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2010: Year of the New American Family

Posted: 01/07/10 01:54 PM ET

2010 is a watershed moment for what we might call the New American Family. This is the year, experts tell us, that stepfamilies will outnumber first families in the U.S. One in three Americans is now a "step" of some sort -- stepparent, stepsibling, or stepchild. And half of us will be in a stepfamily situation at some point in our lives.

There's no denying that stepfamilies now have a place in mainstream American culture. Plenty are thriving. But there are struggles too. Remarriages with kids end in divorce twice as often as those without. Why? Aside from kids feeling torn about having a stepparent, and stepparents feeling shut out by rejecting stepkids and spouses who may be accustomed to parenting solo, stepparents are often driving without a map due to lack of research and public education about stepfamily life. In fact, we don't even have an accurate number of how many stepfamilies there are in our country -- the U.S. Census, considers only the household where the kids live "most of the time" a stepfamily. So any official number of stepfamilies is off by millions. Which in turn means less research money for stepfamily studies, which translates into less knowledge about how to support the families who need it most.

Until there is better support, public education, and understanding, here are ten simple, research-based resolutions stepfamilies can make to usher in a new decade of stepfamily satisfaction:

1. Resolve to be a couple. Remarriages with children are twice as likely to fail as those without. Stepcouples are assailed by challenges including children who are unenthused about the union and unsupportive exes in the wings. Putting the marriage or partnership first gives the whole family a chance to thrive.

2. Don't try to "blend." When we ask stepfamily members to "blend," we're putting them in a jam with regards to the other parent in the picture, as well as their separate histories and family cultures. Stepfamilies do better without pressure to "be" any particular way.

3. Bridge the gap. Young adult stepchildren may be able to see a previously demonized stepparent in a new way, or understand their parent's divorce from another point of view. Spouses can give their spouse who is a stepparent the benefit of the doubt in the New Year: "I trust that when she's upset, she's not making a big deal out of nothing." It is amazing how finding this "middle ground" can heal.

4. Resolve to care for yourself. Sure, it's nice to be kind. But never expressing any displeasure with your stepkids, and constantly putting your own needs and feelings last, as stepmothers are usually expected to do, is a recipe for resentment. Self-care is key for women with stepkids. A regular "girls night out," occasional massage or just finding time to read are key to preventing stepmaternal burn out.

5. Resolve to lower the bar. Stepfathers generally report lower levels of involvement in the early years of stepfamily formation--and kids report higher levels of satisfaction with stepfathers than with stepmothers. Take a step back, do less, and let the relationship develop on its own terms, in its own time.

6. Learn to fight. It's a skill couples with kids from previous relationships are going to need it. Find a "hot topic" communication formula that works for you. This can include "I sentences" versus accusations ("When you say that I feel..." instead of "You always do X!"), as well as communication formulas found in my book Stepmonster and those listed below.

7. Find the right things to do together. Eye-to-eye activities are more stressful for steps than shoulder to shoulder ones. So try doing a puzzle, playing a board game (Scrabble can be good if the stepkids are older) or doing arts and crafts together. And unlike first families, stepfamilies bond best one-on-one. All-together activities tend to activate fears of being an outsider.

8. Get out of the house, and invite family and friends in. Stepparents in particular need to balance the sense that they are something of an "outsider" in the household with plenty of time with family and friends who help them feel like an insider. And stepkids will feel less "on the spot" in a house that balances focus on them with focus on others.

9. Resolve not to treat the kids like royalty. Kids of any age want to feel included and comfortable, and that doesn't happen when parent and stepparent bend over backwards to accommodate their every whim, or design their days around a step/child's desires. Making him or her part of what you do normally, plus some alone time with mom or dad, will helps kids feel like family rather than guests.

10. Find a place. Give a step/child who doesn't live with you something that is always the same--if it can't be a whole closet, then a spot in one, a regular place at the dinner table, and so on. And stepparents, be sure to find a place in the house that is just for you. When stepfamily life gets momentarily tense--which is inevitably will--you will have a place to escape and recharge.

Resources:

Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.
The Power of the Middle Ground: A Couple's Guide to Renewing Your Relationship by Martin Babits, LCSW, BCD
The Gottman Institute/ works by John Gottman
National Stepfamily Resource Center