17 Sep What stage of development is your stepfamily in?
Blended families – families with stepchildren and/or stepparents – go through very normal stages in coming together to form a cohesive unit. It can take some time to evolve through these stages and for everyone to get used to the new group, but just because there may not be biological ties does not mean that blended families cannot experience loving bonds and cooperative, fulfilling lives together.
New groups of any kind – be it a family, a work team, a study group – typically go through Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing Stages. First proposed by American psychology researcher Bruce Tuckman in 19651, these stages are thought to be necessary and inevitable for a group to grow, tackle challenges, and find solutions.
In the Forming Stage, new members are on their best behaviours – polite, agreeable, and positive. Members actively try to learn about each other but are operating relatively independently and may be unaware of the issues, challenges, and objectives of the group. To grow from this stage to the next, each member must be willing let go of the comfort of non-threatening topics and risk the possibility of conflict.
The Storming Stage, often one of the most difficult, is where group members start to push against the boundaries and etiquette established in the Forming Stage. Here is when you will see members challenging authority, resisting rules, establishing hierarchies of power, and voicing stronger opinions. Members are learning to gain each other’s trust, but often this comes with testing each other’s limits. In order to progress out of this rough stage, members must be willing to set their sights on a common goal and learn to trust and appreciate that disagreements within the group can make members stronger, more versatile, and able to work more effectively as a team.
The Norming Stage is defined by a shared motivation towards a common goal. This is when people start to value each other’s differences, respect authority figures, and take responsibility for their actions and roles in the group. You might even see members asking each other for feedback and support, and witness a real effort to move forward as a team. What separates the Norming Stage from the next Stage is that in the Norming Stage, there is often still one (or two) members working as a supervisor to group members, keeping their finger on the pulse about how everyone’s doing, and making sure to intervene when conflict arises. In order to move to the next Stage, this member has to feel ready to let go of their oversight role and trust in members’ abilities to problem-solve without intervention.
Lastly, the Performing Stage is when the group has really hit its stride. With group norms established and members roles clearly defined, groups in this Stage can largely operate without supervision or intervention. Members feel safe to raise issues and competent to resolve them, and typically experience a sense of togetherness and belonging.
How do the Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing Stages specifically apply to stepfamilies?
According to Psychologist Dr. Patricia Papernow in her book Becoming A Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families,2 stepfamilies go through similar stages with specific and necessary tasks at each point.
The Early Stages of Stepfamily Development include:
- A Fantasy Stage, whereby partners might believe that because they love each other, their kids will also. Single parents might also fantasize that the single parenting load will be lessened with a new partner, and children might have strong fantasies about their parents getting back together;
- An Immersion Stage, where the reality of the new structure starts to sink in, and the stepparent can often encounter strong negative feelings such as jealousy, resentment, confusion, and inadequacy, and;
- An Awareness Stage, where blended families start to recognize painful dynamics and emotions, develop a deeper understanding of the clashing of norms, and previously held fantasies start to fade away.
The Middle Stages of Stepfamily Development involve:
- A Mobilization Stage, which involves members openly airing differences. This is typically the most embattled stage, with fights ranging from the seemingly small (Do we keep the tomato sauce in the cupboard or the fridge?) to the serious (Will we ever be able to make this work?). These fights are actually about whether family members will be able to make necessary changes and can compromise in order to make each other feel comfortable, and;
- An Action Stage which sees family members drawing new boundaries and negotiating agreements about how the family will function. This stage is typically when the family starts to operate with less and less emphasis on the step issues.
The Later Stages of Stepfamily Development consist of:
- A Contact Stage in which, after major structural changes from the Action Stage occur, a clearly defined stepparent role emerges, real relationships between stepparents and stepchildren start to form, and the marital relationship re-emerges as a source of comfort and connection, and finally;
- A Resolution Stage, whereby a solid foundation is in place, new norms are now second-nature, and a family history starts to unfold. Although some members may feel more a part of the family than others, there is an open acceptance of this. Large decisions and stressful experiences, such as who will pay for college tuition, shifting of custody arrangements, etc., no longer threaten the marital relationship and are handled with ease and confidence.
How long will it take?
Dr. Papernow’s research2-5 suggests that faster-paced families complete the entire Stepfamily Cycle in about 4 years, average-paced families take about 7 years, and slower-paced families can remain in the early stages longer than 4 years, with some for as many as 12 years. For the slower-paced families, some end in divorce, others remain stuck in the Early Stages, and a small number move on to complete the Stepfamily Cycle. The largest differences among the fast-paced, average-paced, and slower-paced families lie primarily in the amount of time it takes the family members to negotiate the awareness work of the Early Stages.
Are you and your blended family members finding it difficult to navigate these stages? If so, couples and family therapy can serve as a useful way to support your family progress through these stages towards a fulfilling, loving, and cooperative family unit. Contact us at email@example.com or 1300 784 184 to see if we can help.
1 Tuckman, Bruce W (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin. 63 (6): 384–399.
2 Papernow, P. L. (2015). Becoming a stepfamily: Patterns of development in remarried families. CRC Press.
3 Papernow, P. L. (1984). The stepfamily cycle: An experiential model of stepfamily development. Family Relations, 355-363.
4 Papernow, P. L. (1988). Stepparent role development: From outsider to intimate.
5 Papernow, P. L. (2013). Surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships: What works and what doesn’t. Routledge.