The Blended Family – Hopes, Fears, and Tasks
Hope springs eternal, and there’s nowhere that’s more true than a couple taking the leap of faith into a second marriage. To all those who dare to hope that their second marriage (or third, or fourth) will be better than the last, I say congratulations and good luck! It takes a lot of courage to open your heart to try again! But also, take heed: you’ll have a much better chance of success if you follow some very important guidelines, particularly if either of you have children.
Let’s face it: relationships can be a challenge. Any long term relationship between two people moves through a set of predictable and important stages, each stage bringing something rich and healing to the partners, and each stage filled with snags and potholes along the way, any one of which can capsize a relationship. In a first marriage, these developmental stages usually start out in the open – that is, without the complications of children. For instance, most couples usually go through an initial period of intense closeness and bonding, when friends complain that they don’t see you any more, and nothing seems more important or exciting than spending time with your new beloved. This is a wonderful and exciting time, and actually serves to build a strong foundation for a long term relationship. We in the field of couples counseling hope to see that a couple has been able to spend as much as two or three years in this honeymoon period. It’s kind of like putting down a very big deposit on a new home: you are investing a lot of equity in the relationship, so that when things get tough – and they will get tough – you both have a rich and full memory bank of good times, being in love, and knowing that the relationship is important to you both, to draw from. These rich memories give us the fortitude and determination to put effort into the relationship when it’s most needed.
Couples who already have children from a former relationship before they meet each other don’t have the luxury of years of time where it is “just us.” They hit the ground running, and moving in together, a challenging time for many couples, can feel like they’ve just been hired to run a company when they feel like they’re still in high school.
The Pitfalls – And What to Do About Them
Unrealistic Expectations: Parents Hope, Children Fear
If you have been in a marriage (throughout this article, the reference to marriage will always include any form of long-term committed relationship, particularly if you have lived together, including same-sex marriages) that ended, whether by divorce or the death of a spouse, you probably know how hard it is to overcome the dread of thinking you could go through it again. Most people I counsel who are going through a divorce say they can’t even imagine dating, and have terrible fears about daring to trust and become vulnerable to another person again.
But, time does heal, and remarriages are evidence of the hope that marks us as human beings. A funny thing happens when we fall in love: we lose some of our take on reality. Not only are we starry-eyed for our new love, we are starry-eyed about a future with our new love. Don’t feel bad – this is normal. But it sure helps to know what the expectations are, so we don’t feel so horrible – like we’ve failed yet again – when things don’t pan out the way we expect them to.
Great Expectations, Just Not Realistic
Here are just some of the expectations we as parents unwittingly bring to a second marriage:
– love will conquer all
– your children will love your new spouse, or even like them, instantly
– your partner’s children will appreciate all the things you do for them as a step-parent, and your partner will appreciate all your help in raising them
– that this marriage will be much better than the last one that failed
– for a better life
– that everyone will get along
– that your new spouse will make parenting easier – some even expect the new spouse to be the new nanny – the “Mary Poppins Myth”
– that the new marriage will automatically create the structure of the nuclear family, that you will be in a “real family” after all
– that your partner’s ex, and the ex’s family, will just go away. “I will have my new husband/wife all to myself.”
– that you as new spouse / step-parent will have an equal vote in the matters of the family
Of these expectations, I find the most common mistake that new step-parents make is in expecting these “new” kids to automatically love them. For the most part, it just doesn’t happen that way. The greatest gift you can give to your new blended family is to give the children plenty of time – even a year or two – to figure out that you’re safe, worthwhile, and then, maybe even likeable. But of course, that will only happen if it’s true.
Children Have Hopes Too, But Also Have More Fears
Children in blended families have expectations too, although they tend to be more realistic about not being in love with your new partner as much or as quickly as you are. But they have a lot to adjust to, much more than most parents realize.
– children hope to be happier in a stable family, in both emotional and tangible ways: more fun at family celebrations than when mom or dad was single. Less stress for mom or dad because they have found someone to share their difficulties with. And they hope to benefit from there being more money, more presents on their birthdays and holidays, maybe bigger TV’s in the living room. Kids are kids.
– they assume their biological parent will be just as doting on them as they were when they were single, but fear they will lose their parent to the new spouse
– they fear they will lose attention from mom or dad, who now has to tend to step-siblings and a more complicated family life. These fears come from the “Wicked Step-Mother Myth.” No one sees themselves as the wicked stepmother, but most of us see ourselves as Cinderella.
– they fear the new step-parent will disapprove of them simply for existing, and be a harsh disciplinarian. Even if the step-parent is not, the child may perceive him or her to be overly harsh, overly disapproving, since there isn’t as much of a counterpoint in the deep abiding love that comes with being a biological parent.
