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The Blended Family – Hopes, Fears, And Tasks (Part 1 Of 2)
Hope springs eternal, and there’s nowhere that’s more true than a couple taking the leap of faith into a second marriage. To all those who dare to hope that their second marriage (or third, or fourth) will be better than the last, I say congratulations and good luck! It takes a lot of courage to open your heart to try again! But also, take heed: you’ll have a much better chance of success if you follow some very important guidelines, particularly if either of you have children.
Let’s face it: relationships can be a challenge. Any long term relationship between two people moves through a set of predictable and important stages, each stage bringing something rich and healing to the partners, and each stage filled with snags and potholes along the way, any one of which can capsize a relationship. In a first marriage, these developmental stages usually start out in the open – that is, without the complications of children. For instance, most couples usually go through an initial period of intense closeness and bonding, when friends complain that they don’t see you any more, and nothing seems more important or exciting than spending time with your new beloved. This is a wonderful and exciting time, and actually serves to build a strong foundation for a long term relationship. We in the field of couples counseling hope to see that a couple has been able to spend as much as two or three years in this honeymoon period. It’s kind of like putting down a very big deposit on a new home: you are investing a lot of equity in the relationship, so that when things get tough – and they will get tough – you both have a rich and full memory bank of good times, being in love, and knowing that the relationship is important to you both, to draw from. These rich memories give us the fortitude and determination to put effort into the relationship when it’s most needed.
Couples who already have children from a former relationship before they meet each other don’t have the luxury of years of time where it is “just us.” They hit the ground running, and moving in together, a challenging time for many couples, can feel like they’ve just been hired to run a company when they feel like they’re still in high school.
The Pitfalls – And What to Do About Them
Unrealistic Expectations: Parents Hope, Children Fear
If you have been in a marriage (throughout this article, the reference to marriage will always include any form of long-term committed relationship, particularly if you have lived together, including same-sex marriages) that ended, whether by divorce or the death of a spouse, you probably know how hard it is to overcome the dread of thinking you could go through it again. Most people I counsel who are going through a divorce say they can’t even imagine dating, and have terrible fears about daring to trust and become vulnerable to another person again.
But, time does heal, and remarriages are evidence of the hope that marks us as human beings. A funny thing happens when we fall in love: we lose some of our take on reality. Not only are we starry-eyed for our new love, we are starry-eyed about a future with our new love. Don’t feel bad – this is normal. But it sure helps to know what the expectations are, so we don’t feel so horrible – like we’ve failed yet again – when things don’t pan out the way we expect them to.
Great Expectations, Just Not Realistic
Here are just some of the expectations we as parents unwittingly bring to a second marriage:
– love will conquer all
– your children will love your new spouse, or even like them, instantly
– your partner’s children will appreciate all the things you do for them as a step-parent, and your partner will appreciate all your help in raising them
– that this marriage will be much better than the last one that failed
– for a better life
– that everyone will get along
– that your new spouse will make parenting easier – some even expect the new spouse to be the new nanny – the “Mary Poppins Myth”
– that the new marriage will automatically create the structure of the nuclear family, that you will be in a “real family” after all
– that your partner’s ex, and the ex’s family, will just go away. “I will have my new husband/wife all to myself.”
– that you as new spouse / step-parent will have an equal vote in the matters of the family
Of these expectations, I find the most common mistake that new step-parents make is in expecting these “new” kids to automatically love them. For the most part, it just doesn’t happen that way. The greatest gift you can give to your new blended family is to give the children plenty of time – even a year or two – to figure out that you’re safe, worthwhile, and then, maybe even likeable. But of course, that will only happen if it’s true.
Children Have Hopes Too, But Also Have More Fears
Children in blended families have expectations too, although they tend to be more realistic about not being in love with your new partner as much or as quickly as you are. But they have a lot to adjust to, much more than most parents realize.
