Partner Support Can Minimize Stepparenting Stress

Blended families are becoming more common every decade. Children who are raised in traditional two-parent, nondivorced families are quickly becoming the minority, outnumbered by children of single parents, same-sex parents, cohabitating parents, and even children being cared for by extended family members. Regardless, every unique family style comes with its own unique set of stressors. For stepparents, people who have married a spouse with children from a previous relationship, the stress may be multidimensional. Stepparents must take on the role of parent in addition to being a spouse. This may be especially challenging if the person is not accepted by the children or the children’s other parent. Additionally, partners may disagree on how to raise the children, which can add to the stress of the stepparent. All of these conditions can contribute to distress for the children, the parents, and the family as a whole. Danielle N. Shapiro of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Michigan recently conducted a study to see which of these factors contributed to and buffered stepparents from stress the most.

For her study, Shapiro interviewed 125 stepparents through an online survey. She evaluated how partner support, biological parent (children’s other parent) support, and the children’s acceptance and support influenced the stepparent. Shapiro found that the respondents cited that all three factors contributed to well-being, but it was the support of their partner that most positively affected the stepparents. Specifically, the stepparents who had high levels of partner support, regardless of biological parent or children reactions, had the lowest levels of depression. In fact, when Shapiro looked at each factor independently, partner support was the only factor that was directly linked to positive well-being in the stepparents. Shapiro notes that her sample consisted mostly of stepmothers and did not consider long-term outcomes. She said, “Future research should address these shortcomings by engaging multiple family members in research studies or using observational methods to more directly and accurately examine family dynamics.” However, the findings of this study suggest that partner support is a vital component of well-being and adjustment for new stepparents and contributes to the overall success of a blended family.

Shapiro, D. N., Stewart, A. J. (2012). Dyadic support in stepfamilies: Buffering against depressive symptoms among more and less experienced stepparents. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029591

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  • Traci


    September 12th, 2012 at 4:11 AM

    Given that the divorce rate for first marriages ranges in the 50% area, and then add to that the fact that second marriages with children have a divorce rate of about 75%, there better be some support going on in those marriages; otherwise it is going to be pointless for anyone divorced with children to even consider remarrying!

    The biggest problem that I have always noticed in these marriages, and this is from the outside looking in, is that many times the families just don’t blend. It remains his kids and her kids and never that these are their kids together, step or biological. I think that for their to be family success, you can’t onsider that these are your step kids, they are your children once you get married to their other parent. And I also think that the biological parents have to step back and let the steps make some decisions regarding how they are raised and support them through that.

  • isabel


    September 12th, 2012 at 5:53 AM

    would have to agree.step kids can be mean at times or not-so-welcoming at times but whatever happens you look to your partner at such a time and the relationship with your partner can be a source of strength to tide over the same.

  • Harold


    September 12th, 2012 at 1:58 PM

    Well with the changing times the family structure is changing as well.But some things,it seems,do not change a lot.Support from your partner is a valuable asset that can help with anything and everything,especially in this case because they have a more pronounced role to play when it comes to your step children!

  • Brad F

    Brad F

    September 12th, 2012 at 3:18 PM

    I know that my wife tries to get along with my kids, but I tell you, they make it hard sometimes. I am trying not to lose my cool with them but they are making that pretty difficult. I have talked to their mom, who I know is part of the problem and feeding their fire, but she just seems indifferent and feels like if my new wife can’t take the heat then she should just get out of it. I know that life probably would have been easier if we had waited to get married after they were grown and gone from the house but I never understand why I should have to put my life on hold.

  • melissa


    September 13th, 2012 at 4:29 AM

    For some couples when they are merging their families, when they get married that;s when the fighting really begins about the kids.
    Why on earth not settle all of this before dragging the children into it?
    If you think that this is going to be a problem, then why not just wait until the kids are older or you have at least gone through some couseling which can give you some pointers on how to address these issues when they come up?

  • Gloria


    September 13th, 2012 at 10:42 AM

    As a step and biological Mom, and the author of a book on stepfamilies which included not only my own experience but research with stepfamily authorities and other stepfamilies, I am aware, all to often, of the high rate of divorce among these families.

