Annoyed father sitting on sofa while kids fighting and teasing each other at home

“What can we do to save our marriage?” and “How do I feel some peace?” are the two questions I am asked most frequently as a stepfamily coach. It is hard to top what Eckhart Tolle, world renowned teacher of profound personal transformation, says, “The quality of our consciousness at this moment is what shapes the future.”

Although there is an abundance of evidence for what works in a stepfamily, it is one thing to mentally know how to improve the situation, another to be ready to do it.

“If your mind carries a heavy burden of the past, you will experience more of the same,” Tolle explains in his discussion of negativity and suffering in “The Power of Now.” This begs the question of how to avoid pushing our selves and our partner to the brink as we scramble to heal our past conditioning and wounds so they are not so triggered by stepfamily dynamics.

Becoming ready for a stepfamily overhaul is largely a matter of getting to “done,” then standing at that crossroads wanting to be with our partner more than with our obsolete “should.” Our partner senses this commitment. We begin again. Take heart, although changing habits of thought and reaction happens gradually, the process does move us away from the edge.

Imagining this process as a journey, we find peaceful stepfamilies at these coordinates:

  1. Partners have realistic expectations based on expert advice.
  2. Each partner takes care of their own physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, social and professional health.
  3. The biological parent disciplines his or her own children.
  4. Partners collaboratively structure the household rules and roles to achieve consistency and emotional safety for everyone.
  5. Partners keep strong boundaries between the relationship and ex’s, in-laws, and children.

While there is no wormhole that will instantly take us from stepfamily shock to stepfamily peace, research shows that the following steps are like “shock absorbers” along the way. They smooth the road enough to increase trust, calm, stamina and clarity. The following “10 Great Steps” heal and strengthen our stepfamilies.

  1. Prepare
  2. Lay a Solid Foundation
  3. Practice Neutral Noticing
  4. Be Merciful
  5. Be Savvy
  6. Connect in New Ways
  7. Use Professional Help
  8. Take Charge
  9. Close the Gap Between Expectations and Reality
  10. Ease Up

If one thing will get in the way of putting these 10 Great Steps into practice, it is ourselves. Similarly, one thing makes it possible – ourselves. In addiction recovery groups it is said about relapse that, “It starts with the first think.” The same is true for getting clean and sober and for getting out from rock bottom in our stepfamilies. We must master ourselves.

To begin, I suggest first noticing which of the following proven examples of the Great Steps already come easily to you or your partner. Then, conjure up gratitude for those strengths. Neurobiology tells us that gratitude improves mental function and problem solving. (Which can only help!)

Then, what would you like to focus on next? What do your instincts say you can most easily handle trying out this month? It takes time, so choose one or two and be patient with yourself and each other. Apply the 10 Great Steps one manageable step at a time.

Here are examples of what research has shown to be the most powerful ways to apply the 10 Great Steps:

Prepare. If not yet legally partnered (finances and property not merged), complete a premarital stepfamily consultation to help anticipate the finances of raising a stepfamily and any legal preparations appropriate to the state in which you will live together. Locate and select an expert stepfamily professional to work with as needed for the years to come, just as a primary doctor, dentist, and mechanic are part of the team for routine and emergent support.

Pre-schedule annual check-ins with a stepfamily professional. Assess own physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, financial, and professional health in relation to what you consider to be indicators of health for each of those areas. Set goals for each area.

Lay a Solid Foundation. Address the health of the nervous system with such healthful practices as whole foods nutrition, herbs, filtered water, healthy fats, movement, nature, rest, laughter, ceremony, gardening, restorative breathing and yoga, singing, playing music, art, therapeutic writing, grief work, recovery groups, support circles, sexual moderation (to reduce impact on dopamine levels), regular medical testing for hormonal balance and vitamin and mineral levels.

Ask yourself if you are experiencing shock, grief, overwhelm or other constant state. Naming a feeling (without telling a story about it) in moments of stress activates the problem-solving brain state.

These Great Steps add up to grace under pressure. Even with pre-marital preparation, the sobering fact for stepcouples is that in the newlywed years most of us experience psychological shock and midwife our partners through a great deal of fear, grief and confusion while experiencing those feelings ourselves.

Because pain of any sort impairs empathy, at times we may believe we are the only one suffering. We may demand care from our partner while overlooking that they also need it from us, and leave them in the dark alone.  

Put plainly, possibly the most pivotal way to give a stepfamily a chance is to step back, loosen up, bless the mess and not demand instant gratification, otherwise a crushing pressure breaks trust and sabotages what is possible. It is make it or break it time.

The next most common question I am asked is “How long is long enough to be unsatisfied with my stepfamily?” The answer depends on the stamina of each partner. It also depends on how long each partner believes that the hard work of getting to peace is worth it. We may feel “done”, but must make a choice between being done with our partner or being done with our own ways of reacting.

Practice Neutral Noticing. Observe stepfamily dynamics, which requires interrupting the habit of getting caught up in them. Recognize which of the Big Six stepfamily dynamics (described at StepfamilyServices.org) are happening each time they occur and making a note of it in a notebook, digital device or other method until a pattern emerges for type of dynamics most emotionally challenging, days and times they tend to occur, and what the typical responses by each person have been.

Realize that a successful stepfamily feels and acts differently from a nuclear family and this is normal. Notice what in the romantic relationship has nothing to do with the children.

Be Merciful. Give each person time and physical space to adjust to stepfamily life, an amount of time and space that is figured out in the process, rather than known ahead of time. Release the grip on what “should” be by letting go of examples/expectations/ideals of nuclear family so that you can design a stepfamily that works for the unique circumstances of your particular stepfamily. Express appreciation as much as possible to our partner using their language of love, even when we do not feel totally satisfied by the circumstances.

