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.

What to Expect when Blending a Family

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Blending Family

As much as one can wish, starting over in a blended marriages has expectations are not the same, and many times the opposite of what one can expect in the biological family. The difference is attributed to “insiders” and “outsiders” in the step-family. This normal and natural dynamic creates unexpected feeling of loss, which appears as jealousy, inadequacy and resentment. Competition develops between insiders and outsiders. Biological parents want more understanding for their kids, and stepparents want more structure and discipline. Add to this underlying pressure is inevitable culture clashes between the “old ways” and the “new and improved ways.”

Susan Papernow in her classic book Becoming a Stepfamily differentiates between “outsider” (step) and “insider” (biological) relationships. Parents are stuck insiders. Stepparents are stuck outsiders. Outsiders can feel invisible, alone and feel guilty about their bond with the stepchildren. Biological parents and their kids may not realize the small and subtle ways a stepparent can feel left out. Stepparents do not realize that it is normal to feel a persistent sense of jealousy, inadequacy, and resentment. One parent, and not the other, gets to live with and have her kids usually under the same roof at night. The outsider position can be exhausting even for the most devoted step-parent. The biological bond is impossible to replicate, but it helps if the blended family starts before the kids are 4. Both stepparent and biological parent usually consider a shift into a relationship just like a biological one to be easier than it is. Step-bonds are often the strongest after the kids are grown.

Outsiders may appear as uninterested. Arguments in the family that may appear to be about trivial issues are really about adjusting to serious loss and change. Usually the Insiders control the territory. Ex-spouses are also considered Insiders. 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. Biological parents must let go of a strong wish for an easy transition between their new spouse and children.

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. Step-children 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.

Children struggle with loss and loyalty binds. Parents renew their dream of family life, which is often not shared by the children. The step-relationship is competitive with the biological relationship. A positive step-relationship may create simultaneous sadness. Usually the stronger the marriage the happier the children. Research shows that stepfamilies are different, because a good step-parent means that loss is felt because as one step-daughter put it, “I’m afraid to like my step-dad more than my own Dad.” These losses are especially felt by older step-daughters. Step-parents can’t expect to have the same kind of bond as with their biological children. Patricia Papernow, a step-family expert, reminds us that “Even the best artificial limb cannot replace the real one.”

Parents usually want more love for their kids, and step-parents want more discipline. Parents may feel guilty that their kids had to suffer through a divorce, and may undermine their second marriage to cater to the kids. Ron Deal, in his book “The Smart Stepfamily,” refers biological bonds as having auto-responses, like auto-grace, auto-access (my space is your space), and auto-patience to one’s own kids. The biological parent, who often has a source of nourishment and support in his or her children, may interpret the stepparent’s difficulty to bond as a lack of commitment or effort. Blood-bonds are better than step-bonds in discipline.

Imagine learning the customs and expectations of a distant country. This culture clash affects parents and children. 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. Children struggle with too much change. There are key differences in the family they were in to the family they are now in. Showing affection is comforting for biological kids with biological parents, but for stepchildren seeing affectionate stepparents can be disturbing. Unlike intact families, a good marriage can make for more poorer stepchild adjustment. In addition, what if these two countries got to war and the conflict continues with one’s “ex.” Every transition from home to home would be a move into enemy territory.

Nobody likes to feel this way. Adjustment to stepfamily is more stressful than adjustment to divorce. The feelings of parents, children, stepparents and stepchildren are confusing and can  be a source of shame and resentment if not detected and expected. Outsiders cannot reach the status of a biological parent. 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. 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 may not be realized after the kids are grown. For more on redeeming the past, see Redemption Story: Blending Families.