Redemption Story: Blending Families

By Dan Blair Marriage Counselor and Family Therapist

The challenges of remarriage and blending families after the wounds of divorce or the death of a spouse is likely to be more stressful than the loss of the first marriage. Many hungering for a second chance are yearning for intact family stability, but there are differences between original families and blended families. Loving your biological family is automatic and natural; learning to love a new family takes an extra “step,” a choice to treat non-biological kids as you would your own. Another difference between the original biological family and the blended family can also occur. With biological families, the best thing you can do for the kids is love the other parent, and that does not change even when divorced or after death. With blended families, showing affection to the new spouse may be difficult for the kids, and may cause a sense of loss and possibly resentment. Protecting time between the biological relationships can provide relief to counter natural feelings of jealousy, inadequacy and resentment. Finally, another difference between the two kinds of families are indicated by the stressors. For the original parents, security is threatened most by financial or intimate issues. For blended families, parenting issues are the top problem reported. Being aware of the issues unique to blended families can save years of struggle due to unrealistic expectations.

Blended families are complex, and complexity is stressful. Stress can strengthen biological bonds and weaken other bonds. Over time as blended families forge a new identity they remain vulnerable but are strengthened by overcoming opposition together. This takes flexibility, adaptability, and a sense of humor when needed. The key to building new bonds is low pressure, giving kids all the time in the world to connect, and finding middle ground when there is a culture clash. Bonds are built best when there is no demand for it. In addition, Susan Papernow, a renown researcher on stepfamilies, uses the terms “insider” and “outsider” to reflect biological bonds, and step-bonds. Ron Deal, in his book “The Smart Stepfamily,” refers biological bonds as having auto-responses, like auto-acceptance, auto-access (my space is your space), and auto-patience and grace to one’s own kids, and that an extra step may be needed to provide that in step-relationships. In step-relationships, three weeds can prevail: jealousy, inadequacy, and resentment. These natural feelings in normal people are fed by a sense of loss. These feelings of loss, including loss of time with biological parents and kids, appear throughout life especially at major life events. When there is uncertainty, fear or resistance in stepchildren, kids are often feeling the loss. It must be acknowledged and expressed. Stepparents have to learn to not take it personally.  The other biological parent may have to give some kind of permission to develop a step-relationship. These efforts on the parent’s part may take a lot of pressure off the kids and reduce their anxiety about step-relationships. Though step-bonds are different than biological bonds, both kinds can grow strong, and are often the strongest after the kids are grown.

Since a healthy marriage is crucial for a healthy family, the best thing you can do for your kids is invest in your marriage. The top-down trickle effect impacts kids. Kids will benefit from a secure marriage. That means the marriage comes first, but biological bonds are not neglected, and step-relationships benefit from these prerequisites. Kids don’t want to be in the middle of a contest for a biological parent’s attention.

When it comes to parenting, biological parents are the most effective, but declaring your loyalty to your spouse can enable the stepparent to back you up. The biological parent has relational authority and the stepparent has positional authority, but is ineffective without the biological parent taking the lead in family routines and discipline. Since there probably is some sort of family culture clash, meeting in the middle when it comes to parenting decisions is probably the best. The toughest time reported by Deal to start a step-family is between the ages of 10 and 15. Error on the side of protecting your marriage to limit the struggle.

For more information: What to Expect When Blending a Family and Blending Family Myths.

The challenge to build new relationships with a new spouse and new kids and parent together in a blended family is hard enough but some feel out of place or even ostracized by their religion when faced with divorce and remarriage. Also, stepparents can feel like second class citizens in religious communities. Churches have forbid leaders who have been divorced. The Bible, though, is marked by dysfunctional people and families even in the “faith hall of fame” (Hebrews 11).  God divorced Israel at one point and Christians refer to His remarriage to the Church. Even Jesus had a stepdad.

On a personal note, when feeling trapped, choose trust. God may not always be seen, but we know from the Bible that he does not forget. Throughout Scripture we see the gradual unfolding of God’s plan, even though like any good movie there are times where hope is lost. Hanging on to your faith is sometimes all you got. God is in the business of redeeming all our pain and using it to change lives.

