It is important to remember that a step-family, however good it might be, can
never be the same as the original family.
For example, one of the parents will not be the natural parent of one or more
of the children. Step-families have more complicated sets of relationships to
manage. There are likely to be grandparents, uncles, cousins and siblings and a
parents living outside the family with no links with other members of the
step-family. Step-families need to address two important issues:
Coping with the past
It is important to allow for past experiences as much as possible. For
example, children who were exposed to violence in their original family may take
a long time to be able to really trust a new step-parent. This has nothing to do
with the step-parent, but is a legacy of the past.
It is often tempting to talk about the past as if it holds painful memories.
Yet it is best for the new partner to know about past difficulties. Children
should also know if they are old enough. This helps to minimise `secrets' and
`keep out' topics of conversation, both of which can lead to tension and
difficulty. The step-family will also need to work out ways of coping with
contact between children and their other parent.
Negotiating relationships in the new family
Relationships in step-families take time to develop and have to be negotiated
in ways that are often not necessary in the original family where relationships
can evolve over time.
For example John and Maria marry, and form a step-family with the two
children of Maria's first marriage, Natalie aged 14 and Peter aged 12. John's
first two children aged 4 and 6 years old are with his first wife and her new
How is John to relate to his two step-children in terms of affection and
discipline? He will have his own assumptions, but these will be coloured by the
fact that his own children were much younger. Does he have any experience with
teenagers, and does he have a realistic expectation of what they will want? How
will his ideas fit with Maria's expectations?
Maria's children, Natalie and Peter, will have their own ideas of what they
want from John. These are influenced by their experience with their own father.
How is John to cope with being affectionate with his 14 year old step-daughter
whilst respecting her growing awareness of her own sexuality?
What is an appropriate role for John's parents towards their new
step-grandchildren? And where does that leave the parents of Maria's first
husband in their role as grandparents? If John's children by his first marriage
come to live with him and Maria, a new set of relationships need to be worked
out between the step-brothers and step-sisters.
Step families are complex and the family relationships take time to form.
Learning to live in a step-family is a process that takes years rather than
months. Don't expect an instant family.
You will need to face a number of practical issues when you re-marry or enter
into another relationship, and form a step-family. For example,
Are you clear about your legal position when you re-marry? For example the
responsibilities of a step-parent towards his or her step-children? Or the
effect of re-marriage on a previously made will?
How much space will you need? What are the views of the children about
sharing a room with a step-brother or step-sister with whom they hardly know?
This may be a practical solution, but that does not make it easy or
acceptable. Would it be easier if you had a new start in a new home? Is that
possible and would that be the best use of your finances?
What are your costs going to be? How will re-marriage affect income from
sources such as social security benefits or maintenance by a former partner?
How will you manage your finances so that no member of the new family will
Second marriages and step-families can be exciting and rewarding for their
members. But their is no magic, and a number of challenges will need to be
Allow time, and discuss things as openly as you can.
Consider doing a course such as Living in a Step Family run by Relationships
If you are unsure whether to proceed with re-marriage, or if you are finding
things heavy going after you have taken that step, consider talking to a
A Counsellor's experience of the challenges and difficulties of re-marriage
and step-families could be of great help to you. It makes more sense than
ignoring the difficulties and hoping for the best
Why are Step-Families Different?
Step-families are in some ways like first-time-round families. They are also,
in many other ways, vastly different. Most people who become a part of a
step-family are unprepared for the differences. These differences can include:
- Step-families are more complex. There are many more family relationships
in step-families. There are likely to be grandparents, uncles, cousins,
siblings and a parent living outside the family with no links with other
members of the step-family.
- Emotional upheavals. Family members may have experienced distress from the
breakup of the previous marriage or relationship. Some may still be grieving
for the family they have lost.
- Huge changes. All members of the step-family, including those living
outside the family, must cope with the change and make a number of
- More parents. There are more parent figures in a step-family and the
parenting may be shared by someone outside the family.
- Different likes and dislikes. There is no common history and different
family members may have different ideas about how things are done.
Whether the previous relationship ended through death, separation or divorce,
all members need to adjust to your new relationship.
Myths About Step Families
"People quickly adjust to being part of a step-family." There is no such
thing as an instant adjustment. It will take time and effort for everyone to
feel comfortable in the new family. Unfortunately some children may never feel
"Loving and caring will develop instantly." The idea that the new step-parent
and step-children will instantly love each other and recognise each other's
strengths is unlikely to happen. Love cannot be forced upon each other and the
relationship may take time to develop.
"Working hard prevents the development of the "wicked" step-parent image."
Step-parents come into families and frequently work too hard to make everyone in
the household happy, and to avoid being seen as the horrible step-mother or
step-father. Unfortunately, this can create tension rather than harmony.
"Anything negative that happens is a result of being in a step-family."
Frequently children and adults blame their problems on the fact that they are
living in a step-family. All families have difficulties, not just step-families.
"Step-families are the same as first-time-round families." The expectation
for the new family to appear like a first-time-round family with two natural
parents and their children living in one household together, can cause pain for
everyone. It leads to a denial of the existence of other parents and relatives.
It is important to accept that the step-family will never be the same as the
first-time-round family and to see the benefits of being in a step-family.
This information is provided by Relationships Australia who are
Australia's leading provider of professional services to support relationships.
It is a not-for profit community based organisation. Our Mission: Relationships
Australia is committed to enhancing the lives of communities, families and
individuals by being the leading professional provider of quality relationship
support services. Our Goals: To work in partnership with others to ensure a
society which supports positive and respectful relationships; To serve a more
diverse range of clients; To provide relevant services that meet the needs of
clients; To adopt business practices that enable the delivery of efficient and
effective services; To ensure a positive work environment that delivers outcomes
for clients; and To be financially robust to achieve our goals.
You can contact the national office of Relationships Australia on 1300 364
277 to find your closest state branch.