Workin’ Out

Feeling the Burn as Stepfamilies Help You Stretch - Emotionally

By Lisa Cohn

Reprinted with permission from Your Stepfamily Magazine

March/April 2003 issue

Gerry of Denver, Colo. faced a classic stepfamily struggle when she first married her husband, Fred: her stepdaughters tried to push her out of their lives. She worried that if she tried to reach out to them or set limits with them, they would reject her and ignore her.  To best support her husband, Gerry felt she needed to reach out to her stepchildren. But often, it seemed easier to avoid the girls at all costs, and escape the emotional pain of their rejection.

Melinda of Portland, Ore., wrestled with a different challenge when she married Brad: learning to get along with and respect Brad’s ex-wife. His ex-wife didn’t contribute financially to supporting her children and often forgot to attend to some of the daily details of parenting.  Melinda felt caught.  She wanted to do as much as she could for her stepchildren, but she felt powerless because she had no control over their mother’s behavior. And sometimes it seemed unfair that Melinda picked up the financial slack in the family.

Everyday, stepfamilies face such dilemmas. Everyday, members feel torn between their stepchildren and children and their husbands, wives or ex-spouses. They wrestle with questions about justice and equality.  Or they struggle to be supportive of stepfamily members who have different values than their own.

“Every minute, people feel caught in stepfamilies. You have tugs and pulls. You have a pull toward your biological child and a tug from your husband,” says Susan Wisdom, a stepfamily counselor in Portland, Ore. and author of the book, “Stepcoupling: Creating and Sustaining A Strong Marriage in Today’s Blended Family.” 

“These things are very complex, and there are no easy answers,” Wisdom says.

For many families, the answer is learning to stretch emotionally in ways members never thought possible. Sometimes that means a stepmother must accept that she’ll miss her husband because he’s not as available to her as she’d like. He’s spending time with his biological children--and she respects him for that. Sometimes it means a parent will help pay for a stepchild’s food and clothing, even though she thinks it’s not fair. And sometimes being part of a stepfamily means parents must suspend judgement about their husband’s ex-wife or his children, even though their values are different.

“Being in a stepfamily is a real growth experience,” says Wisdom. “You learn to watch how you judge people.”

That was Melinda’s experience. At first, Melinda was tempted to keep separate checkbooks to insulate her from the fact that her husband’s ex didn’t work. “For the first year or two, I had a lot of resentment about Brad’s ex living off the child support and cutting corners on the expenses for the kids,” she says. For example, she didn’t like the fact that the girls’ mother bought the girls used shoes.

Wait Training

But after the first few years, Melinda realized that Brad’s ex-wife cared deeply for the children; she merely had different values –about clothes and education, for example. Melinda has since come to understand that as a stepmother, she can’t control her stepdaughters’ lives. But she can do everything in her power to support them, she says. Melinda’s concern about the welfare of her stepdaughters propelled her to stretch emotionally and accept their mother for who she is.

Melinda now tries to provide financial and emotional support to her stepdaughters without being judgmental about the decisions their mother makes.  “The bottom line: what’s important is that the kids are well taken care of,” says Melinda.

Understanding that bottom line was difficult for Gerry at first because her stepdaughters were so quick to reject her. They ignored her when they walked in the door; refused to talk to her on the phone; and sometimes even refused to eat the food she had prepared for them.  “At first, it was easier to just get mad,” says Gerry. “But then I realized I had to take a chance with my stepdaughters. If you don’t try it and go through it, you never get anywhere with your stepchildren.”

Gerry was terrified the first time she decided to reach out to her teenaged stepdaughter, Cara, she says.  “I felt I had to jump off a cliff and reach out to someone who wasn’t very open. It was a real emotional risk for me,” she says.  But over the years, her efforts have paid off. Cara has decided to live full-time with Gerry and Fred and recently gave Gerry a Valentine’s Day card expressing her affection and appreciation.  “Reaching out to a stepchild is painful and scary and the anxiety is real,” she says. “But the rewards are great,” says Gerry.

Tough Enough?

Bill, a stepfather in Corvallis, Ore., discovered that he needed to make an emotional about-face and change his parenting style once he became part of a stepfamily.  “Early on, I tried to use “sergeant/major” stuff on my two boys and my wife’s kids. My stepson would fall to the floor in tears. I realized I had to slow down and change.  Men want to be understood and want people to do things their way. I had to learn to back off on that. I told my wife, ‘I have to follow your lead on disciplining and motivating your kids.’ I had to make some big changes.”

