Stepfamilies

Books

Bonnell, Karen S., and Patricia L. Papernow. The Stepfamily Handbook: From Dating to Getting Serious, to Forming a “Blended Family”. CMC, 2019.

                The word “blended” often conjures up the thought of a perfect homogenized mixtures, and in stepfamilies, that is not the experience. “Next-time” families (Bonnell & Papernow’s term) appear more like a fruit salad, physically together but clearly very distinct parts. They are significantly different in culture, formation, and memory bank from a first-time families and should be treated gently as such. Stepfamily formation is much closer to an intercultural relationship, which has its own challenges that couples must grapple with beyond general relationship challenges. A couple in love is eager to join lives and be together. Many of these next-time couples have difficulty recognizing or admitting that the experience is completely different for the children from the first-time families. Just as the couple is enjoying becoming more significant to one another and being more known to the important people in one another’s lives, their children are encountering large, conflicted emotions and managing loyalty bonds. Co-parents have possibly deep emotions, especially if there has been lingering hostility, and even extended family have strong and not all together supportive emotions about the new relationship, especially if infidelity was the next-time family’s start. Bonnell is a nurse specialist who coaches families in divorce and stepfamily formation, whereas Dr. Papernow is considered a world-renowned expert of stepfamilies. She both consults with clinicians how to work with next-time families as well as counsels stepfamilies. Together, they have nearly 75 cumulative years working with stepfamilies. Despite their clear expert level expertise, their book is accessible and written toward the general public. Even the list of recommend websites and books for further reading is all material aimed toward the general public. Bonnell & Papernow do a great job introducing stepfamilies (and even clinicians who pick up this book) to the topic. The book is broken down into four parts, illuminating parents dating other people and what it’s like for people to date parents. Very early on, Bonnell and Papernow layout the unique challenges of stepfamily life which have traditionally not received much discussion. While again, the newness and excitement of love makes parents want to introduce everyone right away, with children, slow and steady is the key. Bonnell and Papernow offer insight as to when it’s time to introduce kids to a date (only if you think the relationship truly might be a long-haul one) and how parents can feel their own emotions of love while being steady and present and taking things slow for their children. The authors press that of course this isn’t what the new couple wants to hear, but being diligent in these early on creates better chances for healthy and at least warmer relationships later on than if everything is rushed. If you are getting the idea that effective stepfamily formation takes lots of forethought, emotional maturity, and empathy, you are getting Bonnell and Papernow’s main message. In the latter half of the book, the authors define clearly how next-time families differ from first-time ones in five significant ways: children’s losses about their parents’ relationships, loyalty bonds, and change; inside/outsider positions of stepfamily members, conflicts about child discipline, co-parents form the stepfamily, and navigating and ultimately coming to respect differences. If these challenges are not worked on with good spirit and goodwill, especially by the next-time couple, the stepfamily will most likely end up a rocky road of disharmony. Bonnell and Papernow also spend a little time dissecting older stepfamily formation (in “gray divorces”) along with how stepfamilies can respectfully and loving separate if need be. If you are a next-time couple (and if one or both of you has children from a previous relationship, you are in a next-time family), this is an excellent book to help you walk through what the experience is like for children and how you can (with time and care) give your next-time family the best possible start. If you are in a first-time family or are a couple where one or both of you grew up in a stepfamily, this book is still highly recommended for one or both of you to understand and better process the experience.

Articles

Aletta, Elvira. “What Makes a Family Functional vs. Dysfunctional?” Psych Central, 15 Dec. 2009, https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-makes-a-family-functional-vs-dysfunctional#1

Clark-Jones, Terry. “Qualities of a Healthy Family.” Michigan State University, 2 April 2018, https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/traits_of_a_healthy_family

“Functional vs. Dysfunctional Families.” Brown University, adapted from UIUC, n.d., https://www.brown.edu/campus-life/support/counseling-and-psychological-services/dysfunctional-family-relationships

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