Getting Married: Building Healthy Step-families

If your family is a “remarried family” or a “step-family” then you’re in good company. The experience of building a remarried or stepfamily is a common experience, not only for recovering people, but for the general population as well. There are lots of difficulties involved in putting together a stepfamily. One of the major difficulties is in the perception that a step-family is something less than desirable. Stepfamilies can be healthy.

There are some issues that are unique to stepfamilies that must be worked through to develop healthy stepfamilies. That doesn’t make stepfamilies necessarily problematic or pathological.

When we continue to hang on to the nuclear family as the “appropriate” family model, we use it to measure all families against it as the standard. When this is the case, we may emulate nuclear family attributes, behaviors, expectations that do not apply or are not appropriate for blended families. Without adequate information about effectively forming and nurturing step families, the dynamics of those new, and sometimes fragile families set them up for dissolution.

If we know that it is not typical that one’s new spouse automatically loves our child, then we may not expect that, and give him/her time to get to know and form attachments and bonding with that child. When we realize that we come from different family culture, we may be able to challenge our own notions that there is only one way to do things, and to allow for negotiation and development of new methods and traditions. When we know that children need to know a new step parent as a friend before they will accept them as a parent, we grant them to emotional room to do that and smooth the transition of blending those families. If we know that if we push them too hard and expect them to fall right into line, we may be setting them up to have conflicts with that spouse for the rest of their time in the family home.

Part of the problem is in not knowing that there is something to know. We may believe that since we were previously married, and previously parenting, that that is all we need to know. This is the biggest blunder of all. Knowing what to expect in combining families can be monumentally helpful. There is an information base from which to draw upon. “Normal” processes for forming remarried families have been described and defined. An example is that it is “normal” for ambiguous boundaries and membership issues to be present in forming step families.

Culturally, we haven’t had established patterns, rituals, or norms to help us negotiate the complex relationships involved in building remarried families. However, there are books, tapes, and counseling services available to help you negotiate these dangerous waters.

Just putting the two families together and hoping for the best is not the best approach. Denial of the probability of problems, is part of the difficulty in building remarried families.

Other major problems can occur when remarried families hold tight to the roles and rules of the old family. For example, some families draw a tight boundary around the new family, like a wagon train circling the wagons for protection against perceived threats from without. In a nuclear family the boundaries are clearer about who is part of the family and who is not. In a stepfamily a child’s non-custodial parent is still family to that child, as are all the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins connected to that side of the family. Attempts by remarried families, to cut out biological parents and other extended family members is not only unrealistic but potentially damaging to the kids. Similar potential problems develop when competition between the step-parent and the step-kids occur over affection from the spouse/biological parent.

Some helpful solutions are offered by remarried families on the front line, who are negotiating, renegotiating, defining, refining, and constructing remarried family structures that work. The have the expectation that there will not be immediate love between the step-parent and step-kids. These families foster flexibility of family boundaries. Confusion and divided loyalties from the kids are expected. They understand the importance of adults behaving cooperatively in raising kids. Permeable, flexible boundaries smooth the transition into “stepfamilyhood”. Allowing kids to come and go between the households of the biological parent and step-families as agreed upon in visitation and custody (with minimal conflict) also helps to reduce the divided loyalties that kids naturally have with divorce and remarriage.

The sense of “belonging” may take three to five years to develop fully in most of the members of the family and longer if teenagers are involved. But a new family identity can emerge.

Gender roles can be revised to effect a smoother transition. Such gender roles place responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family onto women. This can pit step-mother against step-daughter, and wife against ex-wife. Role revision can involve each parent, along with their ex-spouse taking primary responsibility for raising or disciplining their own kids.

Healthy step-families anticipate the “belonging” questions involved in blending the two families. Children want to know how they are related to these new people, who their real family members are, how they will spend time with each party, whether they will still be loved with new people to share that love, and who is “really” in charge here? These issues must be continually discussed, to provide security and comfort throughout the transition. When children express their feelings, adults respond not in defensive ways, but in open, accepting, and supportive ways–even when they feel guilty or other uncomfortable feelings. In healthy step-families children are not expected to make adult decisions, especially about where they will live, custody, visitation, or remarriage.

While developing remarried families is difficult, the transitions can be made smoother by developing realistic expectation, befriending the children before attempting to parent them, and keeping in mind that there’s enough love to go around.

A Dysfunctionally Functioning Family

I know I am not alone when I say that I have a dysfunctionally functioning family. Based on all the research I have done, and people I have spoken to, it is more common to have a dysfunctionally functional family rather than one that is “healthy.” When speaking to most people they were surprisingly unaware (or less inclined to admit) that their own family was dysfunctional but upon further discussion, a light bulb inevitably switched on. There are so many types and degrees of dysfunction within the family structures that exist today. That is not to say that our traditional sense of family and the ever-changing definition of it is in itself dysfunctional, I am addressing the ways in which we as family members relate to one another completely independent of our family structure.

