A "yours, mine, and ours" household, whether through death or divorce, is filled with complexity and ambiguity. The greatest challenges tend to occur in families where both husband and wife have children less than 18 years old.
Stepfamilies have few traditions on which to rely; they tend to look to the myth of the "perfect family" as a standard of behavior. Consequently, most newly remarried husbands and wives expect "instant love" among blended family members. They experience bitter disappointment when confronted by the realities of daily stepfamily life.
Keep the following suggestions in mind when you are blending two families.
- Discuss the upcoming changes before your remarriage.
It is best to talk openly with your child and future spouse about fears and expectations before your remarriage. Ask each of them how they envision future family life. Correct misconceptions, but also acknowledge realistic apprehensions. Emphasize that it will take a long time to adjust to the changes and get over feeling awkward around one another. Never ask your child for permission to remarry.
- Books help ease the transition.
Read books together about stepfamilies. There are books available on the subject for children, teens and adults.
Remarriage and Stepparenting: Resource List
- Do not expect an outpouring of positive feelings.
Your child will likely have negative feelings toward your new spouse and new living arrangements. These feelings are common and natural, and should be allowed to surface. If disappointments and disagreements are not aired, resolutions are also denied.
Your child should be given permission to look upon a new stepparent initially as a friend rather than co-parent. Solid relationships evolve slowly. It takes several years to become a cohesive, interdependent family unit. Shared memories and experiences help build the foundation. Therefore, when the stepfamily is newly formed, it is usually best for the natural parent to maintain most control over child management and discipline. In this way, child and stepparent are not placed in a difficult, adversarial position from the start. As the relationship between child and stepparent evolves, co-parenting becomes more realistic.
Do not feel guilty if you find yourself loving your child more than your partner's. You fell in love with your new spouse, not your spouse's children. Avoid trying to overcompensate when parental love does not flow immediately. Accept your own ambivalent feelings.
- Try to remain patient and flexible.
Understand that children of remarriage are usually confronted with many adjustments: divided loyalties, membership in two households, realignment of sibling position, and loss of parental attention to a "newcomer," among others. Give your natural child or stepchild ample time and space to adapt.
Accept the fact that an established, predictable family routine is next to impossible with a blended family. Try to remain as flexible as possible regarding children coming in and going out to visit natural parents.
- Reserve individual time for each family member.
Maintain a strong bond between you and your new spouse. While child-related issues will likely tax your relationship, your marriage itself must not get lost in the parenting. Structure time together away from the children, whether to enjoy a weekend getaway or to savor a leisurely lunch at a restaurant.
Plan individual activities with each child, whether natural or step. One-on-one opportunities enhance the development of a relationship as well as differentiate each individual child from the "pack."
- A second parent does not replace the first.
It is best for a child of divorce to maintain a relationship with the natural parent. A child should never be forced to align with one parent against the other through words or actions. Nor should a child be asked to carry messages from one household to another. Reassure your child that "good" feelings toward one parent, whether natural or step, do not imply "bad" feelings toward the other. Older school-age children seem to experience most conflict over divided loyalty.
All parents, whether natural or step, need to accept the fact that each will play some role in their child's life. Communication and cooperation among all parents is critical.
Written by Donna Warner Manczak, Ph.D., M.P.H.