The Stepfamily Cycle
Researchers have found that most stepfamilies go through predictable stages as they learn to live together as a family1. By understanding these stages it can help you understand why you might feel the way you do now and what to expect in the future, so that you can be better prepared and ready to cope more effectively. A number of stages have been identified, with progression from one stage to the next depending on meeting the challenges of the previous stage.
The honeymoon period
This is where a couple meet and fall in love. Adults fantasise about rescuing each other and the children from a sad past, perhaps even protecting their partner from their previous partner. But whilst the parent and stepmother fantasise that the children will welcome their new stepparent, the children may cling to the hope that their parents may get back together or that the stepparent will disappear. While this stage can’t last forever it’s an important and natural part of the stepfamily development. As time passes, the family members begin to get to know one another and hopefully move on to the next phase.
Facing the reality
This stage starts to take place once the stepmother has become familiar, even accepted, but is still an outsider in many ways. Often they feel left out of the family unit or even rejected by their stepchildren, leading to resentment and confusion about the way they feel. They may take a step back from family life in an effort to somehow shield them from further hurt - which may in turn be interpreted as a lack of desire to be part of the family by their partner. They can start to feel trapped in a ‘no win’ situation. Once the stepmother recognises these feelings and wants to change things, they’re ready to move forward to the next stage of development.
Recognising the need for change
This is the point at which the stepmother knows there need to be changes but isn’t sure what to do for the best. She’s usually identified the problems within her family - but just doesn’t know how to fix them. Often this is the stage at which stepmums start to look for help, maybe from others in the same position or from articles or books. They need both reassurance that their feelings are ‘normal’ and expected, and help in addressing the issues causing problems in their families.
A problem shared
This is the time to start being honest with your partner and talk to them about the way you feel and the changes you want to happen in the family. Whilst both adults can initiate this stage it’s usually the stepparent who’s pressing for the changes in order to be a more equal partner and member of the family. There’s often much negotiation and even conflict in this stage but it’s important to talk through the issues if the family is to really move forward. The issues can affect many areas of family life such as contact with previous partners, finance or maintenance payments, contact arrangements and disciplining the children.
Once you’ve aired the problems with your partner and you both understand the issues it’s vital that you work together to resolve them. As you start to take decisions together, whether it’s on disciplining the children or creating your own household rules you’re taking the first steps in becoming a more integrated, happier family unit. This process will take time. It’s likely that the issues were festering some time before you recognised the problem so it will take time for the feelings of isolation, hurt, anger or jealousy to subside. So you need to be patient and keep working together with your partner.
Resolution and Acceptance
This is the point where the stepfamily have learnt to deal with any problems they had between them. They feel more confident and able to cope with whatever life throws at them. Their stepfamily will have developed its own ways and rituals that define it uniquely and their relationships with each other are solid and reliable.
Although these stages may appear ‘cut and dried’, they usually merge into one another without the family being aware of the change. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that you notice the changes in the relationship. Some families take longer than others to move through the stages and although there is no hard and fast rule, it’s typical for a family to take several years to progress to the final phase. Try and work out where abouts you are in the cycle and think about what you need to change in your family to move to the next stage.
1. Papernow, P. L. (1984) The stepfamily cycle: an experimental model of stepfamily development, Family Relations, Vol 33, 355-63.