While most of us who marry intend it to be for a lifetime, about half of all first marriages in the United States end in divorce. Divorce ends not only a couple relationship based at least initially on attraction, trust and commitment; it marks the end of a dreamed future as a family. Despite the pain that most divorces bring, the desire to be happily married doesn’t seem to end, since most of those who divorce will eventually remarry.
Marrying at any age or stage of life is a challenge and a good deal of personal work and adjustment, but choosing to marry for the second (or more) time brings with it some additional complications. The most prominent complexity involves entering into an already existing family system as stepparent to the new spouse’s children.
As a therapist, I have noticed that a strategy for entering into relationship with the new spouses’ children seems to always take a back seat to the excitement, distractions and stresses of a new love, moving into a single household, and planning a wedding. Many adults who blend families believe, with good intention, that settling in as a new family will be easy as pie. After all, most of them already are parents, and have come this far as a new couple. How hard can it really be?
Well, it can be really, really hard.
I don’t believe one can be too deliberate or mindful when joining an already existing family, especially one that has been stressed by divorce or the death of a parent. In my practice, I frequently consult with adults who are planning to remarry, but whose children, especially teenagers, have grown increasingly angry, sad, disrespectful, demanding, or even hostile to their parent’s new partner the longer they are in the family circle. What was once a ride of excitement and anticipation erupts into bitter conflicts about moving homes, changing schools, losing friends, shifting visitation schedules, add step-siblings, and confusion over family roles and responsibilities. It can become so divisive couples may consider calling the whole thing off.
What’s an excited but hopeful new stepparent to do? I’d like to offer some basic strategies that can help your new family system adjust, adapt and thrive through the necessary shifts that come with merging family systems.
- Slow down! Perhaps the most important thing any new couple can do as it plans to blend families is to take it as slow as possible. Every family, no matter how fractured or stressed, holds loyalties and patterns of relating and functioning that need time to adapt to new people. I frequently tell my clients that though marriages may begin and end, families are forever. Don’t assume everyone will happily embrace your presence without some time to adjust.
- Take an outsider’s position. While all of us know what it’s like to be part of our own families of origin, and the family of choice we created as adults, you have never been part of a family exactly like your new partner’s. Be curious, respectful, and observant. Learn about how this family works. Become a student of the new family you want to join.
- Don’t try to become Mom or Dad to your partner’s children. Always remember and respect the role your new partner’s former spouse has with the children. It doesn’t matter whether they are awful parents, in prison, or deceased: children are loyal to their biological parents, and will fight you tooth and nail should you ever forget it. You may one day be called Mom or Dad, but don’t ever begin this way. Strive instead to be a positive, new adult friend in the children’s lives and a respectful, tactful partner in the eye’s of the children’s mom or dad.
- Allow the bio-parents to discipline the children. Family rules, expectations, negotiations and limits can create serious, lasting difficulties for children and their new stepparents. Don’t try to discipline the children alone. Allow their parents to enforce the family expectations. Dialogue about the children privately with your new spouse, and in matters of discipline, defer to your partner. If you keep your distance, eventually you’ll be able to set your own limits. Just not at first.
- Build relationships with the children one on one. Don’t assume that joining the family at Chucky Cheese every month is going to create a close bond with your new spouse’s five-year-old son, or that attending a few of your new 16 year old stepdaughter’s basketball games is going to make her think of you as a loyal fan. Taking the time to talk regularly with each child privately, reading to them, listening to their stories, going out somewhere easy and fun together is going to help bridge that long divide between stranger and stepparent. Take it easy, let them set the pace, and you will become a new friend instead of an unwelcome outsider.
While these ideas can go a long way in helping you make positive, lasting adjustments to a blended family, don’t suffer alone if things aren’t going well. Family therapists are mental health professionals who can help when family relationships get strained or problematic. Going to therapy as a couple or family regularly for a while can give you the skills and courage to recreate a happier family experience. After all, that’s what getting married and sharing our lives as families is all about.