What to Expect when Blending a Family

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Blending Family

Stepfamilies are not like intact families. They are splintered and parts may not blend as expected. Knowing this can be a welcome relief to stepparents who are feeling guilty about their building of a relationship with their step kids.

Stepparents do not realize that it is normal to feel a persistent sense of jealousy, inadequacy, and resentment toward their stepchildren. Biological parents and their kids may not realize the small and subtle ways a stepparent can feel left out of both the marital and parental relationships. At times, they are excluded. The biological parent, who often has a source of nourishment and support in his or her children, may interpret the stepparent’s difficulty as a lack of commitment and feel that the “blending” is a failure or a loss. Both stepparent and biological parent usually consider a shift into a relationship just like a biological one to be possible. Biological parents must let go of a strong wish for an easy transition between their new spouse and children.

Susan Papernow in her classic book Becoming a Stepfamily differentiates between “outsider” (step) and “insider” (biological) relationships. Outsiders can feel jealous (and guilty) that the biological parent gets to live with and have her kids usually under the same roof at night. Unrealized and unspoken resentment may grow in the blended family “garden.” Outsiders may appear resistant to the blending with the biological family but actually may feel rejected because they do not have biological status. Outsiders may appear then as self-absorbed and then be subsequently criticized by Insiders. Arguments may appear trivial but are really about adjusting to serious loss and change. Usually the Insiders control the territory. Ex-spouses are also considered Insiders.

Insiders are torn between establishing new rules and a new culture for the family, maintaining the traditions and expectations of the biological family, and saving time and energy to save a precarious intimacy with their new spouse.  The Insiders too are facing loss of a dream of a happy intact family and can feel unsupported. Biological parents can feel frustrated, heart-broken, lonely, and frightened about loosening a close relationship with a child, and feel guilty about their children’s losses.

Normal and expected feelings of healthy Outsiders and Insiders can be judged or diagnosed as a disorder, instead of being understood as part of the process. In the research presented by Papernow, stepparents placed as an outsider in the new stepfamily creates feelings of jealousy and resentment in most normal adults. Nobody likes to feel this way. They are confusing and be a source of shame if not detected and expected. Outsiders cannot reach the status of a biological parent. Papernow reminds us that “Even the best artificial limb cannot replace the real one.” When these intense feelings are combined with lack of information about the normal experience stepparents and biological parents are at risk for feeling crazy, ashamed and inadequate.

Just as the custodial parent feels torn between her kids and her new spouse, the non-custodial parent, often the father, also feels torn between his own children, the new spouse, and the stepchildren. Fathers must divide time, money and affection. Some are not able to sustain their commitments. Now they feel like an outsider in their first and second family which is a source of shame. It may appear that they are unwilling to be there for their own children, spouse and stepchildren.

Feelings of jealousy and guilt reappear over and over with life’s milestones. Fathers whose children begin visiting less are at risk for depression. Their spouses may wonder if his grieving will ever end. Stepchildren reminds biological parent of his children and how much he misses them. Fathers need a place to share the guilt of being asked the parents to children when they can’t parent their own kids.

The children too feel multiple levels of losses and loyalty binds. Usually the child that has lived the longest in the original family may have the most to lose and be the most ambivalent about step-relationships. Usually the stronger the marriage the happier the children. Research shows the opposite in stepfamilies, because the better the new parent the more loss is felt because as one step-daughter put it, “I’m afraid to like my stepdad more than my own Dad.” These losses are especially felt by stepdaughters. Unlike intact families, close step-couple relationships can make for more conflicted step-relationships and poorer stepchild adjustment.

Dispelling blending family myths is crucial. The benefits of a step-relationship may not appear until much later in both stepparent and stepchildren’s lives. If these emotions and processes are accepted as expected, less criticism and judgment helps a spouse relax considerably. Step-relationships take extra energy. Stepfamilies work better when parents and children are not trying to force a relationship. Like intact families, each relationship between each parent and child will remain unique. The honeymoon that new spouses need to build commonality is often realized after kids grow up, not after the wedding. For more information, see Redemption Story: Blending Families.

