Blended Family Problems? You're Not Alone…
If you're remarried, with kids involved, you don't need to tell you that second marriages with stepchildren can be tough. The numbers speak for themselves. While overall, divorce rates are falling, the US Census reports that 66% of second marriages with kids will fail. Why? Because blended family challenges are real. However, you CAN have a successful second marriage — even with kids. I know from experience as both a marriage counselor and blended family therapist that the keys to positive stepparenting and harmoniously blended families are within your reach.
Step By Step: I was recently featured in an article about how to have a happy second marriage and stepparent successfully that was published in WebMD. (“Step By Step,” pg 24) It outlines the common mistakes that couples entering second marriages face, and how to avoid them. I wanted to share the same advice with you.
Second Marriage Without Divorce
Second marriage success depends on a few things: Preparation, Education, Communication, and Emotional Maturity. Let's take these topics one at a time, so that you have a roadmap that will help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls of blended families and stepparenting.
Preparation & Communication
Here at Growing Self we are strong advocates of prevention and proactive relationship maintenance, and do everything we can to help couples create and maintain strong, happy, healthy relationships before relationship problems start. That's why we have such a strong and vibrant premarital counseling program. However… unfortunately… the majority of the couples who show up for premarital counseling are often young couples, getting married for the first time. They do premarital counseling because they're conscientious and proactive, and they want to do everything in their power to create a lasting marriage. This is obviously fantastic, and we encourage them to come… but they're not the couples who need premarital counseling the most.
The couples who need premarital counseling the most are the ones who are getting married again. Why is premarital counseling for second marriages so vital? It's because there are many more potential obstacles and opportunities for hurt feelings, resentment, and miscommunication in second marriages with kids than there are the first time around. In fact, the number-one issue that creates conflict in blended families parenting. (Followed closely by conflict related to one or both partner's relationship with their Ex).
Premarital counseling for second marriages with kids helps these couples proactively anticipate and prevent blended family problems before they start. It helps you prepare, and also communicate about how you're going to handle the most difficult stepparenting situations you might encounter.
Some of the essential questions that couples creating blended families need to ask themselves and each other:
- What are our expectations about our parenting roles with each other's kids?
- How are we going to handle differences in parenting styles? Especially when our kids are under the same roof?
- What happens if I'm upset with something that your kid does, but you see it differently? (Or vice versa?)
- What will we do if one of us is upset by something the other's Ex does, and the way that it's handled?
Those are just a few of the questions that couples remarrying with kids need to be talking about. (Pretty different from the garden variety premarital counseling conversations of the conscientious first-timers, isn't it?) Planning how you're going to handle difficult blended family situations before they happen will help you get through them more easily.
Open communication is key to a successful second marriage with kids: Never make assumptions about what's going to happen, or what “should” happen. Talk about every possible issue you can think of, explicitly. It will dramatically increase your odds of success. If you find yourself running into topics that are too touchy to talk through, or where the differences are vast, it's wise to get some good premarital counseling to resolve these seeds of future relationship conflict before they grow, and fracture your relationship in the future.
People remarrying with kids really need to educate themselves about what to expect, and the best way to handle the blended family situations that are likely to arise. (As opposed to just jumping in, and hoping for the best). This often starts with brushing up on your child psychology. For starters, it's important to recognize that while YOU might be in love with your new partner, and happy and excited to start a new family together… your kids may feel very differently.
While kids can and do adjust to step-parents and blended family situations, the transition can be long and painful. Learning about how to help your children through hard (and normal) feelings of guilt, grief, loss and anger are vital. Children often express pain and anger behaviorally. Understanding how to support your kids and make it okay for them to have “dark emotions” during this period will help you 1) not make the situation worse by becoming blaming or punitive with your kids for expressing their feelings and 2) help them learn how to work through their feelings in a healthy way.
It may also be important to educate yourself around parenting techniques for kids who are dealing with hard things, and set your expectations accordingly — particularly if you're the step-parent to someone else's kids. Karen Purvis, legendary child psychologist and author, has a beautiful quote, “First connect, then correct.” Too many step parents make the mistake of assuming they should have authority in their new step kids lives without having created a positive relationship, or the trust of the child. They attempt to assert themselves in the child's life and it backfires, creating resentment on both sides.
Learning how to stepparent appropriately, with emotional sensitivity, and with realistic expectations, is essential to the success of your second marriage with kids. Backing off, and adopting the stance of “a friendly, helpful adult” in your step-kid's life (who is focused on building positive connection as opposed to being an authoritative parent) will pay off, long-term.
It takes a high degree of self-awareness and emotional maturity to have a happy, successful second marriage with kids. For example, it can be hard not to take it personally when your partner's kids are not enthusiastic about having a relationship with you. Furthermore, it can easily feel threatening when your partner needs to communicate with their Ex — particularly if their Ex is a “boundary pusher.” And that's without even taking into consideration that your new spouse is likely getting pulled in many different directions emotionally.
It's natural and normal to want to be the first priority in your new spouse's life. And, often, in a blended family situation you need to share their time and attention. I can't tell you how many second marriages have crashed and burned on the idea that you should be “putting your spouse first in a blended family.” This is a common misperception (one often reinforced by therapists who are NOT trained as marriage and family therapists). The truth is that blended families are more complex than that. Accepting that reality will help you stay in a good place emotionally during the times that your partner needs to spend time with their kids alone, or try to compromise diplomatically with their Ex, or respond compassionately to their kid's expression of anger or grief. It takes an enormous amount of emotional maturity, tolerance, acceptance and trust when your partner is not always able to be an entirely united front with you.
Not being in lock-step all the time is okay. Really. Giving each other space (and grace) to handle things with your own kids and ex-spouses the way you see fit is an exercise in tolerance, acceptance, and compassion. For a second marriage with kids to work, there needs to be room for individuality and differences in the way you each do things. Ideally, in a healthy blended family, you'll support each other in your relationships with your kids, and with your kid's other biological parent (Aka, “The Ex”) as opposed to fighting with each other about “the way things should be.”
Though that's the ideal, it's also true that these moments are often challenging and emotionally triggering, particularly if you feel powerless. Finding support for yourself in these moments, and working towards compassion and acceptance of the realities of your partner's life will get you much further than your efforts to change it. But again, it requires a high degree of emotional maturity to handle these challenging blended family situations gracefully, and lovingly.
These are just a few tips to help you negotiate the challenges of blended families, and overcome them, so that you can create a successful second marriage. Again, here are more blended family success tips, in that WebMD article I mentioned. I hope that this information helps you create peace and love in your new blended family.
All the best,