News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: Saving & securing stepfamilies

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Ark. (BP)–Do you know how many stepfamilies are in your church’s congregation? Stepfamilies are on the rise in America -– the U.S. Census Bureau even predicts they will outnumber the nuclear family by the year 2010.

The challenges facing stepfamilies are immense:

More than 40 percent of marriages each year are remarriages, 60 to 75 percent of which eventually end in another divorce. More than 1 million children each year watch their parents divorce and remarry, and thereby learn to take relationships and marriage lightly. If we, as the body of Christ, are to uphold God’s ideal for marriage and family and help to reverse those divorce statistics, ministries designed to strengthen stepfamilies are essential.

In his book, “The Smart Stepfamily,” Christian counselor Ron Deal states, “Stepfamily ministry represents the next challenge for American churches. Stepfamilies are a field ripe for harvest. But the workers are few. Most of the current ministry to stepfamilies is a grassroots effort; in other words, the ministry being done in most churches today is being done by the stepfamilies themselves.”

In my personal experience, and in research for this article, I’ve found Deal’s statement to be accurate. Stepfamily groups form when one or more couples, unable to receive adequate answers to their stepfamily dilemmas, begin to speak up. Couples in churches with stepfamily classes are grateful to have the understanding, support and encouragement of other step-couples. But they often do not have a sense that their church leadership really understands their plight.

Second Baptist Church in Houston has a stepfamily class currently with about 50 active members. Cindy Raymond, stepmother and an adult education staff member at Second Baptist, was instrumental in beginning the class. She forthrightly stated, “Do we as a church have a handle on it [stepfamily ministry]? I don’t think so. If you haven’t lived it, you don’t get it.”

So, what do stepfamilies need? They need to know that the high level of volatility they experience is a normal dynamic for stepfamily life. They need guidance from those who have gone before them to help them avoid some destructive patterns common to stepfamilies. They need to know that God is with them and wants to use them in their situation to bring healing and restoration, and that He will see them through.

Most stepfamilies face many unexpected challenges unique to their circumstances, making them extremely vulnerable to family struggles. Some examples include:

— Relating to and disciplining children who do not accept a stepparent as a “parent.”

— Dealing with former spouses who often are vindictive and manipulative.

— Unrealistic expectations.

— Overcoming the hurts and bad relationship habits of the past.

Think about these differences between nuclear families and stepfamilies:

— In a nuclear family of four, there are six possible one-on-one relationships (mom and dad, mom and son, mom and daughter, dad and son, dad and daughter, son and daughter). When a couple divorces and just one parent gets remarried to someone with two children, the number of one-on-one relationships jumps to 21. Now, imagine the other parent remarries someone with two children. That exploding number of relationships means an explosive potential for conflict, especially when most or all of the individuals have been deeply wounded.

— These step-relationships form instantly, rather than over months and years as with most nuclear families. Many times these new relationships are unwanted by one or more persons, creating 1) lots of resentment, 2) the phenomena of family members allying with each other against an “outsider” and 3) large doses of rejection.

— When couples remarry, they typically do not grasp the need to commit their unconditional love and acceptance both to the new spouse and that person’s children (whether the children reciprocate or not). Neither do couples fathom that they also effectively marry each other’s former spouse until the major tasks of child-rearing are complete. As long as both biological parents remain involved with the kids, the former spouse unavoidably will have a heavy influence on the step-couple’s home life.

— Stepparent roles are largely undefined by our culture. Stepparents fly by the seat of their pants, too frequently landing in the middle of emotional minefields.

— Sorting out discipline issues becomes a major task, as blood-relationship loyalty tends to rank higher than the marriage relationship.

— Stepparents often are perceived “wicked” whether they really are. ‘Steop’, the Old English origin of the prefix ‘step,’ means ‘related by marriage rather than by blood.’ In the 15th century, Sir Thomas More, who was a stepson, wrote, “Even a loving stepmother brings no fortune to her stepson.” Countless stories and fairy tales have stereotyped stepparents as evil. These stories certainly taint the reputation of a stepparent, but even more, the emotionally damaged filters through which stepchildren and others view stepparents often cause truly caring stepparents to be perceived as malevolent. A stepparent’s own insecurities, if not dealt with in a healthy way, can cause that stepparent to actually fulfill the negative prophecy of “wicked stepparent.”