What to Ask Before You Marry

How well can you answer these questions with a long-term view?<!–more–>

<li>What are the five most important things to you in a marriage?</li>
<li>I love you because . . . (three reasons).</li>
<li>I want to marry you because . . . (three specific reasons, not “I love you”).</li>
<li>We’re a good match because . . . (five reasons).</li>
<li>Where would you like to live?</li>
<li>How much would you like to spend your free time together?</li>
<li>How much personal/alone time do you need?</li>
<li>How much sleep do you need? Are you a morning or evening person?</li>
<li>How often do you expect to visit extended family?</li>
<li> Do you expect to be very social as a couple? To spend much time with friends?</li>
<li> Do you expect to take family vacations every year?</li>
<li>Do you plan to make a career change after you get married?</li>
Family History
<li>What did your father’s role in the family look like? Your mother’s role?</li>
<li> Do you think your parents were healthy emotionally and relationally? Why or why not?</li>
<li>How do you feel about how your parents related to each other?</li>
<li>How did your parents make decisions? Did they talk about decisions together or did one spouse make decisions without consulting his or her partner?</li>
<li> What would you like to see your roles as husband and wife look like?</li>
<li>How would you like to make decisions as a couple once you’re married?</li>
Division of Labor
<li>Who will do the following chores?</li>
<li>Cooking and preparing meals?</li>
<li>Cleaning up after meals?</li>
<li>Cleaning bathrooms?</li>
<li>Doing the laundry?</li>
<li>Taking out trash?</li>
<li>Grocery shopping?</li>
<li>Household repairs?</li>
<li>Servicing the car?</li>
<li>Yard work?</li>
<li>Planning trips?</li>
<li>Planning nights out?</li>
<li>Buying and giving gifts?</li>
<li>Planning and shopping for occasions?</li>
<li>Corresponding with family and friends?</li>
<li>Caring for aging parents?</li>
<li>Caring for pets?</li>
<li>What do you like and dislike about your parents? Your family?</li>
<li>Are there unhealthy patterns, dysfunctions, or other challenges in your family?</li>
<li>What concerns do you both have about your future in-laws?</li>
<li>Are you worried about interfering in-laws? What will you do if this happens?</li>
<li>What are your families’ expectations regarding your relationship?</li>
<li>What are your expectations regarding how your relationship with your families might change?</li>
<li>Will your families expect to see you regularly? How often?</li>
<li>What boundaries to you need to set right away?</li>
<li>What will you do about holidays?</li>
<li>What family traditions and customs would you like to continue?</li>
<li>Was church or synagogue attendance a regular part of your childhood?</li>
<li>One a scale of one to five rate the level of church involvement you prefer.</li>
<li>When you’re married, when do you want to pray together?</li>
<li>How important if Bible reading to you? Is joining a Bible study with others something you would like to do?</li>
<li>How important is spiritual leadership to you? Do you believe that one of you should take the lead, or how would both of you work together to lead the family?</li>
<li>What religious traditions are important to you?</li>
<li>Did you grow up rich, poor, or middle class?</li>
<li>What value did you learn to place on money?</li>
<li>Were you secure or insecure about money?</li>
<li>Did your parents model generosity, good shopping habits, and careful planning?</li>
<li>Was work more important than family? Was pleasure more important than wise money management?</li>
<li>Did your parents use coupons, pay bills on time, and meet financial goals?</li>
<li>Was there gambling, overspending, or spending to impress friends and neighbors?</li>
<li>Did either parent engage in high-risk ventures?</li>
<li>Did your parents have the idea that bankruptcy is okay?</li>
<li>Did your family sacrifice when needed, save, invest, and use cash versus credit?</li>
<li>Was paying for insurance, education, and retirement important to your parents?</li>
<li>Did they live on the edge of their finances now and not worry about tomorrow?</li>
<li>Do you think joint or separate accounts are appropriate in your marriage?</li>
<li>Do you think paying the bills should be done separately or together?</li>
<li>Do you work with a budget now?</li>
<li>Are you conservative or aggressive in investments?</li>
<li>What are your income goals?</li>
<li>Have you ever lost a large sum of money?</li>
<li>What mistakes have you made with money?</li>
<li>How much and what will each of you be free to spend?</li>
<li>What stress you out when it comes to money?</li>
<li>Do you tithe or give to charitable organizations?</li>
<li>How do you handle anger?</li>
<li>How do you handle anxiety?</li>
<li>How do you handle sadness?</li>
<li>How do you handle disagreements?</li>
<li>How do you solve problems?</li>
<li>How do you stay connected and close over time?</li>
<li>How do you handle resentments?</li>
<li>How do you handle “the silent treatment?”</li>
<li>One a scale of one to five how important is sex?</li>
<li>How often do you expect to have sex?</li>
<li>What worries do you have about sex?</li>
<li>Can we both initiate sex?</li>
<li>What is your attitude about giving or receiving sexual pleasure?</li>
<li>Are there limits? Acts or behavior that is not acceptable to you?</li>
<li>What would ruin sexual intimacy for you?</li>
<li>What creates passion for you?</li>
<li>What was your family’s attitude toward sex?</li>
<li>How did you learn about sex?</li>
<li>What experiences and influences from your childhood and adolescence might hinder healthy sex with your future mate?</li>
<li>Are you comfortable talking about sex? Why or why not?</li>
<li>How has the media and culture influenced what you think about sex?</li>
<li>How comfortable are you with your body? Your appearance?</li>
<li>How important is healthy sex to you and your future mate?</li>
<li>How many children would you like to have?</li>
<li>How do you feel about birth control?</li>
<li>Would one of us be a stay-at-home parent? How do you feel about that?</li>
<li>What if we’re unable to have children? How would you feel about fertility treatments?</li>
<li>How do you feel about adoption? Would you consider it, and when?</li>
<li>When would you like to start a family?</li>
<li>How would your disciplinary approaches differ?</li>
Red Flags
<li>Is your relationship more passion or more commitment-oriented?</li>
<li>Has your relationship stood the test of time?</li>
<li>Are there any bad habits or pet peeves?</li>
<li>Do you detect possible immaturity or selfishness?</li>
<li>Do you detect a critical nature?</li>
<li>Does one withdraw and isolate?</li>
<li>Is there any financial irresponsibility?</li>
<li>Is there any history of verbal or physical abuse? Controlling behavior?</li>
<li>Are there differences in core values or beliefs, especially spiritual?</li>
<li>Are there any addictive behaviors or substance use?</li>
<li>Any crossing of relationship boundaries with other in the past or currently?</li>
<li>Are both partners physically, financially, and emotionally free from past relationships?</li>
<li>Do you have your families blessing for your marriage?</li>
<li>Have you recovered from the loss of your previous marriage?</li>
<li>Have your kids recovered?</li>
<li>What will each of you change about this marriage to succeed?</li>
<li>Are you comfortable with your ex and your partner’s ex? What potential problems may arise?</li>
<li>Are you prepared for the complexities of step-parenting?</li>
<li>Are there child-custody issues, or legal issues that may appear in the future?</li>
<li>What will you need to become a successful blended family?</li>
Skill-based premarital courses lower divorce rates by 45 percent. Call us with any questions at (815) 276-3947.

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