– they fear having to share their new lives with the unknown step-siblings: have to share a room, time with mom, mom’s loyalties, available money for college tuition or special trips, even inheritances.
– they fear losing contact with the non-custodial parent, especially if they allow themselves to get close to their new step-parent. They are very afraid of hurting the non-residential parent’s feelings. They may also fear having to live in two homes, and worry a lot about the parent they aren’t with when they are gone.
– children fear getting close to their new step-parent only to find that mom or dad will break up with them, too, initiating yet another devastating loss and feelings of abandonment. Kids desperately need to know they can attach to a parental figure and be safe from abandonment or neglect. Under their wariness of the new step-parent, there is often a longing to trust.
– children often hold on to the hope and even expectation that Mom and Dad will someday reunite. This is true even after one or both parents have remarried – young children can imagine that all of you – Mom, Dad, and Step-Parent, will live in one house happily ever after. Even older children, and even adult children, often long for the reunification of their biological parents.
Dealing With Expectations, Hopes and Fears – the Best Prevention
There’s no question hope is a good thing. It’s what keeps us going and motivates us to create better lives. The only trouble is when our hopes are misguided, unrealistic, and unexpressed. Too often they turn into expectations and just set us up for disappointment. After one failed marriage, disappointment too often makes a person feel they not only failed again, but that they are a failure. But such a tragic loss can be prevented by knowing what to expect.
It’s always smart to sit down with your partner and discuss as many of your expectations and assumptions as possible about family life (feel free to borrow from the list above.) It’s also a good question to ask of yourself and each other when problems do arise: what are the expectations I’ve brought to the situation? Often we expect too much, or we expect our partner to know what our own expectations are, to read our minds. They don’t, and they can’t. Even if they do know our hopes, even our assumptions, that doesn’t mean they can fulfill them, or that it’s even their job to make us happy. Keep in mind that building a strong and happy blended family is a very difficult task at best, and perhaps try to put your hopes on an extended time line. Know that each of these developments might be possible, but they will most undoubtedly take longer than you’d like. That they don’t just happen, but need our skills and patience to bring them about.
It’s also important to spend time alone with your biological children, and help them talk about their hopes and fears. If you can’t get yourself out of the way (i.e. you hope so desperately that they will love your spouse that you can’t stand it that they don’t yet like her or him) then support your child in having someone else to talk with – a counselor or another adult that they trust. It’s best if they can talk with you and tell you their fears, but remember they might be as afraid of telling you as they are of losing you. Children often resolve their issues easily once they know someone is listening, and this can prevent a lot of difficult behavior along the way.
Resentment and Jealousy – The Insider / Outsider Syndrome
No one wants to believe they enter into a new marriage only to feel excluded once the children become a part of the relationship. Yet this is one of the most predictable stages that occurs in blended families. The task of the new couple is to learn to create a sense of togetherness – to build on activities that bring teamwork and a sense of accomplishment for the team, for the two adults. While you have a ready-made set of challenges by virtue of the very existence of the children one or both of you brought to the marriage, this is a very difficult challenge to meet, especially as the first challenge in the marriage, because you have the task not just for you as a couple but for you as an extended family. When it doesn’t happen, instead of feeling like a happy, well-unified family, almost everyone feels like an outsider.
The step-parent feels like an outsider because they are just joining a team (biological parent and her or his kids) that has been going strong for years. There are hundreds of “inside jokes,” secret non-verbal communication that has developed naturally between parent and child, between siblings, and lots of subtle references made about people who are known only to the biological family. The step-parent is also not yet seen as an authority figure, a true parental disciplinarian, and is often undermined by the biological parent. This makes the step-parent feel like there is no place for them, and they often retreat with the attitude of Why bother?
The child or children often feel like outsiders of the new love affair between the biological parent and the new step-parent. If a child has become the subject of shared custody with both biological parents, and spend roughly equal time with both biological parents, they often don’t have a primary home. After a week at Dad’s, coming back to Mom and Step-Dad can make the child feel like he or she is “just visiting.” There’s a certain hidden luxury for couples whose children spend time with the divorced parent in that they get regular time off from parenting, and can enjoy a semblance of “married without children” time together. They can get close again, and recharge their batteries. But when the children come back, it can feel like they are intruding on the romantic time of the new couple. There are changes in the household they haven’t been a part of, even if it’s as simple as a housecleaning. And while the parents are adjusting to the children being back, sensitive kids will pick up that they have just interrupted something, as if you are smoothing out your clothes from an intimate moment.
