Blending Them In Without Mixing Them Up (Part 1 of 2)

One of my first introductions to a blended family was The Brady Bunch. Every Friday night, we tuned in to watch Mike Brady and his three sons and his new wife, Carol, and her three daughters skillfully navigate the challenges and pitfalls of their blended family -- and all in less than thirty-minutes.

Some say the Bradys didn’t have it as rough as most blended families, but, hey, what about the time the entire clan had to help Jan cope with the trauma of wearing glasses? Or when Greg was faced with the gut-wrenching decision of voting for someone other than his stepsister to be captain of the cheerleading squad? Boy, those were tough times! If not for the Solomon-like wisdom of Alice, the housekeeper, the Bradys could have easily ended up as just another divorce statistic.

If only step-parenting could be as easy as The Brady Bunch made it look! In reality, blending families together without mixing them up can be enormously difficult and challenging.

Studies show that half of all Americans have been, or will be, in a stepfamily at some point in their lifetime. With an overall divorce rate as high as 50%, it’s a challenge to maintain an intact family, and for couples in stepfamilies the odds are even worse, with the divorce rate nearing 60%.

Gayle Peterson, Ph.D. observed, “If the joining of two individuals in marriage is comparable to blending two different cultures, then the joining of two individuals with histories of past marriages, divorce and children must be the joining of two different galaxies.”

So, what can you do to improve your odds of a healthy, successful blended family? Here are some important keys:

Make your marriage a priority

To be honest, this may be the hardest thing you have ever done. But if you want your family to thrive, you must realize that the foundation of every successful blended family is a strong bond of commitment between the husband and wife. Remarried couples have more distractions in their lives compared to most first marriages – ex-spouses, children (especially if they act out in opposition to their new parent), in-laws, financial obligations, new schools, new home, new friends, etc. Every one of these can create conflict in the marriage. If the bond between the husband and wife is weakened the odds of successfully blending two families together aren’t good.

Mom and Dad must take time to be alone and develop a strong bond outside their parenting roles. A strong marriage produces more patience, understanding, cooperation and forgiveness, all of which are key ingredients for surviving the difficult times.

Be sensitive to your child’s feelings

Remarriage is a challenge for everyone, but especially for the children. Their parent’s decision to remarry often represents the loss of a dream – the dream of their biological family staying together forever. Even children whose parents had a terrible relationship fantasize that someday everyone will be happy together. The grief from this loss is painful and it can last for a long time.

Many children in a stepfamily will also experience anger, confusion, jealousy and other unpleasant emotions. Unfortunately, these emotions are typically expressed through acting out. I caution parents not to respond only to the misbehavior but to dig deeper to find the pain behind it.

Encourage your children to talk about their feelings, and then listen without judgment or criticism. You may not like everything you hear, but it is important to provide a safe and nurturing environment for them to respectfully share their emotions. The best way to encourage kids to open up is to be transparent with your own feelings. When you demonstrate openness and sensitivity to your children’s feelings you strengthen the foundation of security and trust they want and need to travel through the transition.   

Develop realistic expectations

In his book, “Living in a Stepfamily Without Getting Stepped On”, Dr. Kevin Leman reminds couples of the importance of maintaining realistic expectations as they establish their new family. He uses the formula, Expectations minus Reality = Disillusionment. To avoid being disillusioned, keep your expectations realistic.

One major area of expectation is how much time it takes to blend successfully. The dream of instantly becoming “one big happy family” is one that repeatedly sets families up for disappointment. It is important to allow love and unity to build over the years and to accept the fact that it begins with helping family members to establish tolerance and respect for one another.

Be supportive of your child’s other biological parent

As bad as some situations may get with your child’s other biological parent, it is critical that you control your feelings and comments related to the added stress they may cause your family. Badmouthing your ex will hurt your child more than your intended target. Remember what mothers through the ages have taught: “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

These first four critical tips will give you a good start on blending your family without mixing them up. Be sure to read Part 2 of this blog post for more ways to help your family grow closer and stronger.

Live, Work and Relate Well!

Dr. Todd

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