Strengthening Your Stepfamily: Part 6


From the onset, a stepfamily has several moving parts that a first family doesn’t encounter. For the children in a stepfamily, it is an overwhelming amount of change and can feel destabilizing. Studies have shown that that the most disrupting factor for children is not divorce, but exposure to parental conflict (Fosco & Grych, 2008, Amato & Afifi, 2006.) Conflict between ex-spouses is usually highest in the early years after a divorce.

When re-coupling occurs in a stepfamily during these early years, it often fans the flame of conflict. Unfortunately, all too often, children get pulled into the middle.

The mother-stepmother relationship is typically a very difficult relationship to manage. For many women, their identity and role is tied to being a mother.  Therefore, challenges in this area can feel very personal and overwhelming. Father and stepfathers actually generally have less struggles in their relationship (Papernow, 2013). When the parent-stepparent relationship is difficult, the children suffer.

Strong co-parenting skills are the healthiest for the children. Keeping the children out of the middle is key. However, when re-coupling occurs, co-parenting can feel like an outsider is in your business.

Here are some ideas for helping you to manage your new relationship with an ex-partner.

  • Make a commitment not to share any negative details about the ex with the children.
  • Work directly with the ex. Avoid using the children as a go between.
  • Reassure the ex that you and your partner have no intentions of replacing them.
  • You don’t need to like one another, but you do need to respect one another.

Developing a healthy relationship with the ex is all about helping the children and minimizing conflict within your new stepfamily.


Written By: Jackie Dunagan, LAMFT


Amato, P. R. and Afifi, T. D. (2006), Feeling Caught Between Parents: Adult Children’s Relations with Parents and Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68: 222–235. doi:10.1111/j.1741-

Fosco, G. M., & Grych, J. H. (2008). Emotional, Cognitive, and Family Systems Mediators of Children’s Adjustment to Interparental Conflict. Journal of Family Psychology : JFP : Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 22(6), 843–854.

Papernow, P. L. (2013). Surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships: what works and what doesn’t. New York: Routledge.