- New step-relationships, in effect, compete with old biological relationships, creating a collision of agendas between adults and children. Tweet This
- Stepfamily adults are often immediately highly motivated to create mutually trusting, loving relationships, while children need time to get there—and may never desire the same depth that the adults do. Tweet This
- Stepfamily members who have varying definitions of what is acceptable emotional distance must negotiate what togetherness looks like in their new family and how love will express itself. Tweet This
Social distancing is a common dynamic in blended families. As David Olson and I report in The Smart Stepfamily Marriage, there is a reason the divorce rate for blended family couples (or stepcouples) is 10-25% higher than first marriages.1 There are, of course, many micro dynamics that can be delineated, but there is one big macro “virus” that contributes to the dissolution of stepcouple relationships: stress resulting from the challenges of merging.
After nearly three decades of working with stepfamilies as a therapist and educator and trying to help family practitioners understand the inner dynamics of blended families, along came a pandemic that provides experiential insights to what pulls them apart. Allow me to make two observations that we have all probably recently experienced during this pandemic that may inform work with complex families.
Observation 1: Social Distancing Protects at a Cost
COVID-19 has created anxiety, fear, and distress. In an effort to not get sick ourselves and prevent the spread of the virus, social distancing has been our primary coping method. When stress rises and the climate around us becomes uncertain, we naturally pull back to the people and places that are safest.
Blended families know this dynamic well. There are two opposing forces in blended families: merging forces and distancing forces. When two adults fall in love and marry, they start a process of merging people, family cultures, loss narratives, relationship expectations, and a host of other aspects of family life. Inherent in the couple’s nuptials is a request to their children and extended family to merge their lives and “become family” to one another. But building “coupleness” is much easier than building “familyness.” A classic example is the parent who angrily says to their child, “I know he’s not your dad, but why don’t you call him Dad anyway?” The parent is trying to orchestrate togetherness, while the child is maintaining their distance and holding on to their biological father. New step-relationships, in effect, compete with old biological relationships, creating a collision of agendas between adults and children.
This collision of needs and agendas has the same impact as our pandemic. It increases stress and makes the relational climate uncertain and ambiguous. To cope, family members “socially distance,” that is, they retreat back to the places, rituals, expectations, boundaries, and people that are the most emotionally safe. This widens the gap between biological insiders and step outsiders, making “becoming family” difficult. This frustrates the couple and ripples distress into their relationship.
Observation 2: Negotiating Relational Distance is Challenging
Have you noticed during the pandemic that other people define “six feet away” differently than you?2 Maybe you experienced fellow shoppers in the grocery store, for example, who were comfortable with what is objectively three or four feet away, while others insisted on 10 feet and a mask. When definitions of “too close” collide, a mutual definition that is acceptable to both must be negotiated or the relationship is likely to experience a larger gap.
In the book, Building Love Together in Blended Families, Gary Chapman and I point out that stepfamily members who have varying definitions of what is acceptable emotional distance must negotiate over time what togetherness looks like in their new family and how love will express itself. For example, we explain:
a stepchild may love their stepparent, but that does not necessarily translate into the same level of respect for their authority as it does with a biological parent. A stepparent may love all the children the same, but still find it awkward to hug their stepchild. A parent may love their new spouse, but not want to add the spouse’s name to the life insurance already set up for their children. Stepsiblings may have a blast together and consider one another family, but not want stepsiblings in the annual Christmas family portrait made with Grandma. And stepgrandparents, who love all the grandkids equally, may find themselves more willing to babysit if the biological grandchildren are there.3
Differing motivations to love and love deeply create yet another collision of agendas and needs. Stepfamily adults are often immediately highly motivated to create mutually trusting, loving relationships, while children need time to get there—and even then, may never desire the same depth that the adults do. Adult stepchildren are a good example. When a parent marries later in life, their adult children often think of their stepparent as “dad’s new wife.” That’s about as far as their motivation goes. Yes, they can be friendly, cordial, and respectful, but that’s a far cry from the “family” dream of their parent. In the end, the least motivated person determines the real definition of “six feet apart.”
Once again, the gap in motivation and the collision of agendas for closeness in the family create stress that ultimately result in social distancing in the marriage.
Finding Their Way Through the Ambiguity
As I write this, our society is debating whether it’s time to stop social distancing. A second debate centers on the rate at which businesses should open as we begin to move toward one another. More ambiguity. More negotiating togetherness or distance.
The “vaccine” for blended families is a similar journey as they slowly find their way through the ambiguity even as a new family identity emerges.
In part, what blended families need is guidance as they navigate the uncharted and unfamiliar territory of their stepfamily journey. Like the CDC educating us about the nature of the coronavirus and how to respond, blended families need informed guides who are able to calm fears, give perspective, teach practical how-tos, and offer hope that the social distancing will eventually no longer be necessary.
The exact social impact of the pandemic on our culture is yet to be seen. I’m sure we will be recalibrated in some ways. I’m confident we will adapt, and we will survive. Likewise, stepcouples who are given a map and guidelines to navigate the challenges facing their blended family, or “virus,” generally do well. They may not emerge as they dreamed—unrealistic expectations and hopes brought into the family will be recalibrated by blended family realities—but emerge they will.
Ron L. Deal is a licensed marriage and family therapist, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, founding Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series of books, including the bestselling Building Love Together in Blended Families: The 5 Love Languages® and Becoming Stepfamily Smart with Gary Chapman and The Smart Stepfamily: 7 Steps to a Healthy Family.
1. Ron L. Deal and David H. Olson (2015), The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family, Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, p. 44. See also my discussion in The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (2014), Ron L. Deal, Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, p. 102. The stepcouple divorce rate is tough to nail down. Much of our data is about remarriage; not all remarriages are stepcouples and not all stepcouples are remarried. Therefore, projecting the stepcouple divorce rate is difficult. Shaunti Feldhahn (The Good News About Marriage, p. 99) points out that only one-third of remarried couples have divorced (this does not, however, predict how many will, i.e., the expected divorce rate). Hetherington and Kelly found that stepcouples, specifically, had a divorce rate 50% higher than remarried couples without children (see E.M. Hetherington and J. Kelly, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, p. 178). If then, the current rate of remarriage divorce is 34% I estimate the current stepcouple divorce rate (those that have actually divorced) to be between 40-45%. The projected rate of divorce (an estimate of how many will divorce over their lifetime) could be considerably higher, but it is very difficult to calculate given the limitations of current research.
2. Ron L. Deal, "Better Safe Than Sorry: Co-Parenting in the Age of Social Distancing," U.S. News & World Reports, April, 2020.
3. Gary Chapman and Ron L. Deal (2020), Building Love Together in Blended Families: The Five Love Languages® and Becoming Stepfamily Smart, Chicago: Northfield Publishing, p. 17-18.