Blending Families – what you should know before you get married
Every step parent wants to win the love of his/her spouse’s children, wants to be in their ‘inner circle’, and wants to build that special bond with them the soonest possible time. However, the truth is, step parenting takes time and blending families, just like constructing a house on a solid foundation, should be supported by a blueprint of action plans.
Below are some general advice worth considering before you get married again and join two families together. It is mainly common sense, but being conscious and planning ahead, including developing strategies together may smooth out some of the bumps on the road ahead. At the least, awareness will help you avoid making some unintentional mistakes in the early days.
- Avoid too many drastic changes at any one time– Give your children time to get used to the idea of you as a new partnership. Studies have shown that blended families are more successful when the partners waited at least two years before getting married.
- Don’t expect that you will love your partner’s children immediately– Your children will have been brought up with different values than your own, and will have their own personalities. Even though you might adore their parent doesn’t mean this will be automatic with his/her children. It will take time to get to know them, but it will be worth it (and don’t push it).
- Stay over and have some ‘practice’ runs before moving in together– Until you deal with real life situations (getting the children to school, feeding them, helping them with their homework, etc.), you won’t know what it is like to bring the family together. Try to have some time in the real world, not just when you go on outings together. During this time try to understand each other, and each other’s children. Work out what is important to them, what their personalities are like, what ‘pushes their buttons’ and what makes them feel loved (see Five Love Languages).
- Make household and rule changes before you get married– Even if you have been living together for a while, getting married is a positive statement of longevity. It is an opportunity to set down or clarify house rules, change living arrangement or formalise any agreements with the children. There will not be a better opportunity to ‘put a line in the sand’.
- Be prepared for ‘stand offs’– There will be times when you will side with your own children above your partner (the same will happen in reverse). This is due to each set of children being brought up with their parents’ values. The important thing is not to take sides in front of the children. Deal with the specific situation without ‘taking sides’. Then speak privately with your partner as to why you disagree with them. Better still, KNOW that this will happen and discuss it ahead of time and agree a strategy together as to how to address the specific issue when it arises.
- Engender respect between the families– Whilst it is very possible that the families may not like each other, it is paramount that they are taught to respect the differences. Once you let disrespect creep in, including speaking badly (badmouthing) to/about each other, yelling, ignoring, playing off one parent against the other etc., it is downhill from there. This will have an increasing impact on your relationship with your partner as well. This may not be immediate, but over time resentment will build up and wear away at the fabric of your own relationship.
- Have no or low expectations– Whilst you will probably put a lot of time, effort, patience and love into your partner’s children, it may not be reciprocated. Getting used to a new person is a slow job, full of bumps in the road, but perseverance is the key. Eventually, if you are authentic in your desire to be part of their life you will be accepted. However, it can take anywhere from 3 – 10 years depending on the age of the children and the impact of the other biological parent has on them.
- Some step parents get over enthusiastic in their desire to bond with their partner’s children, to the detriment of their own. Often they do not want their new family to think they are favouring their own children and so go the opposite way, leading to resentment within the biological family.
- Set clear and fair boundaries applicable to all children – Discipline will certainly be an issue during your relationship, so set the boundaries early. Discipline (by the biological parent) should be based on a common set of rules.
The rules need to be set up (and preferably written down) before you start to co-habit. If they are different to your present rules these need to be carefully explained to the children as to why you are changing. Try to combine rules from both houses so each children can see there is a fairness and consideration that the families are being merged (and not a hostile takeover).
- Step Parent relationships – Step parents (especially those without children of their own) often struggle with what kind of relationship they should have with their new family. Definitely (in the early days) it should not be as a replacement mother or father. It is better to be a mentor, friend or someone they know it is safe to come to when they need a mature ear. Think of yourself as a bonus parent – one they did not expect to have. Make it a positive bonus though.
The bonus parent should never discipline their partner’s children for at least a couple of years. This needs to be deferred to the biological parent and carried out in accordance with what has been agreed. When disciplining has to occur, the bonus parent needs to be supportive of the biological parent and not undermine them in order to ‘win points’ with the children.
There is no common formula for blending families, it depends on so many factors, all of which need to be considered and addressed, preferably before co-habiting i.e.:
- the age of the children;
- whether they are close in age or have a big gap;
- how supportive or disruptive the ex-partner is;
- how much time the children spend with each biological parent;
- whether there is a mismatch of time e.g. some children are full time and others are occasional/weekend visitors;
- the proximity to each other (same town or long distance);
- the personalities of the individuals;
- the match or mismatch of social-economics;
- the parenting styles;
- any existing/known behavioural or medical issues;
- recent history e.g. if the other biological parent has passed away;
- the time available to focus on the family (tough if both partners are working);
- the wider family.
The list can go on and on.
One way to start off on the right foot is to view everything as a BONUS (as mentioned earlier). Instead of calling your new family your ‘step children’, try introducing them as your ‘bonus family’. Just the use of one word can change attitude and acceptance from both within, and by those who have an impact on your family life. Cheers to added breeze in your step parenting and blending families!
Author and experienced relationship coach, Gillian Andale is the owner of Love2Last, a coaching and resource centre dedicated to couples who have found love again, want a new beginning and aim to strengthen and grow their relationship as well as need help in blended family situations. Visit www.love2last.co to browse and see the wealth of information available.