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.

Blending Family Myths

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.

For more information, see  What to Expect When Blending a Family and Redemption Story: Blending Families.