    One reason is that there are no understood guidelines for these families. Society tends to apply the rules of first marriages, while ignoring the complexities of stepfamilies.

    A little clarification: In a stepfamily the child(ren) is of one co-parent; in a blended family, there are children from both co-parents; and, virtually all family members have recently experienced a primary relationship loss.

    The Landmines

    Three potential problem areas are: Financial burdens, Role ambiguity, and the Children’s Negative Feelings when they don’t want the new family to “work.”

    Husbands sometimes feel caught between the often impossible demands of their former family and their present one. Some second wives also feel resentful about the amount of income that goes to the husband’s first wife and family.

    Legally, the stepparent has no prescribed rights or duties, which may result in tension, compromise, and role ambiguity.

    Another complication of role ambiguity is that society seems to expect acquired parents and children to instantly love each other. In reality, this is often just not the case.

    The third reason for a difficult stepparent-child relationship might be that a child does not want this marriage to work, and so, acts out with hostility, since children commonly harbor fantasies that their biological parents will reunite. Stepchildren can prove hostile adversaries, and this is especially true for adolescents.

    Stepmother Anxiety

    Clinicians say that the role of stepmother is more difficult than that of stepfather, because stepmother families may more often be born of difficult custody battles and/or particularly troubled family relations. Society is also contradictory in expecting loving relationships between stepmothers and children while, at the same time, portraying stepmothers as cruel and even abusive (Snow White, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel are just a few bedtimestories we are all familiar with).

    Stepfather Anxiety

    Men who marry women with children come to their new responsibilities with a mixed bag of emotions, far different from those that make a man assume responsibility for his biological children. A new husband might react to an “instant” family with feelings which range from admiration to fright to contempt.

    The hidden agenda is one of the first difficulties a stepfather runs into: The mother or her children, or both, may have expectations about what he will do, but may not give him a clear picture of what those expectations are. The husband may also have a hidden agenda.

    A part of the stepchildren’s hidden agenda is the extent to which they will let the husband play father.

    The key is for everyone to work together.

    The husband, wife, their stepchildren, and their non-custodial biological parent can all negotiate new ways of doing things by taking to heart and incorporating the information you are about to learn—the most positive alternative for everyone.

    One Day at a Time

    Now you have a pretty good feel for what everyone is going through. How do you start to make it better — a process that can take years? First you must be very clear about what you want and expect from this marriage and the individuals involved, including yourself. What are you willing to do? In a loving and positive way, now is the time to articulate, negotiate, and come to an agreement on your expectations and about how you and your partner will behave.

    The best marriages are flexible marriages, but how can you be flexible if you do not know what everyone needs right now. And, this may change over time, so there must be room for that to happen as well.

    In flexible marriages partners are freer to reveal the parts of their changing selves that no longer fit into their old established patterns. You couldn’t possibly have known at the beginning of your new family what you know now and will learn later.

    Spouses may feel the “conflict taboo” even more than in a first marriage. It is understandable that you want to make this marriage work. You might feel too “battle-scarred” to open “a can of worms.” And so, you gloss over differences that need airing and resolution—differences over which you may not have hesitated to wage war in your first marriage. Avoiding airing your differences is a serious mistake. It is important for you to understand your own and your partner’s needs because society hasn’t a clue how stepfamilies should work. Unless you talk about your expectations, they are likely to be unrealistic.

    Living Well

    Since roughly one third of stepfamilies do survive—even thrive—we know that stepfamilies can grow the safety, support, and comfort that only healthy families provide. Consider the following for living your step/blended family life well:

    You must assess, as a couple, how well you accept and resolve conflicts with each other and key others. Learn and steadily work to develop verbal skills: listen with empathy, effectively show your needs, and problem-solve together. The emotional highs of new love can disguise deep disagreement on parenting, money, family priorities, and home management, i.e., values that will surface after the wedding.

    Together, accept your prospective identity as a normal, unique, multi-home stepfamily. You need to admit and resolve strong disagreements, well enough for positive results.

    You must balance and co-manage all of these tasks well enough on a daily basis to: build a solid, high-priority marriage; enjoy your kids; and, to keep growing emotionally and spiritually as individual people.

    Know and take comfort in the fact that confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security—and often (not always) the love—that adults and kids long for.

    Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect.

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