One-third of Utah marriages include children from a former marriage or relationship, according to a recent report. That means that one-third of that state’s new families are “blended families”. While I don’t know the statistics for our own state and area I dare say it is likely not much different.
There are many terms for families in which members from different family units come together to form a new or additional family structure, whether by remarriage, adoption, cohabitation, or other means. 60 percent of U.S. children spend some time living in one of these non-traditional family structures, suggesting that perhaps the “normal” family is no longer normal, at least for many people.
But like the horrible joke about the frog in a blender (“What’s green, red and goes 100 mph?”) life in a blended family can be a vicious whirlwind of challenges and emotions. It is tough enough making decisions with the spouse you love, daily decisions that impact many lives on many levels. Imagine making those—and a whole slough of others—with one or two ex-spouses with whom you have not historically made great decisions and whom you may not trust. Then throw in additional sets of grandparents and others to accommodate and include in decisions.
Suddenly that frog seems to have it pretty good!
Some of the best practical advice comes from Clifford Sager and his colleagues who specialize in treating remarried families.
1. Accept that it will take at least two years for a blended family to reach some sense of “normalcy” or equilibrium. Newlyweds take time to adjust to married life, and couples adapt in major ways as each new baby is added. Blended families also take time to adapt and develop a sense of what is normal for them.
Keep in mind that there are few models for blended families. General authorities don’t give talks about them, and most don’t look anything like the Brady Bunch (where all vestiges of former spouses and parents were gone before the first episode). Be patient with each other and with yourself as you struggle and experiment to find what works for you all.
2. Birth parents need to handle the heavy discipline. I know this may strike some of you as unnatural, but it actually takes into account the natural tendency for children to trust the parent whom they have loved for years. You can imagine how hard it would be to accept demands and corrections from someone you’ve not known for long, especially if you don’t yet know how much they care about you.
It is also hard for birth parents to accept the new spouse correcting the children. Even if they welcome the parenting assistance, the first time they see or hear someone acting angry or too demanding, their protective instincts are likely to kick in, creating a natural rift that hurts you all. It often results in serious problems with the former spouse as well.
3. The new marriage partner should play a key support role, like an exceptional aunt or uncle. What are the hallmarks of the best uncles and aunts? They are very friendly and kind to the children, they take an obvious and active interest in them, and they consult frequently with parents behind the scenes to make sure they are on the same page.
Wise step-parents realize that they can play an important role in the lives of children who have been hurt and threatened by the loss of a parent in their daily lives. They have the opportunity to step back just a bit and play a very supportive role for both child and spouse, rather than stepping up to correct. This relieves both child and step-parent of stepping into chopping blades of the family blender.
These are just three simple ideas, but they can make a world of difference. I’ve witnessed the wisdom of these principles in my own life as well as in my practice, where I have worked with hundreds of blended families over the years.
Michael D. Williams is a licensed psychotherapist, a Marriage and Family Therapist with over 25 years’ experience. You can read his articles and offer your comments, questions and suggestions at MichaelWilliamsCounseling.com, or call him at (208)360-2365.Share