Blended families: It’s a complicated deal
Meet the Smiths, a typical American family. Just married, John and Mary have four children. Sally 14, Joe, 15, are John’s. David, 10, and Makenzie, 12, are Mary’s.
This new American family is a blend of mine, yours, and ours—brought to you by a significant divorce rate and a high remarriage rate. This hybrid is competing with the conventional “Ozzie and Harriet” family of yesteryear.
The natural life history of divorce and remarriage brings about new facts of family life. From the rubble of marital dissolution raises the single-parent family, often headed by Mom. Dad has the kids every other weekend and sees them on certain weekday nights.
Usually, men don’t wait very long to remarry (a subject for a future blog!). Soon, Dad’s remarried and his second wife has two children. A year or so later, Mom remarries and her new husband has two children. Both families need an onboard computer to figure out who goes where on which weekend!
This modern family is extraordinarily complex. All too often, spouses-to-be plan for “one big happy family”. They picture happy step-brothers and step-sisters playing together, relaxed family dinners around a big table, and close, warm relationships between step-parents and step-children. Newlyweds assume their love for each other will spill over to their children. After all, love conquers all…
Unfortunately, the honeymoon is brief. Most second marriages are unprepared for the intense conflict to come. Sally hates step-brother Joe and won’t talk to him. All the kids argue about what to do on Sunday visits. David won’t listen to his step-father. John worries that his new wife doesn’t treat his children the same way as she does hers. The list goes on.
To make matters more complicated, both husband and wife are still healing from the breakup of their first marriage. Hurt feelings, anger, and disappointment don’t disappear overnight. New spouses often feel threatened by the active presence of first husbands and wives in their everyday lives. Sharing children guarantees that ex-spouses will have regular, often conflictual contact with each other.
Youngsters still struggle with intense feelings about their parents’ divorce. All too often, children direct anger at step-parents that is really meant for their own mothers and fathers. Kids rarely want their parents to separate. They hope and dream that someday, somehow, their parents will get back together again. Remarriage signals the end of that dream. It’s easier to dump your anger on a relative stranger than on your own parent.
I grew up in a blended family. Both of my parents remarried, and their spouses each had two children. As a teenager, I often resented my step-sisters. At first, I mistrusted my step-father and didn’t much care for him. That lasted for about 15 years or so. Later, in adulthood, we became very close friends! Who would have guessed? My step-mother hoped for one big happy family—it never happened.
Navigating through the stormy waters of blended family life requires patience and maturity. It can be rough going for some time.
Here’s some practical advice.
- Don’t expect miracles. Expect challenges. Depending on the age of the children, it can take years before genuine friendships between step-children and step-parents develop, Step-parents can help by respecting the need of step-children to keep their emotional distance at first. Coming on too strong will push kids away.
- Don’t interfere. Let your spouse develop his or her own relationship with step-kids.
- Hold regular family meetings! Acknowledge that making a blended family work requires ongoing discussion, negotiation, and open communication. Hold weekly family meetings to work out conflict.
- Get help when you need it. Adjusting successfully to blended family life can require professional help. If you get bogged down, don’t be a do-it-yourselfer—get help.
Share your experiences in blended family life!