If both partners have children and one set of kids lives with another parent and “visits” the other parent who is now in a new marriage, the “visiting children” feel like outsiders to the new nuclear family. As a child I visited my Dad in Germany, where he lived for 19 years with his second wife and two children from their marriage. I hardly knew my dad, let alone his second wife and my half-brother and half-sister. While they were very welcoming and loving, and accepted me readily into their “tribe,” there was no question who the new person was. I felt like a stranger in my dad’s home. After my mother remarried, her second husband’s two children, who lived with their mother, would visit occasionally, until they were old enough to choose on their own not to come anymore. They felt so unwelcomed by my mother, and even their father (my step-father) that it was painful to be with us. My step-brother told me much later that he thought we – my mother and sisters, were his father’s “real family,” while he and his sister, my step-father’s “real kids,” were the result of a big mistake. I had had exactly the same feeling about my relationship with my father and his second family. Another example is when a step-parent has bonded so well with his new family that the new set of children, whether stepchildren or biological children with the new spouse, trump the children from the former marriage. This plays out at important family functions, where the biological children play no part – even at the parent’s funeral.
The only one who doesn’t feel like the outsider in this family structure is the biological parent. Far from having the “easy role,” they must play the mediator, and often feel terribly torn between children and spouse. Most of the responsibility of making the new family structure work seems to fall on their shoulders. Often it’s easier for the biological parent to maintain the single-parent role with their kids; as if the parent just happens to have a live-in boyfriend / girlfriend, even once they are married. The continuing challenge of keeping each side of the equation – kids and spouse – happy is like walking a tightrope. Some will come to the task, exhausting as it is, and keep trying to cultivate a relationship between spouse and children. Some will give up when it seems like the two sides will never meet. Some biological parents, often the father, will actually pull away from one side or the other – his kids or his wife – because trying to integrate them is too hard. This is sad because it can lead to defeat of the marriage, and no one wins.
The tug of war is even more compounded when one or both ex-spouses are co-parenting their children. That ex-spouse usually comes with his or her family, with whom the biological parent must at least cooperate for the sake of the children. If both partners of the new marriage have children and an ex-spouse who co-parents, this new marriage must balance relationships and in-laws in multiple directions!
From Lonely Outsider to “Doh-Si-Doh”: Finding the Rhythm of the Dance
There’s no way that everybody will feel central to the family all the time. The task is to make it normal for everyone to be in a dance with each other, and to make the dance fun. Another essential task of a marriage is for the couple to become comfortable with each other’s separateness, or individuation – following the call of their own life development. This can be a stumbling block for many couples who resist the shift away from an early symbiotic closeness where everything they do is together. However, making this shift is essential for a successful marriage. It will also help tremendously in countering insecurities when jealousies between children and spouses arise. In essence, it’s about finding the balance where everyone needs the biological parent – the hub of the family – just a little bit less, and hopefully begin to interact with each other – step-parent and step-children, step-siblings with each other – more and more.
Step-parents can be creative about ways to connect with their new spouse’s kids. It’s a good idea for parents to discuss how the step-parent can be more involved, from attending parent/teacher conferences at school to teaching a child a skill the step-parent can do, attending basketball games together, or just taking the time to listen to the child’s telling of their day. I’ve found that when kids don’t open up right away, sometimes just hanging out in the same room, without the TV on, gives rise to conversation. And conversation gives rise to, well, finding out things about your kids. By the way, the challenge of spending non-TV time together with kids is not limited to blended families – everybody struggles with this. The first thing to do is turn off the TV, then look around for a fun way to get out of the house – together.
Balance of Power, Not Power Struggle
Not only is there a challenge in balancing alliances and keeping everyone happy. There’s often a tug of war for power.
Often in a divorce suit one parent is hoping to have more control over their children’s lives than the other parent. However, more and more often, both parents share joint custody, which means both parents have to communicate in decision-making for their kids. This is troublesome enough, but it can also lead to confusion for the new step-parent: just how involved should the new step-parent be?
A new step-parent has a difficult role to fill: is he or she a parent, a friend, a baby-sitter, or a mere adult who happens to share living space? The unfortunate side-effect to not knowing the answer to this question is that the child or children often end up with too much power. Instead of the parents acting as a team, children learn they can pit one parent against the other. They do this in biological nuclear families, but they do it even more in blended families. Children can manipulate their biological parent to feel guilty (it’s an easy place to go – parents usually feel guilty already for a divorce) for not giving them what they want. A biological parent feels uneasy about the new step-parent’s style of giving discipline, so they step in to “save” the child. The new step-parent loses their power, and the child learns he or she can get away with just about anything.