As society redefines our nuclear family structure, so do our expectations of our role in these new family dynamics. Recent statistics now report that the divorce rate is now decreasing (as apposed to the last decade where the divorce rate stayed steady at 50%). This is not because people are staying married now and working through their issues, it is because less people are getting married. There are a rising number of couples that are cohabitating and NOT marrying with extended families, rather than the traditional definition of a family.

So lets make a clear distinction between the functional (healthy) and dysfunctional family. The distinctions aren’t complicated, but rather they are simply defined by a few characteristics. Family’s that respect one another, and exercise consideration of others within the family unit, are more likely to have a healthy functional family. A family that engages in healthy safe dialogues is more likely to be healthy. Open communication that is built on respect, trust and consideration is considered healthy and functional. The presence of clear and healthy roles for each family member also helps contribute to a healthy environment. Family structures where children have assumed a grown up role because a parent or guardian is not responsible is unhealthy and have negative consequences on everyone involved. The list goes on. Personal accountability, respect, privacy, healthy coping skills for life’s curve balls and a foundation of resilience and support are all characteristics of a healthy functioning family.

All of these characteristics affect how we relate to one another within our families. I grew up with an older brother and a single mom living in NYC. In the late 1970’s, early 1980’s that type of family structure was ‘unconventional.’ Today, not only is it ‘normal’ but it is more common than the traditional definition of family. My older brother has been married to the same woman for over 15 years, while I have been divorced and remarried. My own family structure consists of my husband’s grown children and my children that are minors. We work everyday at communicating and relating with respect and consideration. The role of the children in our house is to be children, and our role as adults is to be loving supportive parents with a solid set of values to bestow upon the children. I consider us very lucky and very healthy. However, how my family outside of my immediate household relates is completely dysfunctionally functional. There is a constant battle for respect and consideration by all of us. We all struggle to communicate in a healthy loving manner. And to make matters worse, when parts of the family get upset at each other there is a huge outburst of rage followed by an automatic removal from all communication for very long and extended periods of time, rather than working out whatever issue caused the pain. I am not sure there is a whole lot I can do to turn this dysfunctionally functional family around, all I can do is stop the ball from rolling at my doorstep and make sure that the dysfunctional behavior does not continue and penetrate future generations.

When the Soldier Doesn’t Return: The Needs Of American Families of Downed Warriors In Iraq

When The Soldier Doesn’t Return: The Needs of American Families of Downed Warriors In Iraq

Note: All names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

By LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D, MSS,MA
Reprinted with author’s permission from


Sally had been a soldier’s wife for all twelve years of their marriage. She endured separations while her husband, Tom, was called to duty, and she toughed out raising twin boys alone. Sally said Tom loved her because, in his words, she was a “team player.” But ever since Sally learned that Tom was killed in a roadside bomb in Iraq, Sally doubts whether she can be a team of one. “I’m really not that strong,” Sally said. “It’s just a good act.”

When Rolanda was shot out of her helicopter, her husband Ray said he had no choice but to “pull himself together.” He had to focus on his job and raising his stepdaughter. “I only cry at night, and then only for a second or two. We were practically newlyweds. I don’t even know what I’ll be missing.”

“At least the kids are grown.” It was the first thing that came to Linda’s mind when she heard that her husband was killed in an ambush. But the relief was short—depression set in, and Linda felt “ashamed” for falling apart.

These stories provide a glimpse into the plight of many of the American families of downed warriors in Iraq. Each family’s grief is unique, but most share issues that are familiar to mental health professionals–adjustment, loss, grief, and anger.

Some families rely on friends, the Armed Forces community, and supportive family for help. But one of the issues that many (certainly not all) of these families also share is their reluctance to use the mental health services available to them.

Why? What makes providing counseling to these families so different from non-military families in mourning? And how can mental health professionals serve these families’ needs?

Let’s start with learning a little more about some of these families. Bear in mind, that there are many reactions to the loss of a family member and that not all families of downed warriors react the same. Yet, a constellation of beliefs, fears and adjustment issues does exist amongst many of these families, and it is important to become familiar with them.
Current Issues of Some American Military Families

At first, it seems that the most common issues of military families do not differ from the problems of families not in the military. People are people, as some say. After all, humans share common problems. Yet, military families often add elements to these issues that are unique to them.
Fear of Being “Found Out”

Many families worry about being seen in counselors’ halls and waiting rooms and about being judged and “found out.” They also worry about confidentiality. They believe that no matter what the organization, if it’s affiliated with the armed forces, it will keep records that could easily be shared with other branches and departments.

