A journalist called me the other day wanting me to make some pithy, erudite comments on the subject of the so-called “stepfamily.” I am eminently qualified, I propose, to remark 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. We weren’t really any different than any other family, at least as far as I could tell. He was my stepfather, but I called him “Dad.” And by the way, my other father, the one I saw in the summers only (he lived over a thousand miles away), had no problem with that. My stepfather set rules, assigned responsibilities, and disciplined me when he felt I needed discipline. My mother did not interfere in any of that.
Back to the journalist: I told her that the primary problem concerning today’s step-families was 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.” Their emphasis is on the prefix. Under the circumstances, 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 the step-children. In fact, this has become stock advice from mental health professionals. Supposedly, when the stepparent disciplines, a boundary is violated. This causes the stepchild confusion and resentment and can precipitate rebellion and other equally dire things.
Really? I wasn’t confused. And I didn’t resent my stepfather’s discipline any more than I resented my mother’s. And when I went to live with my biological father, my rebellion hit an all-time high. And after living with him for a little over a year, I called my mom and begged to come home, even though bio-dad had given me a car and set me up in my own apartment (at age 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 by hand. I must’ve had some mental disorder that caused me to prefer confusion and resentment.
There are now more stepfamilies than either single-parent or first-marriage families in America. The statistics vary from source to source, but best estimates are that 40 to 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. The rate, however, 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 step-families is largely due to the fact that step-people do what Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil (and the majority of mental health professionals) recommend. They create an us-and-them family that isn’t really a family at all. It’s just a collection of people with pronounced, unresolved territorial issues attempting to live under one roof. It’s a convenient arrangement, at least from a financial standpoint (usually), but that’s about the best that can be said for it.
The journalist asked for my recommendations. Here they are: When a step-family is formed, the marriage relationship must come first. That is family rule number one, regardless of prefixes or the lack of them. It is in everyone’s best interest that pre-existing parent-child relationships be “reduced” and relegated to the proverbial back seat. 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, the more likely everyone will succeed in the new family arrangement. And mind you, it is in everyone’s best interest that this new family succeeds.