Sometimes a new step-parent will feel they have to make up for a deficit in a former spouse’s shortcomings as a parent, and “straighten the kids up.” This usually meets with defeat, and resentment on all ends. Maybe the “corrective” parenting style of a step-parent can be effective in time, but only after an initial relationship-building period has occurred, establishing a strong sense of respect and acceptance on both sides. This can and usually does take years. Until then, the step-parent is best situated to remain a firm and friendly authority figure who supports the biological parent’s role.
It is important that neither the biological parent nor the step-parent give up their role as the responsible adult in the house. In time the children will find comfort rather than resentment in the structure that you uphold. Keep in mind an interesting piece of research about children and their need for boundaries: Researchers observed children playing in a back yard. In the first case the yard was open to the neighborhood, no fence or closure. The children played together huddled close to each other and close to the house. In the next case the children played in the same size yard, this time with a secure fence around it. The children enjoyed the full length of the yard, now confident they were safe with a known boundary in place. Lesson: children need structure, boundaries, and the firm and aware presence of a competent adult in their midst. While they might outwardly bristle at parental discipline, underneath they feel relieved. They are not adults, and no matter what they might say, they really do know they want and need the adults to be in charge.
Trouble Signs – What to Watch Out For
Every family has its ups and downs, and some families have extra challenges with “high-need” children, or even “high-need” parents. A certain amount of strife is to be expected, and should not cause alarm.
However, some things are sure signs a relationship is in trouble. Here is a list that has been cultivated by many couples therapy specialists with decades of experience. Take a look, and if any of these signs has been occurring for more than a few weeks, it’s time to get some help. Remember, we didn’t come into this world knowing how to build rockets without lots of training. Why should we expect that managing the foibles of a blended family should be an easier?
1. The couple has stopped talking with each other about family issues, and even avoid each other’s company. When they do talk, it is laced with sarcasm, a deadly form of indirect anger. This is a big red flag, because it represents a breakdown in willingness to work as a team, and suggests hopelessness has set in. Many people find dealing with conflict to be difficult, which it is, until we’ve learned some effective conflict-resolution skills. Take heart: these skills work, and many therapists can help you learn them with your spouse. It’s actually easier than you think, and tremendously rewarding to actually resolve problems.
2. The household has become a democracy, in that the children are too involved in making decisions. It’s the parents’ role to make the decisions for the children, who feel burdened by too much responsibility. It has been a trend in the last generation or two to give children more of a voice in family matters, in reaction to a much more repressive parenting style in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. I think this is a good change – kids deserve to be listened to, and probably need to be heard even more. But being listened to is a separate process from kids making decisions, which must remain firmly in the hands of the adults. When adults have given too much responsibility to their children, it suggests the parents have trouble being adults themselves.
3. Some parents get into a competition about their kids, and which kids will benefit from the family resources. It becomes “my kids vs. your kids.” Once parents become polarized like this, nobody wins and everyone feels uneasy. Again, parents will benefit by talking it out with each other and developing a policy that everyone knows and agrees to. This often shows up more in older families, where couples have adult children who are expecting family benefits, like college tuition, wedding expenses, help with a down payment on a house, or even inheritances. Often, couples have a hard time getting past their fears of talking openly about what they feel comfortable with. It’s better, however, to talk it through than to wait to see how it plays out.
4. Parents are not using relationship skills to problem-solve family issues. Instead, one or the other parent unilaterally takes over parenting, disregarding the other parent’s contribution. Many step-parents have not been parents before the marriage, and don’t feel confident in their skills. The easiest thing is for the biological parent to assume full control. This might be appropriate in the beginning, but over time it is important to bring in the parental role of the step-parent, and when there are situations that he or she doesn’t know how to handle, that’s the time to ask for help from the biological parent. It’s okay to be a learner. There’s no one way to be the perfect parent, or there wouldn’t be radical parenting style shifts from one generation to the next. We are all experimenting. The biological parent has been practicing since their children’s birth. Many step-parents will enroll in a parenting class, such as Love and Logic, and many others. And all of us will regress to our own parents’ style (no matter how much we hated it growing up) when we are stressed. It takes a lot to be a good parent, so don’t beat yourself up, but do use resources.
5. The step-parent resents the biological parent’s kids coming to visit. This usually comes up after the routine has settled in and the step-parent finds that the biological children are not as accepting of the new spouse as they had hoped, or the kids are trouble-makers. “They just won’t warm up to me,” I often hear. This always suggests there is an underlying problem, where someone, often the children and the spouse, feel like outsiders. There is usually some difficult history here that needs to be dealt with – the “visiting” children didn’t get properly taken care of during a nasty divorce, or they resent their parent for moving on from the original family, or perhaps the step-parent is stuck in their expectation that their new life wouldn’t be “intruded upon” by the “leftovers” of a former marriage. These are tough images, but they do come up for people. When they do, it’s a strong indicator they would benefit from therapy. Most all of us come from imperfect families, and drag along our childhood wounds to our adult lives. There’s no shame in that, but hopefully we’ll be able to work on these issues without hurting the people we love. Therapy is a good way to do that.
