The Modern Family: Hope for Blended, Mixed, Nontraditional, & Stepfamilies, Part 1
In my field (counseling), I have been prone to study a lot of social trends from a variety of different sociological perspectives. Among the foremost for me have been the development of the family unit. I read a considerable number of books, peer-reviewed journal articles, attend conferences, and a host of other things, all to be as educated both biblically and humanly as I possibly can on how to help people. 2020 actually afforded me a lot of time to study societal trends across a spectrum of subjects. And in my studies, I occasionally come across a bit of what I refer to as…eclectic research which is often both helpful and intriguing. My opening example is in that vein.
In 2020, I stumbled upon the “mockumentary” TV show, Modern Family. Modern Family tells the story(s) surrounding three different types of interrelated families (a nuclear family, a blended family of varying ages and ethnicities, and a same-sex couple with a child) living in Los Angeles. Given that this series is a comedy, hijinks ensue. Creators Christopher Llyod (Back to the Future) and Steven Levitan believe this family represents an increasingly accurate take on the modern-day family unit, and the series then focuses on (comically-based) situations that many families would encounter in real life.
Honestly, the show is pretty funny. But as I watched a significant number of episodes throughout last year, it became apparent to me that the premise of the show is increasingly reflective of reality. The relationship issues, while comedic, are reflective of relational breakdowns I address in counseling. I noticed something else as well; the show communicates a very specific message. It communicates that blended family life can look like this; that everyone’s kind of a mess, relationships are messy, but everything will pretty much be okay at the end of the day because we’re a family.
It is a pretty positive, if not idealist message. And sadly, one we likely wish were truer. Unfortunately, most often, life is much different and far more difficult than Modern Family would like us to believe.
I would submit to you that most often, blended, mixed, nontraditional, and stepfamilies think of themselves more like Israel in Exodus 14. In this passage of Scripture, Israel has recently left Egypt after years of slavery, and they have been led by God through the wilderness toward their new home. Upon arrival at the Red Sea, Israel finds that Pharaoh is coming up from behind with the intent to re-enslave the people.
Consider Exodus 14:5; 8-9 (ESV):
“When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed toward the people, and they said, ‘What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?’… And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army, and overtook them encamped at the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.”
The hopelessness of their situation was evident. And their response, I think, reflects in our own personal ways, how many feel and respond (commensurate to their situation) as Israel did in Exodus 14:10-12:
“When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’”
Having just escaped an overwhelmingly difficult position as slaves in Egypt, they victoriously marched out toward their future, only to be met with what appeared to be certain doom by the roadblock of the Red Sea! And no sooner are they grappling with this reality, when issues from the recent past come roaring toward them from behind, in an effort to cause them greater distress, if not full-blown slavery again. Sound anything like the heartbreak associated with messy divorces, hopeful futures, broken relationships, and related issues?
It would be nice if everything were like Modern Family, with plucky, comedic situations and resolution at the end of 22 minutes. But more often than not, most blended, mixed, nontraditional, and stepfamilies I interact with find themselves, in varying degrees, stuck between the rock of their past, and the hard places of their future in front of them that seem insurmountable.
I wish I could share that this is an uncommon dilemma. Sadly, it is far from it. Consider these 2020 statistics:
With 40% of married couples with children in the US being stepcouples, it is only a matter of time before that number climbs to 50% (half). As the church, this warrants our attention. Many of us fall into these statistics—myself included!
There is much I could say here, and much I will likely cover in a second blog. But I’d like to begin by offering some broad-spectrum thoughts that are relevant to all.
Marriage is always the primary, secondary relationship
As Christians, our primary relationship must always be with God. This is biblically nonnegotiable. When a Christian’s primary relationship is a spouse, child, friend, pet, or any other form of companion, God disrupts those relationships (Exodus 34:14). God wants for his people’s primary relationship to be focused on him.
After one’s relationship with Christ, the marriage is then the (secondary) primary relationship. Marriage reflects Christ and his love and relationship for and with the church (Ephesians 5:22-32). Being in a blended, mixed, nontraditional, or stepfamily relationship does not circumvent God’s design. So we must adjust our relational priorities accordingly.
I understand this is difficult, especially for parents who grew to depend on their children, or have brought kids into a subsequent marriage, and desire to protect them from more pain. I recognize there are many complexities to this. But the one thing that remains constant is biblical instruction (Hebrews 13:8). And as such, it is the marital relationship that must be prioritized. Children come after this.
The best blended, mixed, nontraditional, or stepfamily relationships have high-level communication
Due to the complex nature of bringing together multiple family units, the potential of multiple sets of children, new personality types, new expectations, new forms of discipline and/or correction, all into a combined environment, communication is of the highest priority.
There is no right form of discipline. There is no right form of home environment. There is only the best version you can create, following biblical principles, and factoring in all of the personalities involved. This means that everyone needs to be in active communication. Honesty, transparency, and correct expectations only exist where there is a high level of communication, good rapport, and a definite willingness to work all of these things out together. Anything short of this is likely to result in the worst-case scenario, where the new family unit does not blend or become cohesive. Rebellion becomes an all but certain outcome, and it then becomes a tug-of-war with individuals constantly striving to attain their version of “right.”
This is not the way. And it is a recipe for all involved to feel like Israel—trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea.
No two blended, mixed, nontraditional, or stepfamily relationships are exactly alike
One of the mistakes I see often is that blended, mixed, nontraditional, or stepfamilies hold themselves to the standard of other families, whether they be nuclear, or other blended nontraditional family environments. This is not helpful. Appearances are often deceiving.
The two most important things that you, as blended parents, can do are to strive to have a good marriage, and be in constant communication with your spouse about leading your home in a God-honoring way. This involves being in constant communication with your spouse, constant communication and rapport-building with your children, and simply working toward being the best man or woman of God, raising the next generation of Christians, that you can possibly be.
Determine your values
Among the keys to having a successful blended, mixed, nontraditional, or stepfamily is to have a value-based foundation. A value-based foundation provides the standard by which the family can use to operate. As such, the values should be communicated, known, and practically expected of all members of a family unit.
What are values? Values are our core beliefs about life. As such, values should be a constant source of dialogue for all family units. And they should be measuring themselves maritally, parentally, relationally, and practically against these stated, and subsequently exampled action(s) and values. This will act as a foundation that all members of a family can stand on, if it is communicated, reinforced, and practically lived out, primarily by parents in such a way that it inspires the children to follow suit.
As I close, it is important for me to note that this is about a fraction of what could be said regarding blended family growth. For example, I know that this blog does not specifically address parents not meshing well with stepchildren, in any detail. I’m aware that it does not address difficulties with former spouses. Nor does it explicitly address rebellious teenagers, who disrespect a stepparent. I fully intend to write a second submission that will offer some additional, practical strategies for some of these significant matters, as well as tackling a few others.
My hope with this initial post is that you feel heard, seen, and empathized with. You’re not alone. God loves you. Your church loves you. And we will continue to do what we can to encourage and equip you as you strive to glorify God in your blended, mixed, nontraditional, or stepfamily for the good of all those in your family unit.
 Smart Stepfamilies, “Key Statistics Relevant to Blended Families,” Marriage, Family, & Stepfamily Statistics (2020), https://www.smartstepfamilies.com/smart-help/marriage-family-stepfamily-statistics.