A friend of mine recently asked me for some advice on blended families. To quote her, “I am in one and it’s the hardest thing I have ever done.”
She is a woman of wisdom because she is aware of the problem and not blindly ignoring it, hoping that love will be enough. Love is rarely enough when the newly-married parents know and love each other, but the children of the new relationship see only a sea of strangers in which they are expected to swim.
Preschoolers and New Love
Depending on the ages of the children, new couples will face a different set of problems. With very young children (assuming you each have children of similar ages) the adaptation by the children spontaneously could be fairly smooth. However, if there is a jealous former spouse/parent in the background, even very young children get the message that “it is not okay” to love or even like the new parent.
For children up to the age of reason, ideally you would bond with the “other” biological parent to guarantee a bond with the child. That is not easy. You have probably spent hours listening to why your beloved had to get a divorce, how mean/cruel/irrational/or just plain crazy the former spouse is or was, and frankly you are programmed to not like him or her. Then, if you like them or even pretend to, you risk alienating your new love who generally wants his or her “new team” to be on his or her side.
Age of Reason and Unreasonable Reactions
When children are between the ages of 7 and 15, blending problems become somewhat more complex. Now they themselves are old enough to feel jealous of both “new siblings” and “new people” in their father or mother’s lives. And this is such a smart generation that they are very adept at causing problems in the new relationship by subtle and not so subtle manipulations. “She was mean to me,” “he does not understand me,” “all you want to do is spend time with him or her and their children,” “our money is spent on them,” and “if you really loved me you would always side with me.” The psychological war games go on. All this is happening, ironically, at a time when you and your love are still getting your own footing in the new romance or marriage, and have not yet learned to read each other’s subliminal signals.
Late Teens to Early Twenties
The problems with older teens from 16 on up are predictably tough. Teenagers can rebel against even their own parents with a vengeance, and adding a new adult to the hormonal mix can be volatile indeed. At an age where they may be bigger than either of you and strongly opinionated, teens are old enough to require a united front from all the adults in their lives.
Some Recipes for Blending
Mix the ingredients slowly. Even though you and your beloved are totally enamored, you have to give your children time to catch up. If they are given the opportunity to know and appreciate and even safely criticize the new love in your life, they will begin to feel safe. New relationships are not available “on demand,” and, in fact, the more demands that are made, the less likely it is that love will grow naturally.
Avoid avoidable changes. If economically possible, start your new lives in the same school district or neighborhood that the children already know. Involve all the children in the planning of a new home or location or even the overall new life plan, so they do not feel they were suddenly dropped into the “Land of Oz.”
Keep respect in the recipe. If you and your new significant other model respect for each other and even respectful disagreement, the children will imitate you. Neither of you should treat the other’s children differently than you would want your children to be treated: a variation on the Golden Rule. Criticizing the other person’s child is never a good idea, even if you are simply agreeing with their own criticism of their own child. Let them complain and listen respectfully, but avoid the temptation to “pile on.”
Everyone has that “Mama or Papa Bear” gene that reacts badly to any attack on their young by an “outsider.” Hard as it is to admit, until the new blended family has actually blended, you both are “outsiders” to each other’s children.
Throw some mercy in the pot: for all your sakes. This blending business is tough for everyone—for the new couple who want to make sure they live happily ever after and for their respective children who are being promised the best, but fear the worst. Each person in this new blend needs reassurance, understanding, love, support, and forgiveness for the mistakes each will inevitably make. Whatever new family dynamics you are “cooking up” will not look like anyone’s previous family, so you are all making something entirely new. Try to keep humor and perspective and mercy in the mix.
My friend is right when she says that creating a successfully-blended family is one of the hardest things she has ever done. The good news is that done right, a blended family can literally double everyone’s family traditions, relationships and loves.