Joanna West examines the growing phenomenon of stepfamilies and how to manage the complicated relationships and feelings that can occur when two families live under one roof.
Despite changing lifestyles and ever-increasing personal mobility, it is still the family that remains the central element of contemporary life. Families offer companionship, security and a measure of protection in a sometimes uncertain world. Although the nuclear family – mum, dad and children coexisting under one roof, remains the most common, variations in family structure are plentiful – and very often successful.
A change in role
In earlier times, many stepfamilies were formed after the death of one of the parents. Today, divorce and separation are more frequently the events that precede the stepfamily formation. So, as we move towards a normative climate of joint-legal and joint-physical custody, step-parents are increasingly becoming supplementary parents, rather than replacement parents. Today, both biological parents are more likely to remain physically and emotionally present in the lives of their children. Often, these children will have two families who do not live under the same roof, creating a complex network of interpersonal family relationships.
In years gone by, when we imagined our futures, many of us envisaged ourselves becoming a parent but not many of us had anticipated becoming a step-parent. And yet here we are, committed to a new partner, with children from a previous relationship. Life throws you a curve ball and you end up somewhere you’d never expect.
Becoming a step-parent means upheaval. In this way it is no different from natural parenthood; you have suddenly acquired a huge responsibility and it’s not one that you can walk away from.
Just as a biological parent must embrace a whole new world of practical and emotional obligations, a step-parent must face up to the complex dynamics of stepfamily life. Your step-children, your partner and his or her ex-partner are all affected by your appearance on the scene. And if you have your own children, they too will be thrown by their new circumstances, as will your former partner.
All that was normal has gone and has been replaced by an unknown construct; the security of home has been disturbed and has stirred up the comfortable, settled patterns.
An open relationship
One of the biggest changes can be that parenting is no longer the domain of the married couple. The family becomes a more open structure with children typically moving in and out of parental homes. As a parent it is natural to put yourself at the centre of your child’s life, but from the child’s perspective if both parents want to be the centre, this can lead to loyalty problems. Parents have to put the child in the centre and be flexible and open-minded, allowing the child to form their own other perspective of what their family is, because we as parents cannot choose the best view for them.
A key element of a successful stepfamily is the acceptance that it is a different sort of a family, one where roles shift as different family members (ex spouses and children) come in and out of your life.
It should be said that it is a hard job, where stress, chaos and unpredictability become daily visitors but the intense feelings and complications that arise are completely normal and all the hard work does pay off.
Luxembourg, culture and the blended family
Luxembourg’s increasing divorce rate is creating a growing group of divorced or separated men and women who have children from their first marriage. Most remarry or cohabit and most find that stepfamily life is more complex than they ever imagined. It’s rife with complicated schedules, new relationships, and issues with ex-spouses and perhaps new spouses who have never been parents before. When a stepfamily sets up home in Luxembourg there are many other elements that come into play.
Luxembourg hosts over 170 nationalities and the number of foreigners living in Luxembourg is 269,200* (46.7%); combine this with a daily cross border workforce of 150,000+ it is highly probable that a new relationship will be cross-cultural.
One of the big questions with cross cultural stepfamilies in Luxembourg is language. Whilst having a shared language is not necessary for a happy family life, not having one can bring challenges.
Language is an important part of communication, it is the key to instructing, directing and expressing. If you can’t do these properly misunderstandings can occur which in turn lead to conflict.
For many couples there will be a natural set of compromises to which both partners adjust naturally over time. For others, the differences can be fundamental; the loyalty we feel towards our own culture and traditions can make it difficult to understand another’s. A large amount of what we say, do, think, believe and to some extent, feel – is shaped by the culture we come from. Culture is for the most part invisible; we hardly notice it until we are forced to step outside and see it from another perspective.
By taking the best of the different cultures and integrating ideas, you can create a new family with an extremely positive dynamic, where each appreciates the other.
The extended benefits of extended families
Living as part of a stepfamily can put most partnerships under great strain, since the complex structure comprises biological parents and grandparents, step-parents and step-grandparents, siblings, half-siblings and step-siblings… The potential for stress is enormous, but there is also the increased potential for a large support network if everyone communicates openly and cooperates in a fair manner.
The benefits are boundless. To receive love from a person who was once a stranger, to succeed at creating a home where all the children can become full of confidence can yield immense happiness. Being part of such a process is one of the major things that creates meaning in a parent’s life.
Questions and Answers
Stepfamilies in Luxembourg can be complex, full of critical questions requiring considered decisions. Questions such as language and communication? Live close to ex-spouse or not? A new home, change of school and friends? How to integrate family and extended family? Family values? Discipline? Expectations? All indicate change, change, change….and with change comes instability, disruption and stress. It can take a long time for stepfamilies to settle down and get used to living under one roof. This phase of adjustment can last at least 2 years, during which, everyone is feeling their way. With time and trust, stability and relations build and become stronger.
When daily life confronts you with challenges here are some ways to lessen the impact:
- Life isn’t easy but look for the good; acknowledge, remember and be grateful for the happy moments
- You can’t control how other people are going to act but you can control how you react
- The way people treat you is more about them than you. If someone does something that you feel is unreasonable, change your perspective and reduce your stress by asking yourself, ‘what’s going on in their life to make them act like that?’
- There are different relationship dynamics and every step-family is different, don’t let the expectations of others decide what you should do. You are the expert in your life.
- Be empathic, put yourself in someone else’s shoes. If you can remember that all people act from a position of positive intent it can reduce stress and make situations easier to tolerate.
Most of all, have an open-mind, reduce expectations, learn from and enjoy your new experiences!
Copyright 2016: Joanna West
Photo: Jon Ottosson / Unsplash