6. The new step-parent feels like the new nanny. This is what I call the “Mary Poppins Myth,” that some people hope their new partner will fill the role of parent while the biological parent continues their life at work or is otherwise removed from the daily tasks of family life. Some couples agree to this arrangement, but forget to take into account that the children will be less eager to accept the new full time parent. Some partners don’t even realize they’ve put such a burden on their new spouse, but think of it as fulfilling a family tradition: “this is just how it’s done.” Whether it’s your tradition or not, you are still in a marriage that will require much more compromise and, in our culture, more equal footing. Otherwise, it is a setup for resentment to set in.
7. The children have stopped talking to the step-parent. In the first year or two, children are likely to be more ambivalent about getting close to the step-parent. But if they have moved closer and then have pulled back, there’s trouble. It’s important to investigate it sooner than later. Kids are generally less able to talk about problems than adults are, and can be even more reluctant to say something negative about a step-parent. Yet, if they feel hurt by a step-parent, and find that their biological parent is “siding with” the step-parent, the child feels more and more excluded, unimportant, and unwanted. Who wouldn’t feel angry? When this situation is allowed to ferment, long-term estrangement can develop, and that can take years to resolve. I have seen this over and over again, and the sad thing about it is that it usually starts with something very simple and mundane. The problem is that the small issues start to translate as a larger pattern or attitude – a chronic dynamic that everyone comes to expect. Again, this can happen in original (non-divorced) families as easily as in blended families, but it can be so destructive that it bears discussing here. When it gets to the point that no one can talk about it without a big blow-up, you do have another choice other than giving up: see a couples counselor. It’s better to start with couples counseling first because very often the underlying problems reside with the couple. If necessary, a session or two can include a child, to help everyone share their story and be heard. It’s always amazing to me how much is discovered by partners when they talk about things in therapy. Even after living together for years, there’s so much they don’t know about each other, often because they don’t know what questions to ask, and they often have a hard time hearing the answers. Couples therapists are skilled at helping everyone truly be heard. Once you know how the other person feels underneath the surface issue, much more resolution is possible.
Overwhelming Doesn’t Mean Impossible – Therapy Can Help!
If taking on a blended family seems overwhelming, take heart: it is. But it can also bring tremendous joy when those hard won moments finally happen, and your spouse’s child voluntarily offers a kind word, or even a small hand. When your step-daughter asks you to walk her down the aisle. When your stepson surprises you years later with a simple thank you for being a part of his life.
So many options and directions for growth open up when a couple comes to therapy. Some people think therapy is “just for nuts,” that needing therapy is a clear sign of weakness or that if you need it, something is wrong with you. That might have been true decades ago, but both therapy and the people who use it have changed a lot in the last several years. Most of the people I see are very ordinary people who are needing a little guidance in an area of their lives, or they might feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the life task set before them. Couples work is usually short term, and can help a family shift quickly to a much more satisfying way of life. Unfortunately, too many couples wait until they are on the brink of divorce before getting help, and by then it is usually too late. Some therapists advocate treating marriage like we take care of our cars: we bring them in for tune-ups. I personally have found NOTHING more challenging than being in a marriage and raising a child, and believe the help gained through therapy is the best resource there is.
Above all, when a blended family succeeds, it gives everyone the experience that marriage can work, family can be a good thing, and that we are lucky to come from family who loves us. I am hearing this more and more in my practice as grown children from blended families are able to look back with appreciation for their parents’ struggles and accomplishments. I’m also seeing more adult children whose parents, disengaged from them at some point because of divorce, have reunited and have learned to become friends. So often, these healed relationships begin with one simple gesture: reaching out.
Thanks to the following people for their resources, knowledge, and wisdom, and their generosity in sharing it.
Dr. James Bray, author of Step Families: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade, Broadway Books, 1998.
Ellyn Bader of the Couples Institute in Menlo Park, CA.
The following therapists who contributed to my understanding of issues in blended families: Roxanne Barksdale, LCSW, Amy McNulty, Ph.D., Jean Sutton, LPC, Jean Pollock, LCSW, Janet Bychek, LCSW, and Don Wilde, Ph.D.
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Beth Strong, MA, LPC Beth Strong, MA, LPC
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