Whether we realize it or not, stepfamilies likely assume a specific integration style. By that, I mean a set of assumptions about how a stepfamily ‘ought’ to come together. I like to use cooking as an analogy to identify some integration styles that stepfamilies attempt to utilize. Let’s start with the ones that generally don’t work.
What’s your style?
Blender. This mentality assumes all ingredients can be whipped together into one smooth mixture. I’m sure we’re all aware that the most common term used to refer to the stepfamily is “blended family.” But those of us who specialize in stepfamily therapy and education do not use the term “blended family” simply because most stepfamilies do not blend–and if they do, someone usually gets creamed in the process! When cooking, blending is a process by which we combine ingredients into one fluid mixture: think of a fruit smoothie or a cream soup. Rarely can it be said that a stepfamily becomes ‘one’ in a relational sense. More realistic is a process by which the various parts integrate, or come into contact with one another, much like a casserole of distinct parts.
It is quite normal for a stepparent to have close bonds with one stepchild, be working on bonds with another, while experiencing a distant relationship with an older child.
Relationships will be different within the same stepfamily, not one fluid mixture.
Food processor. These stepfamilies chop up one another’s history and attempt to instantly combine all ingredients with rapid speed. When love doesn’t occur right away, people are left feeling torn to pieces; no one remains whole.
A classic example of this mentality is the adult who demands that the stepchildren call their stepparent “daddy” or “mommy.” It is as if the child is told, “We’ve chopped up your real dad and thrown him to the side. This is your new dad.” Some parents actually think their children will buy that.
Microwave. These families refuse to be defined as a stepfamily and seek to heat the ingredients in rapid fashion so as to become a ‘nuke-lier’ family (pun intended). They avoid labels like stepfamily and the implication that they are different from any other family. People tell me they resent being called a stepfamily, because it makes them feel second-rate. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a stepfamily; it is neither better nor worse than other family types, just different.
Let me emphasize this point. No matter how desperately we may want our stepfamilies to be like a biological family, it simply cannot be. It is true that every stepfamily has aspects that are reflective of biological families. But every stepfamily also has unique characteristics that differ from biological families. Some parts function the same; some don’t.
A major barrier to healthy stepfamily adjustment is a parenting team that denies this reality. Consciously or unconsciously, people often try to make their home to be just like their family of origin or their first family–only better. “After all,” someone might say, “the Brady Bunch did it. Why can’t we?”
Coming to accept each family’s unique challenges and opportunities is a tremendous first step to finding creative solutions to family dilemmas. If we refuse to admit a difference, we inadvertently shut off our ability to learn new, more effective ways of relating.