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Yours, Mine, Ours, Oh My!

Recently I've had a number of couples in my practice presenting with the usual complaints: lack of communication, lack of sexual desire, emotional distancing, arguing, stress, etc. What I realized is that these couples had something else in common: they were all in second or sometimes third marriages. Each had brought children into the marriage and some had created more children together. I was struck by the difficulty these families faced in comparison with intact nuclear families. I was also struck by how little prepared they were for these difficulties. Although there is now a lot of good literature on blended families, until it's your family, you're probably not going to learn too much about it. Unfortunately, when you're in the thick of it, it's often too late.

When marriages begin without children, there is time for the couple to get to know each other and form strong bonds as married partners. This early marriage time is different than the courtship phase which is generally a happy and romantic period. In contrast, the first year can be difficult even without the presence of children. Courtship provides a foundation of romantic and sexual passion that can act as a buffer to stress that may occur later during the marriage. The first year is an important in that it is the time when couples solidify a foundation of caring and commitment. It is the time when they deepen their bond through a process of mutual and personal exploration leading to a deeper understanding of who they are individually and relationally. This is the kind of knowledge that cannot be gained outside the boundaries of a committed relationship. At an equally important level, they find out how they want to live as a couple and eventually as a family. What are the rules, roles and values that will define our family? When this phase is negotiated well, it sets the stage for the expansion of the family through the birth (or adoption) of children. Absent these preparatory stages, life can feel pretty chaotic as it often does for blended families.

Blended families have no time, even during courtship, when they are not balancing the needs of their children with the demands of the relationship. They are thrust immediately into parenthood without the foundation of a childless courtship and early marriage. In addition, they must contend with the feelings of upheaval that children of divorced families feel. Often, there are unsupportive ex-spouses who do not act in ways that facilitate the major transitions that their biological children are making. The newly married partners feel themselves pulled in all directions - the needs and feelings of their own biological children, the need to accommodate and assimilate the partner's children, and their own needs for some semblance of romance. These newly married partners often feel frustration, guilt, anger and loss.

Often the family discord is a result of unmet needs, expectations and fantasies. Newly blended families envision their life as a replica of "The Brady Bunch" (fantasy!).

Each partner may hope that the new spouse will provide much needed parenting help.There may be the (unrealistic) expectation of instant bonding and even love between the biological child and the step-parent. There is the constant need to accommodate to someone else's norms and expectations.

There are many unanticipated consequences of remarriage. Only children now have siblings; oldest children become middle or youngest children. Adolescents, experiencing their own burgeoning sexuality may be uncomfortable with the sexual energy generated between their parent and his/her new spouse. Step-siblings may not get along together. The impact on everyone of creating a new household with new rules, roles, and family cultures requires patience, fortitude and flexibility. The following are some guidelines to make the transition easier:

  1. Remain as flexible as possible. Because there is so much to accommodate, people who can roll with the punches tend to fare better than their more rigid counterparts.
  2. Don't expect emotional attachments to form quickly, or even at all. While you can make rules to govern behavior, you can't legislate feelings.
  3. Allow the biological parent to enforce the rules for at least the first two years. This does not mean that you should not expect children to treat all of the adults with respect. Children should always behave with respect to all adults.
  4. The married couple needs to carve out time for themselves and establish to the family that their commitment to each other is primary.
  5. Look for ways to begin to establish new rituals that can define the new family structure as something different from either of the prior family configurations.
  6. Respect the needs of the children to keep a strong connection to their biological parents, custodial and non-custodial. Treat the non-custodial parent with respect (even when it's hard!). Never put your child in the middle. Never make her choose.
  7. Begin to make friends with your step-children. Remember that they probably didn't choose this new family. Respect their rights to their own feelings and assimilation process. Listen to what they have to say and what they say they need.
  8. Remember that you can't control your children's lives when they are with the non-custodial parent. Again, flexibility is the key to dealing with the roller-coaster ride that is often the blended family experience.

This next part may not be palatable to many people, but I'm going to say it anyway. It is far easier to blend families with small children. They are more open to new, friendly adults coming into their lives, and developmentally, they are still in the stage of family expansion. As children get older, they need to begin the process of differentiating from their families. They become less dependent on their families and more involved with their peer group.

This process continues until they launch from the family entirely. With older children, then, their developmental need to separate conflicts with the step-family's need to from a cohesive bond. Even with children who are comfortable with their parent's choice of a new partner may, the step- family may experience difficulty trying to navigate the conflicting developmental needs of its various members. In short, it may be worth considering putting off the new marriage until the children have actually launched. Statistically, second marriages have a high rate of success when there are no children involved in the set-up of the new family. These statistics plunge dramatically when step families include children, particularly older children.


sally

Sally LeBoy, M.S. MFT (14768)
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