By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.
The task of blending families is daunting. A step-family is not the same as a biological family. It can be one of the most difficult maneuvers, even for otherwise successful parents and productive members of society. Different personal and family histories create expectations that seem impossible to adjust. What makes a marriage work does not make a step-family work. Parents renew their dream of family life, which is often not shared by the children. And then, there are the other members of the family – the ex-spouses, or in other words, co-parents.
E. Mavis Heatherington reveals in her research documented in her book For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, that is takes five to seven years to reduce the tension found in new step-families. Patricia Papernow agrees, saying that it takes a step-family an average of seven years to experience authenticity and intimacy. James Bray in his research found that a loving well-functioning step-family does not act or think like a family for two or three years. Some experts suggest that it may take as many years as the age of the child at the time of remarriage. Meanwhile, protecting time within the biological sub-units of the step-family affirms that the relationships with primary attachments are protected. That is not an indication of family division. Often step-parents can’t expect to have the same kind of bond as with their biological children. Knowing what to expect when blending families is a must.
Here are common step-family myths:
- Love between family members will happen quickly.
- We will do it better this time around.
- Our children share our family dreams.
- Our family and parenting styles will blend well.
The challenge is real, especially in view of a reported 60 to 65 percent divorce rate. The chance of divorce when step-children are involved is 50 percent higher than remarriages without step-children. Making the marriage work is top priority. Parents may feel guilty that their kids had to suffer through a divorce, and may undermine their second marriage to cater to the kids. Parents may expect the stepfamily to be better than biological family. Parents need to confront each other behind closed doors, and never criticize a parent in front of the kids. The marriage, which may be one of the most vulnerable relationships in the step-family, needs to be protected and not in competition with the biological children. There is enough love and reassurance to go around for both relationships.
Co-parents that keep their kids out of conflict greatly increase the chance of the children’s successful adjustment. Signs of cooperation between the parents are healing for the kids. Ron Deal, in his book The Smart Step-Family, compares the two homes of divorced parents to two countries with different customs and expectations. Imagine how hard it is for kids to adjust, and then imagine these two countries going to war. Every transition would be a move into enemy territory.
Giving the blended family to develop is crucial. Most tension is the result of expectations that are unrealistic or premature. Guard the marriage, a fragile relationship in a blended family, and the relationship with the biological children, a bond that needs to be respected. Take time and build a new relationship with the stepkids. They are often still grieving the loss of their parent’s marriage. When you first starting dating your new spouse, you took your time before you started acting like a spouse with the expectations of a spouse. Even though you may be living with your stepkids, take your time before acting like a parent with the expectations of a parent. From a child’s point of view, the starting point of the relationship is when the children move in with a new step-parent, not the courtship. Biological parents and children have an attachment bond that is strong even before the kids can talk, and it has been strengthened over the years as the child has positive experiences or even wishes he or she has positive experiences with his or her mom and dad. In this context, the negativity from discipline is much better tolerated. As trust develops, so will one’s influence.