Building a Successful Stepfamily
ON HIS wedding day Felix instantly became a parent. His wife had a seven-year-old daughter from her previous marriage. While walking alone with his new stepdaughter later that day, he was shocked to hear her use some foul language and he kindly corrected the girl. Her bitter retort stunned him: “Look, you are not my father!” As a Christian, Felix wanted to build a family that would glorify the One ‘to whom every family owes its name.’ He now, however, had a glimmer of the intense emotions with which his new stepfamily would have to deal.—Ephesians 3:15.
While in the past the remarriage of those whose mate had died was the chief cause of blended families, skyrocketing divorce rates during these “last days” have now led to record numbers of stepfamilies. (2 Timothy 3:1-5) Why? Because approximately 80 percent of divorced persons—many with children—remarry. In addition, there are the marriages of those who have children born out of wedlock. According to the Stepfamily Foundation, by 1990 more people in the United States will be part of a second marriage than a first—making the stepfamily one of the most prevalent types of households! But a stepfamily has unique problems.
A Different Situation
While in first marriages the immaturity of a mate is often cited as the chief source of difficulty, in remarriages the chief source is considered to be child rearing. For the new parent, earning the love and respect of children with whom you have no natural bond—who may view you as an intruder—is a formidable task. The natural parent must learn to show love for the new mate without alienating his or her own children. And when the stepfamily brings together children of different sexes or when the husband takes on a stepdaughter, there is further potential for strain: the danger of sexual immorality. Reportedly, 25 percent of stepfamilies have immoral household sexual relationships.—1 Corinthians 6:9, 10.
Stepchildren, too, often struggle with a gamut of emotions—rejection, jealousy, resentment and loyalty conflicts. The trauma of divorce or a parent’s death makes this further adjustment even more difficult. Sadly, records show that more than four out of every ten blended families end in divorce within the first five years. Yet, a successful stepfamily can be built. How?
Basis for Handling Problems
“Unless Jehovah himself builds the house, it is to no avail that its builders have worked hard on it.” (Psalm 127:1) Letting Jehovah ‘build’ a stepfamily means directing efforts so as to have his blessing by putting his commands, principles and counsel first. “The only thing that made the difference for us,” confided Felix, “was the putting of Jehovah’s Word ahead of the feelings of others in the family. I avoided telling my stepdaughter my opinion on matters, but by my using the Bible a mutual ground was created where two minds could meet.” He used the Bible to ‘set things straight’ and to be the household standard. (2 Timothy 3:16) When children see that even the parents obey “the counsel of Jehovah,” they sense that his stable principles, not merely the whims of a stepparent, govern the home.—Proverbs 19:21; 20:7.
One couple who each brought three children into a stepfamily found success because “the children really tried to apply the Bible.” After growing up, one of these children wrote: “When there is a melding of two families, the paramount issue can easily become social in nature rather than spiritual in that the focus is shifted just to getting along rather than to serving Jehovah as a family unit.” Many successful Christian stepfamilies agree that the key is striving for a good personal relationship with God by trying hard to follow his Word.
The Need of Discernment
Shortly after her mother remarried, 12-year-old Marla became rebellious and even ran away several times. Her parents rightly required obedience but overlooked the emotional root of the problem. “My mom and I were so close,” explained Marla, “that we felt like sisters. We even slept in the same bed. But when my stepfather moved in, I lost this intimacy. I soon felt that I had no place.” Yes, frequently a stepparent will not realize just how he or she has apparently displaced the stepchild in the affections of its natural parent and will overlook the emotional turmoil this causes. What is needed?
“By discernment,” says Proverbs 24:3, a household “will prove firmly established.” Discernment looks beyond actions or words to see the reasons for such. For instance, a stepchild may seem aloof. But why? Might it not be because of loyalty conflicts involving his or her feelings for the departed parent? Researcher Elizabeth Einstein, herself a stepmother, wrote in her book The Stepfamily: “The biological parent can never be replaced—never. Even a parent who is dead or one who has abandoned the children retains an important place in the children’s lives. As I learned only recently, the secret in being a stepparent is, do not cajole or claim.” She says “that is the most likely route into your stepchildren’s hearts.” Discerning this, a Christian stepparent tries not to expect “instant love” nor feel personally rejected when it is not forthcoming. But this is not easy.