Like Gerry, Melinda and Bill, many stepparents learn to push themselves emotionally because they want to forge close bonds with their stepchildren. That desire can propel them to assume responsibilities they never before imagined, says Judy Osborne, a family therapist with Boston-based Stepfamily Associates.  “I know one stepmom who thought she would never have children. She came into a situation in which her husband got custody of his kids. My goodness, she stretched to learn how to do this. She gave up her career to start a daycare center and be with these kids,” she says.

Stretching With Your Partner

While stepparents are breaking new emotional ground to bond with their children and stepchildren, they’re often working overtime to get along with their spouses.  Because parents in stepfamilies need to work especially hard at communicating well with their spouses about the children, they learn important inter-personal skills, they say.

“When something bugs you about your stepchild, you have to be sensitive when you bring it up to your spouse,” says Joyce, Bill’s wife. “You have to learn to say, ‘This is going to be hard to hear, Honey, but I see this happening,’” she says.

Bill struggled with how to react to his wife’s input, especially about his son. But his intense desire to focus on the big picture and find “blessings” in his stepfamily helped him push himself emotionally through those moments, he says. “It was a pretty dark hallway to walk down together. I kept saying to myself, ‘This is a gift. She is being honest with me. If I argue with her, it will close that door.’ At the same time, my feelings were so intense, it took supernatural strength to simply listen and not react.”

Parents in a stepfamily must work especially hard at teamwork, says Joyce. “You learn emotional skills you never thought you’d learn.”  Gerry says her efforts to work with her husband as a team have made her feel more connected to him. “This has been a real learning process for me,” she says. “When we got over our initial communication hurdle, I felt more powerful and closer to Fred.”

Children Work It, Too

Parents aren’t the only stepfamily members who learn how to stretch. Children in stepfamilies also must take emotional leaps, says Dr. Margorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America.   “They learn a lot of interpersonal skills,” she says. “They learn to fight fair, to read people’s faces and their tones of voices. They are more sensitive to these kinds of things because they have to be aware of them in their stepfamily,” says Engel.

Like their parents, children in stepfamilies face new challenges everyday and develop important skills as a result of those challenges. They’re also propelled by another important force: their affection for other members of their family.

A few years ago, my son and my two stepchildren launched into a fight about who could play in the “playroom,” which also happens to be my son’s bedroom. Like many large stepfamilies, we don’t have enough space in our home for a separate playroom.

My son, Travis, wanted some time alone in his room, and the other kids wanted to play in it after returning home from school.  “It’s not fair,” Travis cried. “They get time alone in their own rooms; I deserve time alone in mine.” We called a family meeting, and the three children—aged 7, 10 and 10 at the time—negotiated until they struck a compromise about how the room should be used.

When Travis cried, his stepsiblings were quick to suggest solutions.  “Why don’t we leave Travis alone in his room for 20 minutes after we get home from school?” my stepdaughter, Emily, suggested. “Then we can all play.”

“I don’t need 20 minutes,” Travis replied. “How about 10?”

Until our stepfamily was formed, negotiating wasn’t my son’s strongest characteristic. He had lived alone with me for many years and wasn’t familiar with the daily conflicts of living with siblings. But his fondness for his stepsiblings—and their strong feelings about him—helped him stretch in new and important ways.

“A year ago,” Travis said later, “I would have refused to go to a family meeting. And if I did have to go, I wouldn’t have talked!”   Five to ten years from now, the lessons Travis and other stepchildren are learning in their families will reap many benefits, says Engel. These children will be more flexible, open and accepting of other people’s foibles.  That will be especially true for children who witnessed their parents and stepparents making their own emotional leaps.

“You are the model,” says Wisdom. “If you stretch, the kids will. If you can be open and loving and flexible, they will benefit.”

Engel says she has seen first-hand the benefits of growing up in these kinds of stepfamilies. “When I went to college and all my friends were having trouble adjusting to roommates, it was the people from stepfamilies who new how to respect the idiosyncrasies of others,” she says.


Lisa Cohn, an award-winning writer and Bill Merkel, a Ph.D. psychologist, are co-authors of “One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories And Advice For Second Families” (RiverWood Books, June 2003). They live in Portland with their four children. For more information contact Lisa at or visit

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