– children hope to be happier in a stable family, in both emotional and tangible ways: more fun at family celebrations than when mom or dad was single. Less stress for mom or dad because they have found someone to share their difficulties with. And they hope to benefit from there being more money, more presents on their birthdays and holidays, maybe bigger TV’s in the living room. Kids are kids.
– they assume their biological parent will be just as doting on them as they were when they were single, but fear they will lose their parent to the new spouse
– they fear they will lose attention from mom or dad, who now has to tend to step-siblings and a more complicated family life. These fears come from the “Wicked Step-Mother Myth.” No one sees themselves as the wicked stepmother, but most of us see ourselves as Cinderella.
– they fear the new step-parent will disapprove of them simply for existing, and be a harsh disciplinarian. Even if the step-parent is not, the child may perceive him or her to be overly harsh, overly disapproving, since there isn’t as much of a counterpoint in the deep abiding love that comes with being a biological parent.
– they fear having to share their new lives with the unknown step-siblings: have to share a room, time with mom, mom’s loyalties, available money for college tuition or special trips, even inheritances.
– they fear losing contact with the non-custodial parent, especially if they allow themselves to get close to their new step-parent. They are very afraid of hurting the non-residential parent’s feelings. They may also fear having to live in two homes, and worry a lot about the parent they aren’t with when they are gone.
– children fear getting close to their new step-parent only to find that mom or dad will break up with them, too, initiating yet another devastating loss and feelings of abandonment. Kids desperately need to know they can attach to a parental figure and be safe from abandonment or neglect. Under their wariness of the new step-parent, there is often a longing to trust.
– children often hold on to the hope and even expectation that Mom and Dad will someday reunite. This is true even after one or both parents have remarried – young children can imagine that all of you – Mom, Dad, and Step-Parent, will live in one house happily ever after. Even older children, and even adult children, often long for the reunification of their biological parents.
Dealing With Expectations, Hopes and Fears – the Best Prevention
There’s no question hope is a good thing. It’s what keeps us going and motivates us to create better lives. The only trouble is when our hopes are misguided, unrealistic, and unexpressed. Too often they turn into expectations and just set us up for disappointment. After one failed marriage, disappointment too often makes a person feel they not only failed again, but that they are a failure. But such a tragic loss can be prevented by knowing what to expect.
It’s always smart to sit down with your partner and discuss as many of your expectations and assumptions as possible about family life (feel free to borrow from the list above.) It’s also a good question to ask of yourself and each other when problems do arise: what are the expectations I’ve brought to the situation? Often we expect too much, or we expect our partner to know what our own expectations are, to read our minds. They don’t, and they can’t. Even if they do know our hopes, even our assumptions, that doesn’t mean they can fulfill them, or that it’s even their job to make us happy. Keep in mind that building a strong and happy blended family is a very difficult task at best, and perhaps try to put your hopes on an extended time line. Know that each of these developments might be possible, but they will most undoubtedly take longer than you’d like. That they don’t just happen, but need our skills and patience to bring them about.
It’s also important to spend time alone with your biological children, and help them talk about their hopes and fears. If you can’t get yourself out of the way (i.e. you hope so desperately that they will love your spouse that you can’t stand it that they don’t yet like her or him) then support your child in having someone else to talk with – a counselor or another adult that they trust. It’s best if they can talk with you and tell you their fears, but remember they might be as afraid of telling you as they are of losing you. Children often resolve their issues easily once they know someone is listening, and this can prevent a lot of difficult behavior along the way.
Resentment and Jealousy – The Insider / Outsider Syndrome
No one wants to believe they enter into a new marriage only to feel excluded once the children become a part of the relationship. Yet this is one of the most predictable stages that occurs in blended families. The task of the new couple is to learn to create a sense of togetherness – to build on activities that bring teamwork and a sense of accomplishment for the team, for the two adults. While you have a ready-made set of challenges by virtue of the very existence of the children one or both of you brought to the marriage, this is a very difficult challenge to meet, especially as the first challenge in the marriage, because you have the task not just for you as a couple but for you as an extended family. When it doesn’t happen, instead of feeling like a happy, well-unified family, almost everyone feels like an outsider.
