “gel” and function smoothly, so if things are feeling rough and chaotic, just take a breath and give yourself time. It’s important to remember that everyone involved is making a major life adjustment and take the same amount of time to sink into and accept that change—and that’s OK. Children in particular are going through a massive adjustment when their parent marries a new partner, and it really may take some processing and getting used to things before they feel ready and comfortable in their new family dynamic. Give them that time and space and grace and I can assure you the whole family will be better for it.
2. Families Are Complicated
By becoming a new stepparent and marrying your partner, you have entered into a family that contains more than just you and your spouse. It includes your spouse’s children, of course, as well as those children’s other parent, and sometimes the extended families of those people as well. Although that can be a difficult and complicated thing to handle, it’s important to know that those people are in your life now, too, in some capacity—at the very least because they are people who are important to the children in your life. This does not necessarily mean you will need to form a close relationship or even interact much with these individuals, but it is important to acknowledge that they will now be a presence in your life in some way. Accepting and moving forward with that fact will make the rest of your transition into stepfamily life much smoother.
3. Boundaries Are Essential
As with any family or relationship, it’s essential to put clear boundaries into place as soon as possible to avoid confusion and struggle. This does not mean just placing boundaries with you and your spouse’s ex partners (certainly with them, of course) but also within your relationship and even in regards to the children. A great way for you and everyone else to feel unhappy and uncomfortable in your new family dynamic is to immediately jump in and take over tasks and activities that were once your partner’s domain. It can be tempting, for example, for someone to get married and immediately begin helping to get the children ready for school in the mornings, or to begin coordinating play dates and school schedules. The experts, however, will actually tell you that this switch-up in the regular routine will often really throw children off, making them frustrated or upset about the marriage, and will also put too much pressure on the new stepparent, building resentment towards their partner and new dynamic as well. Put boundaries in place immediately so that it’s clear to everyone where you may be stepping in more and where you’re going to give (and take!) space.
4. Let the Kids Lead
As far as how you move forward in your relationship with your spouse’s children, it’s essential for you to let the children lead in developing that dynamic. Reaching out and spending time with them, talking with them, and doing things with them is absolutely important, but make sure you continue to check in with both the children and your partner to make sure that your relationship is growing in a way that is comfortable for all parties and isn’t feeling forced or pressured to the kids. Children in stepfamilies can often feel a strong loyalty to their family of origin and will automatically protect those relationships over others if they feel threatened. Making it abundantly clear that you are in no way trying to replace anyone and that you have no interest in harming their relationship with their parents will go a long way in allowing that bond to slowly grow and build over time.
5. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
It is not possible to over-communicate with your spouse in a stepfamily. Although your spouse shouldn’t necessarily be the person you “vent” to about stepfamily issues, you should be consistently communicating about struggles, concerns, and triumphs with them. If you’re finding a particular issue or interaction to be difficult, talk with your partner about it and see if you can find a solution together. Be open about your feelings and concerns, and make sure you’re not holding them in because they will grow larger and you will likely build serious resentment towards your spouse and their children if you’re not able to really talk about and work through your struggles together.
6. Find a Community of Support
Whether online or in person, it can be so incredibly helpful to find a community of people who are in the same situation as you, and who can be a bastion of support and advice when you’re feeling overwhelmed or alone. If your local area doesn’t seem to have a stepparent support group, search online and see if you can find a virtual one. Even finding folks to follow on social media who are living in stepfamilies and provide a look into the struggles and triumphs of this family dynamic can be so helpful. Becoming a stepparent can often feel like an isolating experience; no one understands what you’re going through and even voicing small concerns can be looked at as rude or, worse, “wicked.” Placing yourself in a community of people who truly understand what you’re going through can make a world of difference in the way you view and experience your new stepfamily.