Joined in marriage in mature life, they sought a new vision for family, for ministry, for life, never knowing how hard it would be.
He had daughters, three beautiful creations. She had never been married before. He felt called by God, after the grief of a failed first marriage, into a ‘second chance’. He had spent three long years as a single. After a brief courtship, they were engaged and then married.
Whilst the scenario is specific to this family, the phenomenon of conflict in step families is remarkably common.
They were in their first year of marriage when his eldest daughter moved in. It was a pivotal phase in her life. She was at a crossroads in her schooling, lacking purpose and vision, but subsequently found her path. She had also been brought up in a particular way, as we all are, and she was processing much of her own stuff, bravely and painfully, considering it was only five years before that that her father and mother had separated, less than four years since they divorced. Again, she was at a pivotal age when the separation occurred, and the period since had been littered with difficulty.
She had a special relationship with her father, and their relationship was to cause marital issues, because a marriage is the uniting of flesh and spirit. The relationship the father and daughter shared was how they survived the breakdown of their family. But, there are only two partners in marriage. The couple learned this in their marriage counselling sessions. They went regularly to their counsellor for two years. The father did not want to let go of the relationship he had with his daughter. He couldn’t see the problem initially. But he did eventually see. He began to see that marriage is a oneness that is vital for the family unit to function. Some change to the relationship was inevitable.
For two whole years, family life was difficult for all three in the home. But a transition was made based on the advice and encouragement of the counsellor and the changes the couple made. Conflict seemed to be a daily challenge and crises occurred at least weekly.
The couple realised that if the wife was to have her husband’s full support, that support for the daughter regarding family issues would need to come from another loved one. It was a system that worked, thankfully, because the daughter’s new support was from a dearly loved grandmother. It wasn’t uncommon for them both to talk for an hour or more when she needed support.
The father compensated for not being his daughter’s support during family tension by regularly dating her, where she could talk about anything. With his daughter knowing she had support for certain family matters she shared anything but that with her father.
After a couple of years, the family structure had settled down. The dynamic had changed. Yes, it took that long. And this is what was learned. When step family dynamics are at their destructive height, both partners to the marriage — the parents/stepparents — must unite, and in a proactive, serving way. Through working together, they provide leadership through serving each family member and the family as a whole.
In uniting, parents in a step family must have agreed values and boundaries, and they must communicate about everything, expecting conflict to be a normal feature of family life. Agreeing on a complex array of matters takes time, effort, and much trial and error. Ongoing forgiveness is a vital commitment each adult must make, as they help the family process change. Mature adults accept that children and teens need help. They know that expecting adult behaviours is a stretch too far, but they do strive to include conflict resolution as a family journey. Nothing as far as conflict is concerned is off limits in the family dialogue, as it’s accepted that all are learning, mistakes are normal, and nothing is final.
Stepping into step family life is easy, stepping out is a constant temptation in conflict, and stepping up is hard. But when adults persevere and are patient, persisting with their long-term vision together, with a commitment to work through conflict and endure inevitable pain, step families do survive, grow, and thrive.