The Stepfamily Journey – Not for Wimps

By Elizabeth Einstein, MA/LMFT

Smart hikers prepare well for their adventures. With a good trail map and sturdy equipment, they are ready for most mishaps that might occur. Hard hiking is not for wimps, so adults moving toward remarriage need the wisdom to prepare well for one of the toughest journeys they may ever take. Such an advance commitment will pay great rewards once you have solid skills and information to build a successful stepfamily in which children and adults can continue to heal and grow.

Like viewing a gorgeous mountain range from afar with high hopes of scaling the peaks, living in a stepfamily might appear at first look to be an interesting and exciting journey. Uninformed and unhealed divorced adults may delude themselves that with merely a new partner, marriage will be much easier this time.

That delusion gets many new stepfamilies in trouble fast – as evidenced by the nearly 60 percent remarriage divorce rate. While not all remarriages include children who can bring great challenges, most do.

Adults who plan to succeed in their stepfamily journey should prepare just as rigorously as experienced mountain hikers. Dreams, high hopes, and crossed fingers alone won’t create successful stepfamily living. Thankfully, you now have resources that weren’t available to me as I dealt with stepfamily issues personally through two marriages and divorces. A second divorce for our children had a huge negative impact on all of them as they tried to move into adulthood with serious loyalty conflicts and their own “emotional baggage.” Today there are books, workshops, and educational programs to provide the tools stepfamilies need to succeed. To not use all that’s available today is like attempting to climb a serious mountain wearing a daypack and sneakers. It’s foolhardy– and dangerous!


1. Fantasy – Like hikers with overweight backpacks, many adults enter the remarriage trailhead in the fantasy stage. They are over-loaded with unrealistic expectations, unresolved grief, and a lack of knowledge of what’s ahead, believing love can conquer all. When adults join up before they have cleared up relationships with their former spouses and resolved their own guilt and grief about how death or divorce has changed their children’s lives forever, they deny the challenges ahead.

2. Confusion about rules – Once the wedding happens, the second stage quickly occurs. There is confusion about rules, roles, and disciplining children. The couple often avoids discussions about what to do about absentee parents, and denial deepens. Communication that focuses on compromise and negotiation becomes essential, and it is vital to begin this process before serious wedding planning begins. Children who try to move between two households while their parents and stepparents continue to hash out their problems often struggle with loyalty conflicts.

3. Crisis – It doesn’t take long for many stepfamilies to fall into the third stage – crisis – which is when many remarriages end. It is important to understand, instead, that crisis is part of normal stepfamily development rather than a signal for quitting time. Instead of fearing it, you can use the crisis time to examine what’s wrong and fix it. Before marriage, if you are actively engaged in planning ahead and holding family discussions, you will probably experience and resolve major issues. This will help to prevent at least some of the crises from happening after the wedding.

4. Stability- After getting support, guidance, and new tools, stepfamilies(and potential stepfamilies) can use the lessons they learned from the crisis to make the necessary changes to move into the next stage of stability. The family finally comes together with a new understanding and a determined game plan to succeed. Even when obstacles pop up, or setbacks occur, fear of failure no longer reigns, and adults come to know they can make it to the summit. The stability gained during this part of stepfamily development strengthens everyone’s sense of security. While it is unrealistic that remarrying couples will fully reach this stage of stability prior to marriage, the goal is to establish it as much as possible.

5. Commitment – The final stage of development is commitment, signaling the stepfamily is truly committed to success. T o move through these stages after marriage takes a long time – research shows anywhere from four to seven years. This is a lot longer than most people realize; or want to believe. If a couple uses a trail map, tools, and understands how to do it safely and successfully before remarriage, the transition time after marriage should be somewhat shorter.

Having the wisdom to reach out for help is a strength of a strong family. My wish is for people to open their eyes wide to prevent stepping unconsciously onto the challenging path of remarriage. Couples need to prepare well for the stepfamily journey by healing their former relationships and improving skills that are weak – especially communication and parenting skills. Take time to examine your part in an ended marriage. Couples who can identify past mistakes will be more likely to avoid repeating them.

The stepfamily journey can be an exciting and fulfilling adventure. Indeed, many strengths come from a solid remarriage. Research shows that a new, happy family life can even ameliorate some of the negative effects of divorce for children. It provides new role models about skills, expertise, values, or a philosophy of life. This journey is best traveled by strong, healthy adults who also are prepared and are committed to an ongoing process of working the tasks the trail map provides. Stepfamily living can be rewarding and successful, but it is definitely not for wimps!

Elizabeth Einstein is a pioneer in working with remarried families and a leader in the field of stepfamily education. She is a Marriage & Family Therapist in Ithaca, NY and author of several books.

Permission to reprint granted by Marriage Transformation LLC for the publication of this edited article in Family Perspectives Journal of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers.