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Second-half Stepfamilies


Ron L. Deal


            Most people are very surprised to learn that adult stepfamilies, that is, those that are formed in the second-half of life and include adult stepchildren, have just as many transitions as stepfamilies with younger children.  Some of the transitional issues are different, but many are the same. 

            Lorain, a reader of my monthly E-Magazine for stepfamilies, wrote asking how she might strengthen her relationship with her 19, 24, and 26 year-old stepchildren.  “I was 49 when I married for the first time; my husband was 55.  His first wife died a couple years before we met.  My husband kept his children up to date about our relationship and things were pretty civil until we married.  His oldest daughter cried loudly through the entire wedding ceremony.  A few months later one of the children asked how my husband’s will was structured implying that I shouldn’t get anything.  From there things have continued to go downhill at a rapid pace.” 

            Lorain’s experience is not uncommon, nor is her idealistic assumption that a marriage with adult children who no longer live in the home will not be impacted by the dynamics of loss and loyalty.  Thankfully, adult children and stepparents do not have the same power battles that younger stepfamilies experience because the stepparent is not trying to get the children to pick up their socks or choose better friends.  But adult stepchildren and older stepparents still have many emotional issues to work through, feel threatened by each other, and struggle with how the new marriage will impact familiar family relationships.  Finding peace takes effort on both sides.

The New Couple

            When Daniel’s 35 year-old son told him that he “just wanted him to be happy” the widower assumed his son was giving him permission to remarry.  He wasn’t.  What the son meant was, “I would hope that mom’s memory will keep you happy enough.”  Daniel assumed he had his son’s blessing and got married.  His son’s withdraw from contact alerted him to the problem at hand. 

            As an older parent and stepparent you must realize that adult stepchildren—despite their age—frequently feel:

  • fearful of being abandoned or isolated from their only remaining parent.  Unfortunately, they have already tasted grief in a very real way; your marriage may renew or intensify this sadness. 
  • loyal to their original family.  Maintaining a strong family identity is important for adult children.  Accepting a stepparent means the established family ties and special family holidays and celebrations must stretch to make room for newcomers.  This isn't easy and frankly it hurts.  Please don't take this personally—it’s not really about you.  It's about home no longer feeling like home. 
  • disloyal toward the divorced or deceased parent and guilty about letting the stepparent in. 
  • jealous and replaced by their parent’s new partner.  They may have been the "apple of their parent's eye" but now the stepparent holds the key to the parent’s heart (and time and energy). 
  • concerned about the family finances.  Money issues are common and must be addressed.  Adult stepchildren have a right to know how their family inheritance is going to be managed (this is not “greed”) and you should be proactive in addressing these matters with the children so their fears can be put to rest.
  • resentful that their children, the grandchildren, may not receive as much time and energy from their parent as anticipated.  Especially when one parent has died adult children may invest heavily in wanting their children to spend time with the grandparent.  Your marriage threatens this and creates another loss for everyone. 

            As a new couple you must apply patience and understanding to these strong emotions.  Do not be offended by them.  When confronted with difficult responses from adult children, assume a humble position and listen to their fears and concerns.  Accept them where they are and try to be responsive to their needs for information (especially about financial matters), emotional contact, and time as they adjust to yet another family transition they didn’t seek out. 

Adult Stepchildren

            It is very important that you begin by acknowledging your own strong emotions about your parent’s remarriage.  The feelings mentioned above are very common; if you don’t take ownership and responsibility of them, they may lead you into withdrawal, criticism, or hurtful behavior. 

            Without question, a parent’s remarriage ripples through the generations of your family.  It may take a great deal of time for you to open your heart to a stepparent and their extended family.  Don’t feel compelled to feel love for them, but strive to act in loving ways.  Resist the urge to withdraw in anger or judgment.  And finally, be sure to acknowledge that your parent has legitimate needs and desires that include pursuing a dating or marriage partner.  Doing so does not diminish the important of your other parent, your family history, or their relationship with you. 

New Beginnings

            I strongly encourage both adult stepchildren and the new couple to educate themselves about stepfamily living.  There is a labyrinth of emotion and practical transitions to work through and it takes understanding and effort by both generations.  But it can be done.  That’s the beautiful thing about love—there’s always room for one more!



Ron L. Deal is president of Smart Stepfamilies™, director of blended family ministries for FamilyLife®, a popular conference speaker on marriage and family matters, and author/coauthor of a series of DVD’s and books for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily and Dating and the Single Parent. Learn more at www.smartstepfamilies.com. This article originally appeared in HomeLife magazine, Jan 2009. Used with permission. 



Comments ( 12 )
Add your Comment
#12: by Ron Deal on 01.08.2015 @ 04:47pm CST

No, Bill, it's not likely that you can "split the baby". But I sure hope your wife changes her mind. Punishing your daughter for her sin is not the way to discourage the other kids from doing the same.

Dear God, help them get married and make it right before the Lord, don't linger in the past.
#11: by Bill on 12.18.2014 @ 03:45pm CST

My wife and I have been remarried for 7 years. She brought 3 kids into our family and I brought 3 kids as well. My kids were grown and out of the house. We decided to give each kid a set amount of money for their weddings. So far we have had one of her kids and one of my kids marry with this arrangement without conflict. One of my daughters decided to live with their boyfriend and have recently announced they want to get married. Both my wife and I agree that living together before marriage is a sin. My wife does not want to contribute one dime or either give a lesser amount for my daughter's wedding. Although I do not agree to my daughter's decision, I want to give her the same gift that the other kids have or will receive. My wife will not tolerate giving my daughter an equal amount as the other kids who so far have not decided to live together.

If I follow my wife, I know I will estrange my daughter plus my other two kids and my larger family. I also know I will resent my wife and regret this decision for the rest of my life.

If I don't follow my wife, it will drive a huge wall between her and myself and potentially cause severe damage to my marriage.

My gut tells me to tell my wife that I will handle this matter with my daughter myself plus pay myself the same share for my daughter's wedding as the other kids without her help.

How can I find a Solomon decision? Is it possible to split the baby?
#10: by Ron Deal on 10.27.2014 @ 09:11am CDT


I'm not being judgmental when I say that cohabitation by nature is ambiguous and confusing. Over the last decade a great deal of research is confirming this -- and it confirms that cohabitation inherently fosters a lower level of commitment in men (but not women). That's another reason you're confused; you're thinking the two of you a committed and he is enjoying what I like to call "independent togetherness". You must read this article: http://www.familylife.com/articles/topics/marriage/getting-married/choosing-a-spouse/hiding-naked-when-sex-replaces-commitment#.VE5RESLF98E and I would strongly recommend you read my book Dating and the Single Parent as it explores not only the implications of all of this on you, but on your children.

In short, I must encourage you, to do two things: 1) choose clarity and definition to your "dating" relationship even if that means breaking up; 2) The best chance you have of being married successfully someday starts by not living together now.

#9: by Tiffanny on 10.21.2014 @ 09:14am CDT

I have three children of my own and three "step-children". The relationship I'm in is very confusing as my partner does not want to remarry. While I can accept that (but not like it) it makes figuring out the details very very difficult. I was living with him with after he expressed many times that this is what he wanted. Shortly after moving in and living as common law, I had a "nervous breakdown" due to a combination of medicine I was taking for health problems. The side effects of the medicine caused my concerns to be largely exacerbated and I was hospitalized. On my return home he felt it would be best if we didn't live together anymore but continue our relationship. He now has his two adult children and granddaughter living with him and is having great difficulty with them following ANY of the rules. He remains an active disciplinary part of my children's lives. I'm having a lot of trouble defining this new relationship and setting boundaries. I have no say in his children's lives, I don't view us as common law or even a serious couple as we only see each other one maybe two evenings a week. He feels nothing has changed. Huh?? Please help. Thank you
#8: by Ron Deal on 04.01.2014 @ 01:26pm CDT


I hear this fairly often. It's very frustrating with the bio parent won't follow through with negotiated boundaries. You really are powerless with your stepson without your husband stepping up. On the other hand, your power may be in listening to your husband's fears and helping him decide what to do about them. He may, for example, be afraid that if he asks his son to pay rent he will leave. That could paralyze him quickly. Whatever the fear, giving voice to it and then wondering how long he will be held captive by it, is a good start to finding some fatherly resolve.

This is important: pray for your husband to admit his fears and find his resolve, don't nag or criticize him thinking that will help him act differently. It won't. It will only make him withdraw from you.