Non-military families may have similar feelings, but military families carry with them an extra dose of shame of being “found flawed.” They also say they “have had it” with the power of military and government rules. They long for privacy, and they have far higher doubts that their insurance can protect them.
Mental Health Services and Insurance Issues

When the emotional and behavioral problems become too great, families might reach out to the mental health services of their insurance plans. Many families experience uneven quality of services, problems of continuity of care, restrictions on the number of mental health sessions or lack of freedom to choose they want.

Yet, non-military families experience these same issues. The difference is what one of my clients called “reaching the end of her rope” with her insurance. These families have higher expectations of the quality of their care. They believe that serving and sacrificing for their country permits them better treatment.

These families feel hurt and disrespected. When these feelings become too painful, the families often avoid seeking help.
Lack of Trust in Some Services

The latest information about the unacceptable quality at Walter Reed Veterans Hospital reinforces their lack of trust in all services. However, there are many excellent Veterans Administration hospitals. When frustration peaks, it is easy to toss all hospitals and services into the “not good” pile.

Unfortunately, traveling to a quality Veterans Administration hospital is not easy. Military families may not have the financial ability or the family resources of a grandmother or aunt to assist with child-care. As one of my clients said, the families get “jaded and just give up.”
Feeling Ashamed of Grieving

Since these families have now experienced both the anguish of not being able to control their grief reactions and also the shock of seeing what they perceive as a weak and shameful self, their trust in most military mental health services finally erodes. They believe that if they can’t trust themselves any longer, then they certainly aren’t going to trust the institution that let them down.
Negative Judgements from the Public

Like many American soldiers who fought in Viet Nam, the American soldiers of Iraq and their families risk experiencing negative judgments from the public because of the civil and military difficulties, length of time of the war and loss of lives.

Families often worry about being accepted as well as valued for their patriotic contribution and sacrifice. One wife and mother said, “In the beginning, everyone clamored to wear a 9/11 pin. Now, no one wears one anymore.”
Fear of Being Weak

Military spouses are usually viewed as hardy, “salt-of-the-earth” type of people who raise resilient children to withstand relocations, absent parents and emotional pain. When the death of a spouse and parent occurs, these families often experience shame in feeling weak, out of control, and emotional.

The comments of one daughter speak for many: “I feel like I’m a disappointment to my father’s legacy. He would be furious if he saw me crying and just being a basket case right now.”
Stresses of Widowhood

Military personnel often choose spouses whom they think can manage the anxiety of military life. The spouses often fit along a range from “independent and capable” to “can carry out orders.” Imagine, then, the shock when some spouses find that after the death of their husband or wife, their life, household and financial management abilities crumble.

“I thought I had everything under control. I guess I’ve just been a soldier, not an officer,” one wife said. She was fine as long as her husband provided a script, but she faltered at making new decisions.
Living on Two Tracks

Like trauma survivors of the Holocaust and childhood sexual abuse, many surviving military spouses and family members describe themselves as “living on two tracks.” One track takes them through daily life and the image they present to the world.

But the other track leads to their darker world inside, filled with anxiety, anger and depression. Even worse, some feel like imposters. “If you can fake it, you can make it,” becomes their rally call.
Unresolved Grief

Unresolved grief is one the biggest issues that military families report. As a result of their difficulties in handling grief, the families experience several “disconnections” between:

a) what was—and still is—expected of their coping skills,

b) their previous view of themselves as hardy, tough and sturdy,

c) normal grief and adjustment reactions, and

d) their struggle to view these reactions as normal and not weak or shameful. Families often
say things such as “I always saw myself as strong.” Shame and confusion replace confidence.
Ineffective Methods to Deal With Grief

To deal with their grief, families frequently rely on the same ineffective and often damaging coping mechanisms of non-military families. For example, depression, substance abuse or difficulty in working and parenting might occur.

What makes these grief responses of military families so different is that their unique burden of shame of not coping better, disappointment and anger in the quality of their mental health services and lack of perceived national support heightens the emotional intensity, duration, frequency and resistance to changing their ineffective coping tools.

Grief is already a lonely experience. This extra burden makes it even heavier. Soon, the families are caught in a shame-grief-shame cycle that eats away at their ability to change their behavior and negative self-view.
Reassessing Family Relationships

Finally, like many widows and widowers, the spouses often reassess their marriages. For example, wives might discover that they are “relieved” to be out of a bad marriage. Children also may see the deceased parent differently.

The difference in military families is the perceived pressure from the military community to maintain positive views of the deceased partner or parent. For example, serious flaws, such as domestic violence or child abuse might get overlooked. Children may have to work extra hard to conceal their anger at the living parent for having chosen a bad partner.

Military families often flip-flop internally between seeing the truth and glorifying the deceased. The family members sense a heightened taboo against saying anything negative about the deceased and keep secrets about their real feelings.