The Need to Have Some Control 

The third need the Vishers discovered is innate to all of us is the (3) need to have a sense of control in our lives. This can sound like an oxymoron when it comes to stepfamily living, especially given all the outside factors At times it can seem like everyone else has more control than you do over what takes place in your home.

A great way to combat this is for you and your partner to sit down and establish an agreed upon plan. Follow these tips to get the conversation started:

1. Avoid harsh start-ups by using “I” statements. For example, "I feel ________ when _________. I recommend __________. What are your thoughts?"

2. Take it slowly and start small. Looking at a typical day, think about see where you and your partner may be butting heads due to lack of planning or the unexpected popping up. Use these are starting points to brainstorm solutions.

3. If your plan doesn’t go according “to plan,” that’s okay. Things that are worth having require effort … even if it takes longer than expected. 


The Need to Belong

The second need the Vishers found that is hard-wired in each of us is (2) the need to belong. This is a tough one when it comes to stepfamily living because someone is genetically removed from other family members.

But while there's no way around this fact of stepfamily life, there are things you can do to create an environment where a sense of belonging has a chance to develop. Remember the 3Rs; rules, roles and responsibilities … we discussed them a few months back. The 3Rs create structure and in doing so create safety and security in a stepfamily. Thus, lowering anxiety and giving stepfamily members a chance to feel as if they do belong.

Here's a recap of the 3Rs:

  1. Rules. Simply expectations for the household, establishing rules clearly communicates to all stepfamily members—including yourself—what's acceptable behavior and what's not.
  2. Roles. Acknowledge the role each family member plays. The stepparent is the stepparent, the parent is the parent, and the child is the child. Discuss how each will be defined in your stepfamily and proceed slowly. Stepfamily life takes time to evolve with leading stepfamily researcher Patricia Papernow, EdD indicating it can take an average of seven years for a stepfamily to integrate where members experience intimacy and authenticity in these relationships.
  3. Responsibilities. This is not a repeat of the rules above. Instead, this refers to each family member’s responsibility to both themselves and to each other. All stepfamily members have the responsibility to show respect to others. From here the responsibilities become more role specific. For example, the stepparent is responsible to model the behavior they would like in return, to their partner and to themselves. The degree of responsibility to the stepchild is not a given; rather it is determined by the couple. And finally the parent has responsibility to their partner to make their relationship a priority, to their child to create a loving and nurturing environment and to themselves. They also have a responsibility to their child's other biological parent to co-parent in a healthy manner. 


The Need to Feel Appreciated

Ever feel like your swimming upstream as a stepparent? The work of psychologist Emily Visher and psychiatrist John Visher offers an explanation for this phenomenon. Bringing four children each into their marriage, the Vishers discovered that the stepfamily structure itself conflicts with basic human needs. According to them we all have three hard-wired needs, the first being (1) the need to feel appreciated.

Sound familiar? Whether it's purposeful or a byproduct of stepfamily life, one of the chief complaints from my (stepfamily) clients is that they feel underappreciated in their homes. So what can you do about it?

Implement these 3 five things to start harvesting your own appreciation:

  1. Tell. In a non-accusatory way, let your partner know how you feel. Using "I" statements don't place blame, instead let them know it's nice to hear a 'thank you' now and then.
  2. Act. Implement 'little tokens of appreciation.' It's important to remember that these are not necessarily material things; rather they are gestures such as hello and goodbye that go a long way to acknowledge another's presence and sends the message that you're open to engaging with them.
  3. Reflect. Take responsibility for how you come across to your stepfamily members. Are your actions welcoming appreciation or do they discourage them? You must start with creating a demeanor that allows appreciation to occur whether derived by yourself or someone else. If you don’t show yourself appreciation how can you expect others to follow suit?  



Brave Enough To Accept Certain Stepfamily Truths

The facts:

  • Your partner had a child with someone else. You cannot change this fact.
  • You are a biological outsider, just as your stepchild is a biological outsider to you.
  • Your stepchild has a right to both of their biological parents.
  • Stepparents and stepchildren do not have to like each other … but they must show respect towards each other. This is how we are raised to treat others and the identification as 'step' does not nullify this lesson.
  • The notion of 'kill them with kindness' may actually work against you in a stepfamily. You should treat others as you desire to be treated in return. Going overboard, though, is unnecessary.

This list could go on and on and one … point being there are many stepfamily truths that cannot be eradicated. They are what they are. And as a fellow stepparent I don’t necessarily like this but it’s the reality of being in a stepfamily.

So instead of trying to change things out of your control, focus on what you can control. What's that? Your reaction to stepfamily life. 


Brave Enough to Be Authentic

Close your eyes for a moment and recall how you've spent the last 24 hours. What were your actions? Were they congruent, or in harmony, with your thoughts and feelings at the time?

In my experience with stepparents—particularly stepmoms—I've found a common phenomenon where the desire to protect the feelings of others or the uncertainty as to what to say or do are drivers for masking one's true self. As a result many individuals living in 'step' function in what could be called a false sense of being. While the reasons typically cited come from a place of caring it all too often results in resentment and a loss of self-identity.

How do you counter this? First, you acknowledge the fact that no one is a mind reader and although you may think your partner should know you well enough to be able to anticipate how something will make you think or feel, this is an unfair proposition that only sets you up for disappointment. Second, you give your thoughts and feelings a voice. They are far too important to leave to someone else to figure out.

If some topics are touchy or you're unsure how to broach something, follow these tips:

  1. Start small. Discuss one thing at a time despite if you have a laundry list of things to tackle. Unloading too much can backfire and have your partner instantly on the defensive.
  2. Use "I" statements. By doing so you take ownership of what you're communicating. The alternative is simply you passing the buck. How can you hold someone else accountable if you aren't able to do the same?
  3. Highlight the positive. If something's working be sure to point it out; being hyper-focused on only areas needing improvement will cause you to miss what's already working in your favor.
  4. Be transparent. If you’re unsure what to say or do share your uncertainty. You may find out the other person is just as unsure as you and they'll appreciate knowing they're not alone.