10 Things to Know Before You
By Ron L. Deal, M.MFT.
I’ll never forget it. Elizabeth Einstein, a well-respected
stepfamily author and trainer, stunned a group of ministers when
she told us to make remarriage difficult for couples in our churches
(1). She wasn’t implying that remarriage is wrong, but was
simply suggesting that remarriage—particularly when children
are involved—is very challenging and that couples should
count the cost and be highly educated about the process before
Eyes Wide Open
The following list represents key "costs" and "challenges"
every single-parent (or those dating a single-parent) should know
before deciding to remarry. Open wide both your eyes now and you—and
your children—will be grateful later.
1. Wait 2-3 years following divorce or the death of your
spouse before seriously dating.
No, I’m not kidding. Most people need a few years to fully
heal from a ending of a previous relationship. Moving into new
relationships short-circuits the healing process, so do yourself
a favor and grieve the pain, don’t run from it. In addition,
your children will need at least this much time to heal and find
stability in their visitation schedule. Slow down.
2. Date two years before deciding to marry; then date
their children before the wedding.
Dating two years gives you time to really get to know one another.
Too many relationships are formed on the rebound when both persons
lack godly discernment about their fit with a new person. Give
yourself plenty of time to get to know them thoroughly. Keep in
mind—and this is very important—that dating is
inconsistent with remarried life. Even if everything feels
right, dramatic psychological and emotional shifts often take
place for children, parents, and stepparents right after the wedding.
What seems like smooth sailing can become a rocky storm in a hurry.
Don’t be fooled into thinking you won’t experience
difficulties. As one parent said, "Falling in love is not
enough when it comes to remarriage; there’s just more required
When you do become serious about marriage, date with the intention
of deepening the steppparent-stepchild relationships. Young children
can attach themselves to a future stepparent rather quickly so
make sure you’re serious before spending lots of time together.
Older children will need more time (research suggests that the
best time to remarry is before a child’s 10th birthday or
after his/her 16th; couples who marry between those years collide
with the teens developmental needs).
3. Know how to cook a stepfamily.
Most people think the way to cook a stepfamily is with a blender
("blended family"), microwave, pressure cooker, or food
processor. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of these
"cooking styles" attempt to combine the family ingredients
in a rapid fashion. Unfortunately, resentment and frustration
are the only results.
The way to cook a stepfamily is with a crock-pot. Once thrown
into the pot, it will take time and low-heat to bring ingredients
together, requiring that adults step into a new marriage with
determination and patience. The average stepfamily takes five
to seven years to combine; some take longer. There are no quick
recipes, only dedicated journeyman.
4. Realize that the "honeymoon" comes at the
end of the journey for remarried couples, not the beginning.
Ingredients thrown into a crock-pot that have not had sufficient
time to cook don’t taste good—and might make you sick.
Couples need to understand that the rewards of stepfamily life
(e.g., security, family identity, and gratitude for one another)
come at the end of the journey. Just as the Israelites traveled
a long time before entering the Promise Land, so will it be for
5. Think about the kids: "Yours and Mine"
Children experience numerous losses before entering a stepfamily.
In fact, your remarriage is another. It sabotages their fantasy
that mom and dad can reconcile, or that a deceased parent will
always hold their place in the home. Seriously consider your children’s
losses before deciding to remarry. If waiting until your children
leave home before you remarry is not an option, work to be sensitive
to your child’s loss issues. Don’t rush them, and
don’t take their grief away.
6. Manage and be sensitive to old loyalties.
Even in the best of circumstances children feel torn between
their biological parents and likely feel that enjoying your dating
partner will please you but betray their other parent. Don’t
force children to make choices (an "emotional tug-of-war"),
and examine the binds they feel. Give them your permission to
love and respect new people in the other home and let them warm
up to your new spouse in their own time.
7. Don’t expect your partner (new spouse) to feel
the same about your children as you do.
It’s a good fantasy, but stepparents won’t experience
or care for your children to the same degree as you do. This is
not to say that stepparents and stepchildren can’t have
close bonds, they can. But it won’t be the same. When looking
at your daughter, you will see a sixteen-year-old who brought
you mud pies when they were four and showered you with hugs each
night after work. Your spouse will see a self-centered brat who
won’t abide by the house rules. Expect to have different
opinions and to disagree on parenting decisions.
8. Realize that remarriage has unique barriers.
Are you more committed to your children or your marriage? If
you aren’t willing to risk losing your child to the other
home, for example, don’t make the commitment of marriage.
Making a covenant does not mean neglecting your kids, but it does
mean that they are taught which relationship is your ultimate
priority. A marriage that is not the priority will be mediocre
Another unique barrier involves the ghost of marriage past. Individuals
can be haunted by the negative experiences of previous relationships
and not even recognize how it is impacting the new marriage. Work
to not interpret the present in light of the past, or you might
be destined to repeat it.
9. Parent as a team; get your plan ready.
No single challenge is more predictive of stepfamily success
than the ability of the couple to parent as a team. Stepparents
must find their role, know their limits in authority, and borrow
power from the biological parent in order to contribute to parental
leadership. Biological parents must keep alive their role as primary
disciplinarian and nurturer while supporting the stepparent’s
developing role (read The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to
a Healthy Family for a complete discussion of parental roles).
Managing these roles will not be easy; get a plan and stick together.
10. Know what to tell the kids. Tell them:
- It’s okay to be confused about the new people in your
- It’s okay to be sad about our divorce (or parent’s
- You need to find someone safe to talk to about all this.
- You don’t have to love my new spouse, but you do need
to treat them with the same respect you would give a coach or
teacher at school.
- You don’t have to take sides. When you feel caught in
the middle between our home and your other home, please tell
me and we’ll stop.
- You belong to two homes with different rules, routines, and
relationships. Find your place and contribute good things in
- The stress of our new home will reduce—eventually.
- I love you and will always have enough room in my heart for
you. I know it’s hard sharing me with someone else. I
Work Smarter, Not Harder
For stepfamilies, accidentally finding their way through the
wilderness to the Promised Land is a rarity. Successful navigation
requires a map. You’ve got to work smarter, not harder.
Don’t begin a new family until you educate yourself on the
options and challenges that lie ahead.
(1) Elizabeth Einstein, Workshop: "Strengthening Our Stepfamilies:
A Developmental Approach," November 7, 1997, Harding University,
Ron L. Deal is President of Successful
Stepfamilies, author of
The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family,
and serves as stepfamily educational consultant to Focus on the
Family. He has appeared on numerous broadcasts, including Focus
on the Family, and conducts stepfamily conferences and ministry
training around the country. He and his wife, Nan, live with their
three boys in Arkansas. Article reprinted with permission.
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