Print Posted by Virginia L Colin, Ph.D. on 12/14/2016

Realistic Happy Middles for Stepfamilies

Realistic Happy Middles for Stepfamilies

I divorced early in the 1990’s. That left me with four minor children and no money. Really - less than $100 in the bank.

Being exhausted almost all the time (eventual diagnosis was chronic fatigue syndrome) and having two traumatized preschoolers, I was not in a good position to earn a living. My ex refused to believe that I was physically ill and paid very little child support. I slowly worked my way up in health and in employment opportunities.

Given that I was a single mom with four kids, I did not think any man worth having would be interested in me, but I did a little exploratory dating. A few years after my divorce, much to our surprise, I fell in love with a guy who loved me first. Magic!

We married after a short courtship. We should have taken a year to get to know each other and each other’s kids better first, but in our case there were reasons to move quickly. Suddenly all of us were living in a new house — him, his two kids, me, and my two minor kids. Together we had kids in grades 5, 6, 7, and 8. Unfortunately, they did not readily become friends with each other. Also the way he and his kids interacted was radically different from the way my kids and I interacted. Consequently life in our not-much-blended family was very stressful for the first year. Also we made one of the biggest mistakes stepparents often make: He began disciplining

Perhaps there is little to learn from my story apart from the fact that sometimes things work out. Mike loved me as no one before in my life had ever loved me. He still does, seventeen years later. We met with a therapist but found that she did not have the right skills or wisdom to help our family much. The kids were so unhappy with that experience that they did not want to see whether a different therapist could do better. So we muddled through on our own. Family meetings were crucial. Giving our pre-teens and teens a say in what the family rules would be made it possible for all of us to get along.

As time passed, the kids calmed down, grew up, and moved on into their own adult lives. We never had a happy blended family like the fictitious Brady Bunch, but each of the kids knew that we cared a lot and would support them as they grew. And they saw a husband and wife living together with love, respect, and kindness — something they could not have seen in my first marriage or in my husband’s first marriage.

As a family, we didn’t live happily ever after, but we did have a lot of happy times together mixed in with all the stresses of merging families and raising teenagers. My husband and I can’t know how our relationship will be a decade from now, but we know we have a long middle period in our lives that is happy and real. When my health improved and the kids needed less of my time and attention, I worked my way into a rewarding second career as a professional family mediator, so that aspect of my life also has a happy middle.

Trying to figure out what I did and copy it would not do you much good. What I do recommend for people embarking on stepfamily life is listening to my interview with stepfamily expert Patricia Papernow or reading her book on the topic. And I recommend enjoying the happy middles without worrying about the ever afters!


Formerly a research psychologist, Virginia L. Colin, Ph.D. has been providing family mediation services since 1999. She has written two books: Human Attachment (1996) and, with Rebecca Martin, The Guide to Low-Cost Divorce in Virginia (2014). She is also an Internet talk radio show host on Family Matters. Her website is Colin Family Mediation Group

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