The step-parent feels like an outsider because they are just joining a team (biological parent and her or his kids) that has been going strong for years. There are hundreds of “inside jokes,” secret non-verbal communication that has developed naturally between parent and child, between siblings, and lots of subtle references made about people who are known only to the biological family. The step-parent is also not yet seen as an authority figure, a true parental disciplinarian, and is often undermined by the biological parent. This makes the step-parent feel like there is no place for them, and they often retreat with the attitude of Why bother?
The child or children often feel like outsiders of the new love affair between the biological parent and the new step-parent. If a child has become the subject of shared custody with both biological parents, and spend roughly equal time with both biological parents, they often don’t have a primary home. After a week at Dad’s, coming back to Mom and Step-Dad can make the child feel like he or she is “just visiting.” There’s a certain hidden luxury for couples whose children spend time with the divorced parent in that they get regular time off from parenting, and can enjoy a semblance of “married without children” time together. They can get close again, and recharge their batteries. But when the children come back, it can feel like they are intruding on the romantic time of the new couple. There are changes in the household they haven’t been a part of, even if it’s as simple as a housecleaning. And while the parents are adjusting to the children being back, sensitive kids will pick up that they have just interrupted something, as if you are smoothing out your clothes from an intimate moment.
If both partners have children and one set of kids lives with another parent and “visits” the other parent who is now in a new marriage, the “visiting children” feel like outsiders to the new nuclear family. As a child I visited my Dad in Germany, where he lived for 19 years with his second wife and two children from their marriage. I hardly knew my dad, let alone his second wife and my half-brother and half-sister. While they were very welcoming and loving, and accepted me readily into their “tribe,” there was no question who the new person was. I felt like a stranger in my dad’s home. After my mother remarried, her second husband’s two children, who lived with their mother, would visit occasionally, until they were old enough to choose on their own not to come anymore. They felt so unwelcomed by my mother, and even their father (my step-father) that it was painful to be with us. My step-brother told me much later that he thought we – my mother and sisters, were his father’s “real family,” while he and his sister, my step-father’s “real kids,” were the result of a big mistake. I had had exactly the same feeling about my relationship with my father and his second family. Another example is when a step-parent has bonded so well with his new family that the new set of children, whether stepchildren or biological children with the new spouse, trump the children from the former marriage. This plays out at important family functions, where the biological children play no part – even at the parent’s funeral.
The only one who doesn’t feel like the outsider in this family structure is the biological parent. Far from having the “easy role,” they must play the mediator, and often feel terribly torn between children and spouse. Most of the responsibility of making the new family structure work seems to fall on their shoulders. Often it’s easier for the biological parent to maintain the single-parent role with their kids; as if the parent just happens to have a live-in boyfriend / girlfriend, even once they are married. The continuing challenge of keeping each side of the equation – kids and spouse – happy is like walking a tightrope. Some will come to the task, exhausting as it is, and keep trying to cultivate a relationship between spouse and children. Some will give up when it seems like the two sides will never meet. Some biological parents, often the father, will actually pull away from one side or the other – his kids or his wife – because trying to integrate them is too hard. This is sad because it can lead to defeat of the marriage, and no one wins.
The tug of war is even more compounded when one or both ex-spouses are co-parenting their children. That ex-spouse usually comes with his or her family, with whom the biological parent must at least cooperate for the sake of the children. If both partners of the new marriage have children and an ex-spouse who co-parents, this new marriage must balance relationships and in-laws in multiple directions!
(This article is continued in Part 2 of 2)
Beth Strong, MA, LPC, 234 Columbine Street, Suite 300, Denver, CO 80206
303-322-4224 – http://www.bethstrong.com
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