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.
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. 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.