Stepfamily relationships are among the most volatile on Earth. While many families succeed in maintaining functional and civil relationships on both sides of the family, the ghost yard of stepfamilies past is littered with epic tales of the animosity shown between a new husband and wife and the other side of the family. If this is your first venture into stepfamily territory, it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

What makes stepfamily relationships so difficult?

Stepfamilies are built upon the ashes of the old family. Unfortunately, many of these ashes are still simmering, and there may even be giant piles of burning embers buried beneath it all. These embers of discontent may reside in a stepchild, a former spouse, or even other extended family. Either way, they can come flaring back to life to try and destroy the new structure being built.

When children are involved, there’s also a shared link between the new and the old. Anytime you take two separate families with two different sets of competing interests and make them tap-dance around the same shared resources, there’s going to be conflict. This happens even when there isn’t a lot of shared animosity between them. Each side is going to focus on their own needs. They’re going to have their own set of grievances, and each will think the other side is being unfair whenever something doesn’t suit their interests.

The following account is pretty typical of the type of things that go on when sharing children between two households: “Their phone calls came at all hours. Whatever we were doing had to be dropped to discuss travel plans or other visitation problems. …After visits, the other parents gave the children ‘messages’ to transmit back to us – usually negative ones. There were other interchanges – mostly unpleasant ones. We yelled at each other. We called each other names. We argued endlessly over money and ended up in court when we were unable to resolve the issues on our own. It seemed as if we were infected with a contagious, ongoing anger which we passed back and forth among ourselves. The intensity of their hostility toward us was matched only by the intensity of our hostility toward them. Anger – and shared children – linked us together. It also drained a lot of energy.

“For the children, the situation was extremely difficult. They felt caught in the middle. They were tense both before and after visitation. They hated the threats of ‘going to court’ and the never-ending arguments over money.” (Artlip et al., 1993, p. 130) Such childishness cuts both ways, with many new husbands and new wives taking the initiative to act just as ugly towards the ex as exes sometimes act towards them. One mother says that her husband’s new wife wouldn’t answer the phone, wouldn’t attend school events if she thought the girl’s mother would also be there, and in general just acted like a real twerp. Then after about 5 years, when both were married and pregnant, she suddenly opened up. “I could see my daughter’s relief when she observed how civilized her mother and stepmother finally were,” this mother writes. “I guess time just took care of things.” (Shimberg, 1999, p. 36)

It doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, the quote above demonstrates just how needless and silly much of this conflict is. These two women feuded and bickered for 5 years, hurting the child in the process, then simply decided to stop. Wouldn’t it be great if we never allowed these wars to get going in the first place? This chapter and the next one will help you make this dream a reality.