All of these dynamics are normal for stepfamilies. Yet couples usually are unprepared and expect the new marriage to work better than the last. Maybe the Apostle Paul had the above complexities in mind when he said, “I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them to remain even as I” (1 Corinthians 7:8).

One stepfather acknowledged the sensitive nature of the stepfamily issue for the church when he said, “Divorce and remarriage are not something the church wants to appear to support — it’s a fine line.” But no matter how high a standard we hope to attain in our churches, the reality is, divorce and remarriage will take place in the lives of believers and “pre-Christians” alike until Christ returns. Even Paul recognized that many would remarry, adding this statement, “But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).

I believe our best hope of reversing the worldly mindsets of marriage and family is in reaching people with God’s ideal in whatever their state. Meeting stepfamilies at their point of need, helping them understand the complex nature of stepfamily life, then equipping them with the practical and biblical tools to persevere will help stabilize the foundations of the children currently in their care.

Do stepfamily classes help? The same stepfather who acknowledged the “fine line” for the church added, “… many [in the stepfamily group] have said, ‘It saved our marriage and it continues to save our marriage.’” One stepmom, meanwhile, noted that attending the stepfamily group has been their last resort for several couples before contacting a lawyer.

Steve and Kitty were in desperate need of help when they entered the stepfamily group at their church. “I had been a single parent for nine years,” Kitty recounted, while Steve “went from being mom’s fun boyfriend to commanding officer of the house.”

Steve added new rules that Kitty didn’t necessarily agree with but went along with to make Steve happy. Kitty soon found herself siding with her boys. She had difficulty keeping her marital relationship a priority. Steve struggled with being perceived as the “evil stepfather” both by Kitty and her sons.

Steve and Kitty both say that being a part of the stepfamily group has helped by opening their minds and hearts to see and understand each other’s point of view. “God has shown our family what a group of believers can do together when we come to Him. I believe one reason God has led us through these trials is so that we can help other stepfamilies,” Kitty said.

Marc and Valerie joined a stepfamily home group before they got married. “With both of us having failed marriages with kids,” Marc said, “we just didn’t want to put the kids through it if it wasn’t going to work. Through the group, I had a complete paradigm shift in the way I thought [stepfamily life] would be.”

What Marc learned in the class helped him with his relationship approach to his stepkids. “I learned about the loyalty issues — that my stepdaughter feels like she is being disloyal to her dad if she likes me. It’s easier for her to say that I am mean, or unfair, than it is for her to process those emotions. I kind of roll with that. Some things take time. We just have to show love and consistency. I don’t like it, but I accept it.”

My husband, Carl, and I helped to facilitate a stepfamily course at a former church. As we studied Ron Deal’s stepfamily book together, the repeated epiphany was, “It ISN’T just me!” As we addressed the issues we had in common, we learned what we can and cannot control and to trust God with what cannot be controlled. Issues of trust and control are huge for stepfamilies.

Many who haven’t experienced life in a stepfamily would ask, “Don’t all families have these problems? Why do they need anything more than biblical marriage and parenting classes to help them?” Certainly the same biblical principles will apply to stepfamilies and provide a good foundation on which to build. However, the added relationships between stepparent and stepchild, between former spouses and between new spouse and former spouse do not get addressed in the usual marriage enrichment or parenting curriculum. Consequently, deeply troubling issues that step-couples have go unanswered and they feel as if they are abnormal — much like a man going to an emergency room to have a broken leg set, only to be told it’s his fault the leg is broken, and he’ll just have to live with it.

Stepfamilies form out of brokenness — relationships that fell apart, or the death of a spouse. Most do not recognize how much healing needs to take place in all the members of this new expanded family (spouses, children and former spouses). Churches can build up stepfamilies by helping them deal with the fallout of brokenness, by providing biblical and practical education on stepfamily life, and by providing encouragement and accountability to persevere and be used by God as a channel of restoration and healing for family members.

Grassroots classes that provide this support are fighting for the family by strengthening stepfamilies.
Kay Adkins is a stepmother and author of the book “I’m Not Your Kid: A Christian’s Guide to a Healthy Stepfamily” (Baker Books, 2004). If you have questions about ministering to stepfamilies, contact Kay at [email protected].

    About the Author

  • Kay Adkins