Be Savvy. Use a challenge to inspire the creation and use of a strategy, just as athletes use challenges to focus energy, build muscle, develop specific techniques, stamina and confidence. Create a strategy that is realistic for a stepfamily, for each of the four areas of the Stepfamily Services system, Steps-4-Stepstm: Getting Expert Help, Getting Real, Getting a Life, Getting Together.

Create a strategy that is realistic for each person involved – authentically one that each partner can handle long term. Use a strategy for each of the four areas of Steps-4-Stepstm.Get help from babysitters, drivers, house cleaners, tutors for the kids, stepfamily experts, etc., as needed.

Connect in New Ways. As a stepparent, place emphasis on connecting rather than correcting. As a partner, place emphasis on connecting rather than correcting. As a parent, talk with children about your relationship with them and what you need from them regarding their behaviors.

As a parent-in-step, allow for some relationship messiness with children as everyone adjusts and new stepfamily culture and boundaries are being established. As a parent-in-step, reflect on how marriage or commitment vows made to partner can be carried out in relation to their lack of authority in stepfamily. Brainstorm radically out-of-the box ways to configure your lives so that children are nurtured and the couple is nurtured.

These Great Steps add up to self-mastery. They help us get out of our own way in the world, not just in our stepfamily. Each is a personal path that brings us more into the present. There are few situations that will provoke as much soul searching and transformation as will entering into a stepfamily

I often hear, “Years of therapy did not reveal these issues. I thought I had it all together!” or “Why can’t I stop reacting this way?” (vs. “Why can’t they stop making me feel this way?”) This is why stepfamily life is a phenomenal opportunity for personal transformation. Shadows come into the light.

Existential questions naturally arise, “Why am I alive? Who am I? Am I really all alone when I hurt?

Do I have a choice about how to be? How do I choose to show up in the world?”

Use Professional Help. As a parent-in-step, parent (as a verb). When parenting (setting limits, nurturing, teaching, etc.) presents a significant risk to the continued relationship with child(ren) due to the other bio-parent's influence, see a professional stepfamily counselor or coach for private individual support for help with what might be parental alienation syndrome.

Painful topics are spoken of mostly with professionals and peers in stepfamilies rather than partners.

Recognize that depression and grief change how we perceive our situation, decreasing the chance of making effective choices. Seek professional mental health support for grief, sense-of-abandonment or PTSD triggered by stepfamily dynamics. Receive professional support for mental health.

Take Charge. Each partner takes care of their own physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and professional health. Each partner keeps strong boundaries so that their relationship with each other is safe from relationships with ex-spouses and in-laws. Put agreements in writing about visitation, manners, boundaries, and money.

Parent provides nurturing-but-firm parenting to their own children. Take ownership of mental state and decisions. For the parent-in-step, learn how to avoid "throwing the stepparent under the bus."

Close the Gap between Expectations and Reality. Accept (or at least adapt to) the outsider and insider/in-the-middle positions. Ask self, “What is realistic for a stepfamily?” or “What is realistic to expect from a child of this age?” or “What is realistic to expect from a divorced parent?”

Perceive stress as mental cue to meet a challenge. List the blessings of being in your stepfamily. Do this frequently. Resist the urge to force an outcome. Step back to allow some messiness in parenting and growing up.

Write job and role descriptions. Flex with changes. Write up a stepfamily management plan with partner. Use positive communication skills. Pause before responding, for a minute or longer to reflect, to encourage own personal growth. Affirm self, especially when it seems no one else is doing it.

Focus on what you have control over. Decide which areas in which to cut the partner some slack. Take problems less personally. Feel more empowered (rather than think that our experience is caused only by other people).

Ease Up. Use relaxation skills. Focus mental and emotional energy on what it takes to build safe connections over years of time, rather than on any lack of connection so far. Strengthen a stepfamily relationship without it having to look or feel like a nuclear family relationship.

Shift toward habits of gratitude. Take time away from the stepfamily by socializing, exercising, meditating, studying, singing, working, painting, writing, praying, volunteering, etc. Share quality time with partner without talking about stepfamily issues.

Rarely do stepparents or their partners have frank conversations with other steps. Although we are the majority of families in America, we can feel like we are alone. However, steps who have met other steps have described epiphanies, such as the fact that other steps have faced the same types of pain and have made it through, and that self-pity, not pain, left unchecked will dissolve us and our stepfamilies in our own juices. It becomes clear that no matter what, once in a stepfamily, dramatic shifts will happen.

With vision or faith or sheer desperation we reach across an abyss and grab the strong hand of who we will become. “What a caterpillar calls the end of the world, we call a butterfly,” Tolle reassures us.

Did you know that when once-gorging caterpillars lose their heads their transformation process begins? When wings are made strong by optimal resistance against the cocoon, butterflies can push free and fly. It’s corny but true.

Now, for the short answer to those agony-laced “how” questions: Stepfamily peace is a daily habit, not a destination. Overtime we more gracefully push against our own comfort zone, cultural conditioning and past hurts to meet our life partner in the present moment enhanced by the personal rewards of the process.

Stepfamily peace does come at a price, which I believe is worth paying – creating a lifestyle of commitment to doing the next right thing, one present moment at a time.

Iishana Artra, PhD teaches “StepMoms and StepCouples – Getting to Peacetm” and “Steps-4-Stepstm” systems for adjusting to stepfamily life. Visit stepfamilyservices.org for more details. To learn about Dr. Artra’s new weekly group and 4-day retreat, email StepfamilyServices@gmail.com.