“I am immune to rejection except from my husband’s daughter,” bemoaned one stepmother. “Rejection from Amy turns a sunny day black, a full heart empty.” She added: “Amy matters to me. My success as a stepparent matters.” Understandably, such rejection hurts. Yet the Bible counsels: “Do not hurry yourself in your spirit to become offended, for the taking of offense is what rests in the bosom of the stupid ones.” (Ecclesiastes 7:9) If one is thin-skinned—easily offended—and nurtures resentment “in the bosom,” it likely will produce rash words and actions.
How, though, does discernment work in practice? When Felix’s new stepdaughter lashed out, he recalled that she had been especially close to her deceased father. “You are right, I am not your father, but I would like to be a friend, as well as your spiritual brother,” was his discerning reply. So, be “wise in heart”—but at the same time cultivate ‘tough skin’!—Proverbs 16:21; 14:1.
The lack of familiarity in a stepfamily often leads to what the Bible calls “presumptuousness,” that is, “headstrong conduct” or ‘making claims that are totally unjustified and pressing these uncompromisingly,’ as one Hebrew dictionary puts it. Such self-centeredness causes a struggle. (Proverbs 13:10) “Though it was so hard to do, I tried to stop thinking about just my own emotions,” confessed one stepdaughter. “When I did, I could see another’s feelings and have empathy. You still have feelings, but you are developing feelings that include another person.”
To develop fellow feeling a stepfamily must communicate! Proverbs 13:10 adds: “With those consulting together there is wisdom.” Regular family discussions—“consulting together”—can iron out problems and create family unity. The parents, however, must be united in their thinking during such discussions. In time, persistence with such discussions usually brings good results. Note other helpful suggestions on page 25.—1 Peter 3:8.
By “consulting together” even the potential of sexual error can be wisely handled. Some parents have frankly talked with their children before remarriage and considered such things as how the girls should dress or comport themselves around the stepfather and any stepbrothers. As the children grow, ongoing discussions are often needed, with the parents taking the initiative, because children may bashfully hesitate.
When Discipline Is Needed
Undoubtedly the touchiest matter in building a stepfamily is the way discipline is handled. Since “foolishness is tied up with the heart” of a child—including a stepchild—consistent discipline is vital. (Proverbs 22:15; 13:1) One Christian found that her new stepdaughter had lived an unrestricted life. “I was very careful to uphold the headship arrangement,” reported Pat, whose stepdaughter eventually became one of her best friends. “I was always willing to explain to her why, to talk and go over things, but I would not bend it for her if she didn’t like it. I was very staunch for Jehovah’s arrangements.”
“Basically, discipline works,” state stepfamily counselors Drs. Emily and John Visher, “only when the person receiving the discipline cares about the reactions of and the relationship with the person doing the disciplining.” Until this bond develops, some have let the natural parent be the prime disciplinarian. Of course, a stepfather remains head of the household, but communicating clearly to his wife the reasons for the discipline, he might let her actually implement it. Scripturally, both parents can make disciplinary ‘laws.’ (Proverbs 1:8; 6:20; 31:1) Since each stepfamily is different, there are no hard rules about how to discipline. Yet the stepparent should ‘correct according to what is right,’ not overreacting and exasperating the child by expecting too many changes too soon. (Isaiah 28:26-29; Colossians 3:21) On the other hand, stepchildren should accept discipline. Esther of Bible times was appreciatively obedient to her guardian or foster father Mordecai who reared her after her parents died. His discipline helped her become an excellent woman.—Esther 2:7, 15, 20.
