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Helping Stepfamilies Thrive

People in stepfamilies often struggle with the pain of past experiences, which may drive them to fearful distrust of themselves and others and ultimately of God. Whether their first marriages ended because of death or divorce, stepparents may feel haunted by their loss and/or guilty about their perceived failures. Children may be angry and confused by the turmoil of unanticipated and unwelcome change. While these families need to feel included and valued as much as any other family in the congregation and community, they will also likely need support for dealing with their unique challenges. Churches, concerned that stepfamily ministries might imply endorsement of divorce, may leave stepfamilies to flounder on their own. Given the high numbers of divorces among second marriages, this amounts to tragic neglect.

Couples preparing for remarriage and eager to make a fresh start may overlook unresolved issues from their previous relationships. Resources for Couples Preparing for Second Marriages describes workbooks such couples can use to assess their readiness for remarriage and to learn skills for effectively blending families. This document also describes resources for group experiences to help them move through this transition. As usual, the couple’s relationship provides the foundation for family life and needs both a positive start and a commitment to ongoing growth. The Remarriage Checkup might be particularly helpful in this regard.

Coming to terms with ex-husbands and ex-wives can be challenging, at best, and requires commitment to refrain from behaviors that will provoke hostility, especially if there are children involved. Jann Blackstone-Ford and Sheryl Jupe (Jann’s husband’s ex-wife) developed a list of “Ten Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette:” Own your own stuff instead of blaming; Stay calm when confronted or confronting; No badmouthing; Set clear boundaries; Don’t be spiteful; Don’t hold grudges; Use empathy when problem solving; Be honest and straightforward; Respect each other’s turf; Compromise whenever possible. If there are children involved, the following three rules become primary: Put the children first; Ask for help when you need it; Biological parents make the rules, while bonus parents uphold them. (See Ex- Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After a Divorce or Separation.) Meeting these standards requires good self-awareness and communication skills. Basic communication classes, such as nonviolent communication, can help divorced couples manage their relationships in a healthy way. If that is not possible, only clear boundaries will prevent ongoing destructive behaviors.

Churches can help stepfamilies thrive by recommending and providing resources and by organizing classes and support groups in which they can learn from the experts and from one another. Some community agencies may already offer such programs, or churches could work together to make them available. Parents may have unrealistic expectations about the amount of time it will take for the new family to learn to function smoothly. They may be thrown off balance by the inevitable conflicts that will arise. Discovering that they are neither alone nor unique in their struggles - and learning from others who have dealt with similar challenges - may empower them to embrace and deal effectively with their new reality. Learning how to protect their blossoming relationship from common pitfalls involved in stepparenting is essential. Stepparents may need help learning to honor the feelings of stepchildren and to give them space and time to adjust. The following resources, recommended by various United Methodists, address many issues stepfamilies have to face.

For a reading list, support group and study resources, and additional organization and websites,
Download Resources for Helping Stepfamilies Thrive [PDF]

Jane P. Ives, United Methodist Marriage and Family Ministries Consultant
10 Quaker Lane, Portland, ME 04103, 207-797-8930, [email protected]