I think I picked up this term, zigzag evolution, from Patricia
Papernow’s foundational book, Becoming a Stepfamily.  The meat of
this concept is that stepfamilies do not evolve in a straight, predictable,
Rather, they zigzag, more along the lines of the one-step-
forward, two-steps-back analogy. 

While it’s true that all families zigzag to some extent, stepfamilies
typically have more obstacles to their evolution
: a shorter history
together, less “instant” (unconditional) love, and the challenge of
merging cultures and traditions.

Zigzag evolution explains why it’s so important not to judge the
success of your stepfamily on a short-term basis.  What looks like
progress one season might reverse itself during another season.
(See last week’s related post about Funky Phases.)

Here are some examples of zigzagging, either from my own experience
or the experiences of stepparents I’ve interviewed: 

A fourth-grade stepdaughter holds her stepmom’s hand (a first)
several times during summer vacation, but then doesn’t show any
physical contact that fall when stepmom volunteers in her classroom at

A stepdad to three girls suddenly becomes the only living father figure
when the girls’ father dies in an accident.

A teenaged boy who called his stepmom “mom” for seven years wakes
up one morning and starts calling her only by her first name from that
point forward.

A stepmom who has craved the love and attention of her stepchildren
for more than fifteen years finds herself retreating from them when
they, now in their twenties, start to show her that attention. 

How do you deal with zigzag?  Take these learning points to heart:

  • Key milestones and anniversaries can subconsciously trigger
    changes in behavior.
  • Not all stepfamily members move forward at the same rate.
  • Keeping a steady vigil over how your stepfamily is doing actually
    works against you.  Try practicing a “from the blimp” view of your
    family.  If you were flying in a blimp over hundreds of households,
    would your household stand out as the big, red “in trouble” household?
    Or would it mostly look like the other households? 
  • Talking to more parents about the issues they face with their kids
    can help normalize a zig or a zag.  Every time I’ve done this, I hear
    that many issues with children are universal and not just limited to a
    stepfamily setting.  It provides a little relief to an overly conscientious

I’m just here to remind you (and myself) that you can’t force evolution. 
The good news is that even a zigzag is, overall, moving forward, and
so will your stepfamily.

Mama J (Diane Fromme) is a writer, parent, and stepparent located in
Northern Colorado.  For more information on her stepparenting book,
go to


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