Stepfamily: Life & Holidays

The holidays can be a stressful time of year for a lot of people and especially so for newly blended families. While holidays and family celebrations offer the potential for bonding over shared rituals, a revising of valued customs and the reliving of family memories, the blending of family traditions is more of a challenge for stepfamilies than first-married couples and their children. The recognized challenges of limited time to engage with differing family members and groups, resources in terms of finances and emotional obligations are increased by the number of existing relationships in stepfamily life. For example, a first-married family may have two sets of grandparents; the stepfamily may have four sets, each family with biological grandparents who now serve some of the children as grand-parents-in-law.

Also, first-married families do not need to address the presence of an-ex spouse, while stepfamilies may have to be concerned with the involvement of two or more ex-spouses. So the question becomes, through what practices might stepfamilies “survive” and actually enjoy this, and future, holiday seasons?

Four suggestions to help maintain stepfamily relationships are:

  1. Traditions must be blended (the must-do's from each family to be incorporated). Stepfamily adults need to acknowledge the importance of the rites and practices of the holidays and determine a way to blend “her”, “his” and “our” observances. Involving the children in this process may help build a sense of their investment and understanding of how new family practices are emerging. Topics to be addressed can include visits, time spent, house decorations, meals, presents, attendance at religious services and other cultural expressions, in addition to any other suggestions offered by a family member. 
  2. The inclusion of ex-spouses needs to be weighed. Assuming that ex-spouses have resolved the rancor and recrimination of the dissolved marriage, their involvement would be of great joy to their children. Their presence affirms for the children their ongoing involvement and presence in their lives and a continuity of parental love. The holidays are not the time for old hurts to be brought to the surface or occasions ruined by emotional residue from bitter divorces, so the stepfamily adults must decide whether their relationship with an ex-spouse is sufficiently healed to permit a shared festivity.
  3. It’s OK for differing family members to attend different functions – everyone need not attend every function. Given the potential number of in-laws, ex-in-laws and multiple sets of grandparents, there may emerge a bewildering number of social engagements all requesting attendance, sometimes overlapping schedules. Given the condensed time span of holidays, it may appear as though the entire time is to be spent in the car, traveling from one location to the next, with a carefully timed stop at each. This solution is one way to proceed, but another option that could potentially relieve the stress is to evaluate, based on past relationships and current emotional connections, which stepfamily members need to attend which festivities. Don’t feel obligated to attend every function. Once decided who attends which obligations, responses can be made explaining the absence of one spouse and/or children based on prior commitment.
  4. At the end of the holidays (whichever they are) the couple in the stepfamily needs to assess how well this occasion's decisions and planning worked for all and proceed to amend accordingly. Addressing the demands of this holiday season serves as a template for the stepfamily on how to approach future occasions, including, but certainly not limited to, social festivals such as seasonal events, birthdays, anniversaries, graduation, weddings, etc. The guiding question may be whether the members of the stepfamily truly enjoyed the experience, and if so, how to repeat it, and if not, what needs to be modified for the next event to make one’s participation truly memorable.

Remember to hold onto the holiday mantra…Joy first, obligation second.

Dr. Joshua Gold is a member of the American Counseling Association <> , a professor of counseling at the University of South Carolina and author of the newly released book, Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm <> .