At times a stepparent’s discipline is undermined by the spouse’s favoring his or her natural child and not enforcing such discipline. One Christian mother of three, who remarried, explained: “You feel as if you are squeezed between two persons that you love so much.” Never forget that your relationship with your mate is primary. Though at times it may be painful, strive to prevent natural affection from coming between the two of you. Abraham wisely prevented any other household member from damaging his relationship with his wife Sarah or hindering the carrying out of the divine will.—Genesis 16:1-6; 21:8-14.
Though one may not be able to feel the same about a stepchild as a natural one, both should be treated fairly. A basic principle in rendering decisions is: “Have no favourites.” (1 Timothy 5:21, Phillips) It is easy to excuse the faults of one’s natural child and magnify those of a stepchild. Better it is for husband and wife to discuss any disagreements regarding discipline in private, reach a conclusion and then present a united front to the children. After she grew up in a successful stepfamily with two sets of children, Alesia, now 19, recalls: “An important thing was my parents’ being consistent with discipline. We knew that no matter whose son or daughter we were we would be disciplined for our wrongs. Their standards or expectations were always the same.”
Be Patient—It Takes Time
“Better is the end afterward of a matter than its beginning. Better is one who is patient than one who is haughty in spirit.” (Ecclesiastes 7:8) While many quit during the awkward beginning stages, those who persevere usually find that the family starts resolving problems. “Researchers say it takes four to seven years for a new stepfamily to become stable, to work out a sense of ‘we,’” stated authority Elizabeth Einstein. The application of Bible principles may shorten this adjustment period; nevertheless, being ‘patient in spirit’ is a must!
An arrogant or “self-important man [or woman]” who may think that he or she knows exactly how the family should function, and who expects instant changes, “provokes quarrels.” Different patterns of family life and strong opinions reinforced by years of habit are not quickly changed. Wisely do not ‘trust in your own wits’ or immediate impulses, but modestly rely on Jehovah’s direction and help.—Proverbs 28:25, 26, The New English Bible.
The Rewards of Success
The knowledge, skills and experience of those in a stepfamily can be enriched by the blending of different family backgrounds. One Christian mother said of her stepdaughter: “Valerie added a dimension to our family. She had another way of looking at things that at times expanded our views.” To be bonded to a child that is yours biologically is one thing, but to create a closeness where there is no natural affection—when that child may have lashed out at you—is described by many happy stepparents as a “special gift.”
While the problems are formidable, being able to work them out warms the heart. Such a crucible can forge important spiritual qualities, such as patience, understanding, empathy and self-sacrifice. “I learned how to handle situations as far as I could and leave the rest to Jehovah,” reflected Louise after rearing three stepchildren. “This was a very important lesson. It helped me to be a better spiritual person. You realize that if you’re serving Jehovah you are not carrying anything alone.”
The reward of seeing your family give glory to God makes the effort worth it. When King David told his son how to construct a temple to Jehovah’s praise, he also gave what might be said to be the key to building a successful stepfamily. He said: “May Jehovah prove to be with you, . . . may Jehovah give you discretion and understanding, and . . . keep the law of Jehovah your God. In that case you will prove successful.”—1 Chronicles 22:11-13.
[Box on page 25]
FOR FAMILY COMMUNICATION
(1) Find an appropriate time and place for regularly talking about feelings.
(2) All should try to talk from the heart and express any resentment or emotional hurt. Make clear that the feelings of every member count.—Job 33:3.
(3) Try to present statements as expressions of feelings rather than as accusations. For instance, “When I came home I felt hurt and angry to see that no one had washed the dishes,” rather than, “Nobody cares around here. You are all really selfish and irresponsible.”—Colossians 4:6.
(4) Be kind to one another and try to empathize with one another’s feelings.—Ephesians 4:31, 32.
(5) Work out practical and reasonable solutions, considering any Bible principles involved.
(6) End a discussion with positive, encouraging comments that help develop family warmth and that give each member a sense of self-worth.—Ephesians 4:29.
[Picture on page 23]
Parents who consult together often avoid problems regarding stepchildren