Maybe you can read the chapter from The Smart Stepmom on adult children to him and discuss it together.
#7: by Lisa on 04.01.2014 @ 09:04am CDT

My husband and I have been married 4 years. His 21 year old son was part of the package. Before we got married my husband and I discussed the conditions of his son living with us. He was to work full time, and pay rent, and work at becoming inde. He is now 25 and still lives at home working only part time. He does not pay the rent, he does not help around the house. Not only does he not help but he has destroyed his room in our basement by shooting bb guns at the walls and throwing his throwing knives and has threatened to hang me. I have asked my husband to deal with this situation by enforcing our rules. His son has not paid rent more than half of the time he has lived with us; but the bigger worry is that he continues to be destructive. My husband feels I am to harsh and expect to much...please help!
#6: by Ron Deal on 01.24.2014 @ 08:35am CST


This is a very difficult situation. There is no clear black or white answer. What is clear is that you and your husband must talk through this at length and really try to hear one another. Ask, "What is your need in this situation? Then share yours.

You'll have to talk through the best response for his daughter (given her maturity, options, resources, etc.). Sometimes we have to sacrifice a great deal for our kids and allow them to inconvenience us (again!), but other times letting them own responsibility for their choices and lives means we don't rescue them from the pinch of life. Having said all this, if you really believe she is a physical threat to you and/or your children, she should not move in. Without sincere repentance on her part (and forgiveness for what she did in the past on your part) I would not encourage you to put anyone in harms way.

May you have the wisdom of Solomon on this one.

#5: by Dalila Mata on 01.22.2014 @ 02:43pm CST

I have been married 11 years and my husband has 2 older kids. 23 and 20. I have a 17 year old. And we together have an 8 and 5 year old. Recently we got into a heated argument. His daughter wants to move in with us. I would not mind. Only that she has physically come at me when I was pregnant of my now 5 year old. I am afraid of her actions because she told me she did not hit me only because I was pregnant. She has never kept a job. She only calls her father when she needs money or needs her bills payed. She has never once called to see how he is doing or just stop by to visit. He in return has been upset at me because I said no to her living at our home. I fear for my life and my childrens lives. She is at the phase of just partying. She has a son whom she leaves with her mom or the father. I cannot have that at my home. Even if she says she will follow rules. She will only manipulate my husband into getting her way and bend the rules for her. I never will have a say. What can i do?
#4: by Ron Deal on 12.23.2013 @ 08:02am CST

I am so sorry you and your children are having to face this. Christmas is just around the corner, but this must be a very painful season for you instead of one filled with joy and hope. Your husband's decision to abandon his covenant is distasteful in God's eyes. Despite his self-justifying attitude, the consequences for his kids will be many...for years. And, if you're not armed well, will place you in a "prison" of resentment and bitterness. There is one "key" to let yourself out. Forgiveness. Believe me, I don't say this lightly or with the expectation that forgiveness will be easy. It won't. But it's the power you have to not let his self-absorbed decisions rule your life (and your parenting). I pray the Lord will give you the courage to find it.
#3: by regina on 12.20.2013 @ 10:10am CST

My husband divorced me after 31 years of marriage. He would not even consider reconciliation. It was an unscriptural divorce. 3 days after the divorce was final, he married his coworker, who he had moved into his apartment just a few months after he had left our home. He had even bought her an engagement ring (on our joint credit card!) and promised to "honor her by marrying her as soon as possible". This is her 3rd marriage. She has 3 adult children and my husband and I have 2 adult children. I still love my husband even though he has ripped my heart out. He is a seminary graduate (but has never had a ministry)So he knows what God's word says about divorce and adultery, but he is also a narcissist who has always put himself first. I pray for him daily that God will bring him to repentance and he will turn from this adulterous relationship. This has torn up my family. My husband expects everyone to be happy for him and enjoy family times and holidays with him and his new "wife". But he is an unrepentant adulterer who wants God to bless his sinful lifestyle. He has lost his integrity and his witness as a Christian. He tells people that "God put them together" (her divorce was final a month after he moved out of our home) His children see him for the manipulator he is, but other more worldly members in the family have been sucked into his lies and feel the need to befriend him and his new "wife" despite their blatant sin. They have even bought a house less than a mile from our (my) home! How are we supposed to deal with this? I want him to honor his original marriage covenant and restore our family.
#2: by Ron Deal on 12.09.2013 @ 11:52am CST


I'm not sure you can convince your daughter of that. She'll have to see the changes in him herself. If he can change and sustain it over time, her heart will soften. A new experience of a changed person is the best thing to reduce fear.

#1: by Alisa Amaden on 12.04.2013 @ 11:12am CST

My daughter is 16, I remarried two yrs ago. During the two years my daughter and I have been verbally abused, he is not living with us anymore. I don't want to divorse, I want him to get help, but my daughter does not want him to show his face again. If he gets help how do I make my daughter understand that people can change if they want to.

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