How to Stay Married

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Marriage Counseling

At times people think about how problems would be solved if they were married to someone else. Some problems may be solved this way, but it also is true that we carry our response to problems from relationship to relationship. John Gottman, a leading marital researcher, gives this example:

Paul married Alice and Alice gets loud at parties and Paul, who is shy, hates that. But if Paul had married Susan, he and Susan would have gotten into a fight before they even got to the party. That’s because Paul is always late and Susan hates to be kept waiting. She would feel taken for granted, which she is very sensitive about. Paul would see her complaining about this as her attempt to dominate him, which he is very sensitive about. If Paul had married Gail, they wouldn’t have even gone to the party because they would still be upset about an argument they had the day before about Paul’s not helping with the housework. To Gail when Paul does not help she feels abandoned, which she is sensitive about, and to Paul Gail’s complaining is an attempt at domination, which he is sensitive about. The same is true about Alice. If she had married Steve, she would have the opposite problem, because Steve gets drunk at parties and she would get so angry at his drinking that they would get into a fight about it. If she had married Lou, she and Lou would have enjoyed the party but when they got home the trouble would begin when Lou wanted sex because he always wanted sex when he wants to feel closer, but sex is something Alice only wants when she already feels close.

Even rock-solid marriages have sensitivities like the ones described above. This is where it can hurt. It is common to think of marriage as something that is difficult, discouraging, and even hurtful. Many think of personal failure. It is difficult to respond well in an intimate relationship when we are not treated well. We all can think of examples where we are not treated well. Maybe you can think of a time you were betrayed by a childhood friend. Or, you ask your teenage daughter how her evening went, and she nearly bites off your head. Possibly you are caring for aging parents and in spite of all your efforts, they are still unhappy. Or, you are unhappily married but stay together for a number of reasons. Others do not. Every 45 seconds a marriage ends in divorce (Dr. Greg Smalley).

An incredible statistic is the one that predicts divorce. Marriage is one of the most researched topics over the last 40 years and this prediction is well-documented. John Gottman and other researchers underscore that your response, when you are treated poorly in your marriage, is predictive of eventual divorce with 91 percent accuracy.

It is not exactly what is said, or what is done, that is so predictive. It is the feeling that one spouse is above or below the other. It results in defensiveness. It can come from dwelling on the injustices in your relationship, or from ruminating on the weaknesses of the other. It leaks out in one’s tone, facial expressions, and non-verbal body language. It is contempt. We often do not mean to be contemptuous. Maybe you just want to bring up an issue, or just talk about it, and your spouse interprets it as criticism and wants to defend, attack back, and finally withdraw. Dan Allender, in his book with Tremper Longman III, Intimate Allies says that “many couples live with an underlying contempt for each other.” Later they write, “Spouses degrade each other when they show a contemptuous, shaming, judgmental spirit.”

We are all treated poorly at times. We all have different desires and these can turn into expectations. When these expectations are not met, we get angry, or at least disappointed. We can feel that the other is not living up to their end of the bargain. The contract is not being fulfilled. If you a sign a contract, there are certainly expectations to be met. If you use that mentality in marriage, you are set up for more disappointment and hurt. Tension develops between the idea of marriage being a contract, and marriage being a covenant.

So what do spouses do, who generally get treated well, in their marriage, act at those moments when they are not treated well?

If there is any recourse from a hardened heart to one that is open, safety is key. It is hard to open up and admit feelings and failures, if you are afraid of your partner’s response. If one feels safe, you can be honest about feelings and failures. It creates a joint struggle to expose the beautiful, and the broken. It allows for true love, the grace that provides the elements needed to grow, and it feeds passion.

Contempt, on the other hand, is beyond the inevitable frustration with your spouse. It does not just say that I am angry, afraid or sad; it puts the emphasis on that the other is wrong or bad. We are all wrong or bad at times. We all struggle. But people that get treated well do not put down the other resulting in defensiveness. This approach seeks to make sense of your partner, and understand what he or she is feeling, and to make his or her feelings as important as your own. Marital researchers underscore that this non-judgmental approach happens in the context of equal regard, creating a sense of safety. It acknowledges underlying needs on both sides of the equation.

Here are common needs for men and women, as highlighted in Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn’s research-based books on relationships, For Men Only and For Women Only.

Women need to be pursued. They are wired for relationship. Women feel it when something is missing here. They write, “Pursuit is likely to make you a great husband in her eyes.” Relationships need an infusion of energy like anything else of value. A little time can yield big dividends.

In the movie, Parent Trap, Nick asks his ex-wife. Elizabeth, about what happened between them. He said, “It ended so fast. So about the day you packed, why’d you do it?” She replied, “Oh, Nick. We were so young. We both had tempers, we said stupid things, and so I packed. Got on my first 747, and . . . you didn’t come after me.” After a period of dead silence, Nick admitted, “I didn’t know that you wanted me to.” Elizabeth felt if she asked him to come after her, she would never know if he would on his own.

Men need to be proud of. They are wired for accomplishment. Men feel it when something is missing here. The authors write, “What is at stake isn’t his pride as much as his secret feelings of inadequacy as a man.” Many unmarried men described feeling inadequate as a major barrier to getting married in the first place. They do not want to feel inadequate the rest of their lives.

