In some ways, a stepfamily looks like any other family. However, it is critical for therapists to understand that stepfamily structure creates a fundamentally different foundation upon which to build a family. The good news is that several decades of research and practice tell us a great deal about how to make healthy, thriving stepfamilies. The bad news is that many stepfamily members, and all too many clinicians, do not have this information. In fact, many myths and misconceptions may inform stepfamily members’ expectations and their therapists’ recommendations about the “blending” of families. As a result, both stepfamily members and their therapists make some very common “wrong turns” with sometimes devastating results. Here are two of the “easy wrong turns” that I often see, along with some practical, evidence-based guidance about what does work.
Easy Wrong Turn No. 1: “Make the Couple Primary”
Our Western, first-time family model puts the couple at the center of the family—“If the couple is OK, the children will be OK.” Indeed, a good couple relationship is very important for stepfamily health. It is also true that stepfamily structure makes adult stepcouple relationships quite vulnerable: In a first-time family, children enter their parents’ already-established relationship. They are hardwired for attachment to both parents, and vice versa. In contrast, in a stepfamily, the strong, historical pathways to attachment lie in the previously existing parent-child relationships, not in the adult couple. Established agreements about everything from food to noise to mess to money also lie within the parent-child unit, not in the new couple.