Stepchildren are a very large and complicated issue. We want to talk about a particular area of stepchildren and step-parenting as it relates to couples and marriage. When a couple calls for therapy and they state that their primary reason for seeking therapy has to do with the conflict between the stepchild and stepparent, the problem is almost always the same. So, what is the problem?
When two people are married, the relationship between mother and father is primary- or should be- and the relationship between the mother, father, and child is secondary- or it should be. When there is a divorce, the emphasis shifts for each parent and the child becomes the dominant and primary person in their life. So, how does marriage work when there has been a divorce?
Let us focus on one parent. For example, when a mother has a child (we will limit comments to one child to limit the complexity of the situation as it can get enormously complicated with multiple children). When the mother meets a new Mr. Wonderful she wants the relationship with him to be her primary relationship. Mr. Wonderful then wants to be number one in their lives but doesn’t realize that this is not possible. The couple does not discuss this but the child remains primary and the new relationship becomes secondary. Unfortunately, the couple doesn’t talk about this conflict and pretends that the new partner is primary. In the beginning of the new relationship, when the mother has to decide, she decides in favor of the child. The stepfather feels shutout, unloved, and unimportant. This results in a conflict between two of them and the child frequently ends up hating the stepfather and feels in competition with the stepfather because the child feels that he has taken his mother away. The mother then feels torn in half. This is actually a relatively easy problem to resolve. They must recognize that the child comes first and the stepfather is a second-class citizen. Over time, this dynamic shifts and the stepfather becomes primary.
You can see how this problem becomes more complex when the mother has multiple children and the stepfather also has children. What we might expect is that each set of children have the same problem. Interestingly enough, it is extremely unusual for both sets of children to have conflict; generally it is one or the other. Although this is generally how it will work, sometimes the exact opposite occurs. Let’s go back to the mother and stepfather. Sometimes the biological father of the child has been absent, inconsistent, unavailable, or in some way an unsatisfying figure for the child. In this situation, the mother and child are hungry for a father to be a satisfactory father. We all hope this situation would happen more frequently as they are mutually beneficial. Sadly, it does not happen enough.
The next scenario to address is where there is her children, his children, and their children. What you would expect is when a new baby comes into this new family that the baby would fracture the family. Strangely, that is not what happens. The new baby acts as a solidifying force and all the new family members come around the new baby and bond solidifying their connection.
We better get used to blended families and stepchildren because there are two million marriages and one million divorces per year in the U.S. This leaves approximately one million children who will come from a divorced home and who are also potential stepchildren. In addition, 78% of men will remarry and 75% of women will remarry within five years of divorce. The issue is no longer a question of is divorce a good or bad thing but rather acceptance that divorce is a thing that exists and we must work to help new families function optimally.