Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your forefathers.

Proverbs 22:28

As the verse above says, sometimes change comes too quickly.  Certain things are to be left alone.  In stepfamilies, boundaries are in flux and awkward.  It doesn’t take long for people who are divorced or widowed with children to discover that dating and remarriage presents some unusual challenges.  Still, most feel that love will conquer all and that their stepfamily will be fine.  However, they often become shattered and disillusioned when this doesn’t occur.  There are many reasons for this that we share with our clients in stepfamilies.  Here is a sampling of the kinds of things we would discuss with you if that were the case:

First let’s look the pattern in a typical family without a divorce or death.  There is a theory in family studies that suggests that families by and large do fine unless they change numbers in the family.  When the number in the family changes, the number of relationships changes and there is a readjustment for everyone.  The readjustment period is shortly before and shortly after the number in the family changes.  For example, a couple, neither with previous children, marries and the two of them become a couple.  They have some adjustments to make with each other and then after awhile they are fine.  During their initial period of just the two of them, the couple has time to bond and be close, thus building the foundation of their future marriage together.

Let’s say a few years later she gets pregnant.  For 9 months they adjust to the idea of parenting and adding a new person to the family and for the first months after birth they adapt to the reality of parenting and their new baby.  After the initial adjustment they are fine.  They spend 2 or 3 years with the 3 of them and then the mother gets pregnant again.  They go through a period of adjustment, getting ready for a new family member, they add the family member and then they learn to accommodate with 4 people in the home.  Each person has to get used to the new family arrangement.  This family would have a several month transition stage where there are more anticipated struggles and problems followed by several years (in most cases) in the next stage.

This theory also suggests that every time the number of people changes you have a new family (see the illustrations of this in the next paragraph).  These theorists suggest that the number of relationships in the family is the number of people in the family squared.  So if there are 3 people in the family, there would be 9 relationships (3 X 3 = 9): each person has a relationship with him or herself (3), each has a relationship with the other 2 people (2+2+2=6) and then you have the 3 of them together  (Alright, it’s squared plus 1.  I had a mathematician for a client who told me it was cubed, but she lost me and I can’t explain what she said.).  So every time the number in the family changes, the family gets more and more complex with more possibilities for relationship breakdown and the family has to get used to the new dynamic that a new member coming or leaving provides.  With this in mind, here are the typical stages for an intact family with 2 children that hasn’t experienced divorce:

Family 1 = 2 people: Husband and Wife, 3 years; the couple alone with no children
Family 2 = 3 people: Dad, Mom and Junior; 3 years before next child
Family 3 = 4 people: Dad, Mom, Junior and Sally; 15 years until Junior graduates from high school and moves away.
Family 4 = 3 people: Dad, Mom and Sally; 3 years until Sally graduates from High School and moves away.
Family 5 = 2 people: Husband and Wife; 30 plus years alone.

You’ll note that over the lifetime of this couples, say 50 years, they have a total of 5 different families, with 3 years as the minimum in any one family.  Two of the stages are over a decade.  This gives them time to adjust to each other, work out their differences and have a stable family over time.

Now with a stepfamily, the major characteristic in this arena is that they are in constant flux and there are very short times between stages: days, sometimes hours, instead of years.  In addition, the stages cycle back and forth pretty much every month, sometimes, several times.  Let’s say in our example above, this family divorces after the arrival of Sally.  This family has already gone through Family 1, Family 2 and Family 3.  Now they divorce and let’s assume the mother gets primary care and that neither parent remarries for a while.  The day after their divorce we have this:

Family 4: Dad alone
Family 5: Mom and kids alone

A few days later when dad gets the kids for his first weekend we have 2 more families:

Family 6: mom and step dad and mom’s kids
Family 7: dad and step mom with step mom’s kids

Then Sunday night, when mom gets the kids again it’s

Family 4: Dad alone
Family 5: Mom and kids alone.

This family went through 6 gyrations in just one week!  Compare this to several years to even more than a decade in an intact family!

OK, now let’s look at what happens when both of them remarry.  Let’s assume both of these new spouses have children from their marriages.  And custody goes back and forth.  Now we have:

Family 6: mom and step dad and mom’s kids
Family 7: dad and step mom with step mom’s kids

Then when the step dad’s kids come to stay with him we have:

Family 8: mom and step dad and mom’s kids and step dad’s kids

And then every other weekend, mom’s kids go to her X’s:

Family 9: mom and step dad and step dad’s kids
Family 10: dad and step mom and step mom’s kids and dad’s kids

And sometimes dad’s wife’s kids go to her X:

Family 11: dad and step mom and dad’s kids

And sometimes all the kids are at the X’s:

F12 mom and step dad alone
F13 dad and step mom alone

Now in a typical stepfamily when all spouses have kids, the kids and parents cycle through F6 through F13 every week or two.  Is it any wonder that stepfamilies have the feeling of being unsettled?  That kids growing up in these environments and parents coming home from work to these fluctuating numbers seem easily agitated?  No one in the family has a chance to settle into a routine so everyone is operating in an atmosphere of frustration.  In addition, the new couple that just got married to each other with their respective children, had absolutely no bonding time, giving them a tenuous foundation on which to build a future family.  Tempers, injustices and insecurity are common because of the myriads of possible places this whole thing can break down.  For example, if each new spouse had 2 kids, that’s 3 + 3 = 6 squared or 36 possible relationship breakdown points, not counting the impact of either X and the X’s new spouses let alone their children and all the competing grandparents for everybody who all demand and deserve attention.  YIKES!!

This is stepfamily normal.  We could say:  Stepfamilies are born for chaos.  You can’t have this many changes so quickly and not have consequences.  There will be hurt and anger as expectations of all the different people in all the different family structures compete with each other.  If we’re not careful we can have a mess.  We have to figure out how to promote family stability in an atmosphere of constant flux, not an easy task.

But here’s a simple thought to keep in mind:  If stepfamilies are in constant flux, and uneasy emotions are to be expected when boundaries are in constant motion, then it follows that being upset about that is a complete waste of time.  It’s like being upset the sun came up earlier than you wanted it to.  You being upset about the sun won’t hurt anyone but yourself.  Chaos is normal in stepfamilies.  Learning to live with that and not being upset about it, that is a key to making them work.

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