A journalist called me the other day, wanting some pithy, erudite comments on the subject of the so-called stepfamily. I am eminently qualified to comment on the subject because I was raised in one, although it was not called a stepfamily back then. We were a family: me, my mother, my stepfather, and their two children. And we weren’t any different than any other family. He was my stepfather, but I called him “Dad.” And my other father, the one I saw in the summers only, had no problem with that. My stepfather set rules, assigned responsibilities, and disciplined me when he felt I needed discipline, and my mother did not interfere.
I told the journalist that the primary problem concerning today’s stepfamilies is that the people in them don’t act like they’re living in a family. Rather, they act like they’re living in a “step.” Thus, the stepparent is akin to being a guest in the home. This is especially the case when he or she is not allowed free disciplinary license with the children of his or her spouse.
Both Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil say that a stepparent should not discipline his or her stepchildren, which has become stock advice from mental health professionals. Supposedly, when the stepparent disciplines, a boundary is violated. This causes confusion and resentment in the stepchild and can precipitate rebellion and other equally dire things.
Really? I wasn’t confused, and I didn’t resent my stepfather’s discipline. On the other hand, when I went to live with my biological father, my rebellion hit an all-time high. After a little more than a year, I called my mom and begged to come home, even though my bio-dad had given me a car and set me up in my own apartment—at the age of 16! I gave all that up for a stepfather who only let me drive his car occasionally and had me do things like paint the house and weed the yard. According to today’s psychobabble, I must have had some mental disorder!
There are now more stepfamilies in the United States than either single-parent or first-marriage families. The statistics vary from source to source, but the best estimates are that 30 to 40 percent of first marriages end in divorce. However, the divorce rate for second marriages where one or both parties have children from prior unions is between 60 and 70 percent!
I propose that the dramatic increase in the divorce rate for stepfamilies is largely due to the fact that these steppeople do what Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil—and the majority of today’s mental health professionals—recommend. They create an us-and-them family that isn’t a family at all. It’s just a collection of people with pronounced, unresolved territorial issues, attempting to live under one roof.
The journalist asked for my recommendations. Here they are: When a stepfamily is formed, the marriage relationship must come first. That is family rule number one, regardless of prefixes or the lack of them. Rule number two: it’s in everyone’s best interest that preexisting parent-child relationships be relegated to the proverbial backseat. Third, the children should be prepared for this in advance so that their new status doesn’t come as a shock. The more proactive the adults involved are, the more likely that everyone will succeed in the new family arrangement. And mind you, it is in everyone’s best interest that this new family succeeds!
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.