Marrying someone with children, or remarrying when there are already children, creates stepfamilies. Because biological parent-child and sibling relationships can be so important, interjecting non-biological parents and siblings into a family can create significant difficulties; this is one of the most common personal challenges associated with divorce. Sources of conflict in a primary family are even more pronounced if family members are not biologically related. The existence of biological relationships alongside non-biological relationships can create, for example, intra-family competitions and questions of loyalty, both among those who are newly living together, and with those who are newly outside the primary family, such as non-custodial biological parents. Moreover, since stepfamilies have experienced either a divorce or the death of a parent, the emotional groundwork on which new familial relationships are developed can be very fragile.
Because of the emotional minefield created by blending families, such families often rely on mediation, counseling, or therapy to smooth the transition to living well together. Mediation, counseling and therapy can help a blended family determine what aspects of their previous familial relationships are appropriate to the new, blended family, and what aspects are not. For example, if there has been a divorce, both parents and children may need to examine how each contributed to the divorce and how to avoid a similar outcome in the new family. Also, disputes between custodial and non-custodial parents, which may already be detrimental to their children, may be even more so where families have been blended. Mediation, counseling or therapy may be critical to the success of any new relationships. These processes can help divorced parents build a new understanding, based on their need to work together to raise their children after the divorce. It may even be necessary to build a bridge between the parents’ new families, including their new spouses, for there to be the trust necessary for the decisions fundamental to raising children.
Mediation, counseling and therapy is also useful in educating blended family members that any difficulties they are experiencing are normal and expected; for example, that the love that step-parents have for each other will not automatically translate in the blended family to the same kind of love that existed between children and their biological parents.
The kind of relationship a stepparent establishes with a child will depend significantly on the child’s age, the relationship the child had or has with the biological parent of the stepparent’s gender, and that biological parent’s support of the new stepparent. Support of the relationship by the custodial parent is, of course, critical. The younger the child, the more step parenting is similar to regular parenting. If the child has a positive relationship with the biological parent of the stepparent’s gender, the health of the step-parent/child relationship will depend on how supportive the same-gender biological parent is of that relationship. If the same-gender biological parent/child relationship was or is not good, the same-gender stepparent may initially have difficulty establishing a positive parent-child relationship, but in the long run, may have a better chance of establishing a positive relationship than where the biological parent relationship is positive, but not supportive.
Where there are pre-adult and adult offspring in a family, it may be useful for them to look upon a stepparent or stepsibling similarly to the way they might relate to an in-law. While they will likely never have the relationship with stepfamily members that they have with their primary family, it will be useful for them to seek a relationship that still provides respect for stepfamily members; much like the respect they give or will give their in-laws. The analogy of stepfamilies and in-laws is very apt, in fact, in that both are created by the marriage of another person in the family. Respect and cooperation is useful in both circumstances for allowing everyone to feel comfortable in the new relationships.