What if I am not open to this kind of covenantal approach? Impulsivity, stress, lack of time and energy, built-up anger, hurt and resentment are all facts of life but get in the way. A formidable obstacle is the belief that one’s partner is more to blame for the relationship problems. An urgent need is for personal support to make personal changes from reading, friends, and support groups.

What if my partner isn’t open to this kind of covenantal approach? This kind of approach is for the sake of the giver as much as the receiver. It allows the giver to feel settled and in control about their part, even if your partner does not respond well. Researchers underscore that when one partner is not treated well, this is precisely the time that this approach is needed. When it gets tough, take a break and come back allowing both sides time to process to a better conclusion. Or break the discussion and ask your partner for proposals, or make proposals. Living in a fallen world and being self-responsible means that we have to set personal boundaries. The challenge, according to marital researchers, is to not look down on your partner in the meantime, because looking down on your partner itself puts your relationship at risk.

Is My Marriage Over?

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Couple Facing DivorceStatistics show that more and more Baby Boomers in their 50s and 60s are divorcing. Why?

The Baby Boomer generation is among the first to see divorce as a more acceptable option, and more enter this age group already divorced. Other common reasons for divorce among people over age 50 include anger issues, abuse, infidelity, and addiction. Many are already divorced, or have waited for their kids to be on their own before making changes.

While the number of failed marriages is often thought of as around 50 percent, the general divorce rate is lower, with recent reports ranging from twenty to forty percent. In 2001, the rate was reported to be 41 percent. “This highest rate of divorce in the 2001 survey [of the Fertility and Family Branch of the Census Bureau] was 41 percent for men who were then between the ages of 50 and 59, and 39 percent for women in the same age group,” says Scott M. Stanley of the University of Denver.1

Battered by the economy and subject to longer life spans, people are left with little financial cushion. Divorce divides what people have left and taps into insurance and medical expenses, property division (including house, cars, etc.), assets and liabilities, retirement plans, and business valuations. These have to be split in an equitable way. Divorce also creates a need for additional financial spousal support.

Could you be headed for divorce? Here are ten of the top signs your marriage may headed for trouble.

  1. A wall of resentment, built brick by brick. Depending on how you or your mate handles anger and resentment, that wall is not coming down, so intimate feelings and thoughts will not survive.
  2. A pattern of negative thinking about your spouse. If the relationship is entrenched, positive feelings are no longer available.
  3. Loneliness in the relationship or an inability to have fun with each other. A good adventure can be more bonding than sex.
  4. Continuous criticism that turns into contempt.
  5. You or your spouse make demands on the other.
  6. You or your spouse is continuously on the defense.
  7. Nearly all of your energy, or that of your mate, is poured into other endeavors besides the relationship.
  8. Someone special is waiting in the wings, or there’s the thought that I can do better.
  9. No trust = no relationship.
  10. There’s no external source of hope and commitment, such as God.

If your marriage is experiencing any of these challenges, it’s time to overcome these entrenched negative patterns. Resentment usually causes one spouse to become disinterested in the relationship and unable to believe his/her partner will ever change. Unfortunately, if you or your spouse has lost interest in your marriage and is spending time fantasizing about the possibility of someone else (or is actually spending time with someone else), your marriage has a lower chance of recovery. However, there are some things you can do.

* Discover what makes you and your partner feel loved. Focus on what you appreciate about your spouse, and respond to bids for reconnection. The age of the forties, fifties, and sixties is a time to redefine one’s self after raising kids, settling in a career, or to confront dissatisfactions in life. One’s marriage is often reevaluated during this time. The marriage sinks or swims. Treat your spouse like a best friend, overlook irritations, create excitement in your life and share it with your partner. Create rituals and traditions and support each other’s dreams.

* Learn proper conflict resolution skills. This is the most crucial aspect to rebuilding your relationship. What seems insignificant, if not addressed, can germinate into a tangled mess in which the special feelings you had for each other are lost. Nothing happens unless people feel understood, so avoid criticism, which leads to the attack and defense mode. Look for alternative solutions to what each side is proposing. Then, make agreements – and secondary agreements that apply if the primary agreement is not kept – to build trust.

* Give your disinterested partner some emotional space, rather than put pressure or guilt on him/her. Instead, make personal changes more in line with the kind of spouse you would like to be. Develop your own identity and self-confidence, because those changes give you the best chance at being an attractive partner and will help if divorce is unavoidable.

The lowest rate of divorce can be found among those couples that prioritize regular spiritual activities together. One study led to the National Association of Marriage Enhancement, in Phoenix, Arizona (www.nameonline.net) to report that when couples prayed together on a daily basis, less than 1% of those couples would end up getting a divorce. The numbers were 1 out of 1156.

1http://www.divorcesource.com/ds/main/u-s-divorce-rates-and-statistics-1037.shtml