Marriage is a serious challenge when only two people are involved. Add children from a previous marriage, ex-spouses and other family members and you’ve got a marriage full of landmines just waiting to explode. But we’re romantics and we love love so we enter this minefield with rose-colored glasses hopeful about new beginnings. Few enter with caution and preparation. Then you begin to incorporate one another’s children into this newly blended family. You may not have anticipated that we are neurologically hard-wired to attach and bond to our biological offspring, but not to our beloved new spouse’s children. The flaws in his children are glaring and intolerable. Without attachment hardwired, we have very limited patience with his children and might view them as spoiled while our own biological children are viewed through a softer lens. Being critical of your mate’s children is akin to poking the inner mama bear or papa bear and the claws may come out in defense of the cubs. This negativity eventually starts to erode affection and respect. Without these two critical components of a relationship, the marriage is doomed. And worse, children often are the collateral damage of this dynamic.
One in three children are currently living in a family with a step-parent. Fortunately, we now have decades of data to draw from and have determined factors that contribute to the success, or the failure, of blended families and second marriages. One of the top researchers in this field, Dr. Patricia Papernow, conducted research with blended families as well as working with them in her therapy practice. She describes five major challenges that step-families face.
- You complain to him that you are an “outsider” when his kids are around. Your new spouse will have habits, rituals or inside jokes with his kids that may leave you feeling left out. Do not take this personally. Allow them to keep their traditions that are meaningful to them. Recognize that kids will naturally want to have their parent all to themselves. You will gain lots of brownie points with your new husband by doing this.
- You fail to show compassion and patience for children who are struggling with loss, loyalty issues and life changes they are not developmentally prepared for. Give kids plenty of time and space to adjust to the changes that they never signed up for.
- You are rigid and inflexible with your preferred parenting style. Be open to your new spouse’s way of parenting. Complaining, nagging or being self-righteous will eventually turn him against you.
- You fail to recognize that merging two different family micro-cultures, traditions (think holidays), disciplinary beliefs and values must be approached with flexibility, sensitivity and humility.
- You allow the ex-spouse to get under your skin. Do not harp on the flaws of the ex-wife. He knows them and doesn’t want to be reminded of them ad-nauseum. He may even see it as failure on his part because he chose her. Take the high road at every opportunity so he will be reminded of why he picked you and not her.
Couples enter this new territory without a navigation system. Innocent wrong turns become wounds that heal slowly and bring on feelings of resentment or hopelessness. Most families wait years before seeking the help of a family therapist trained to help them navigate these tricky relationship dynamics. And many never seek help at all. Second marriages fail 67% of the time according to recent statistical data. The difficult terrain of step-families contributes to this high failure rate.
Below are more Do’s and Don’ts that many families had to learn the hard way:
- Do NOT try to force new step-family members to spend time together to learn to just “get along”.
- DO encourage one-on-one time to allow new relationships to grow organically.
- Do NOT take it personally that your new step-child isn’t warming up to you or is flat-out hostile.
- DO remember that all relationships take time to form and “liking” you may feel disloyal to their biological parent. Furthermore, they probably feel they now have to compete with you for their parent’s attention. You are the adult. Enough said.
- Do NOT discipline your new spouse’s children.
- DO collaborate with your spouse, but leave all discipline up to the biological parent.
- Do NOT criticize, name call or speak contemptuously of your partner’s children to your partner. You will trigger the papa bear or the mama bear and it will not end well for you.
- DO discuss behavior that is dangerous, destructive or violates society’s rules, but learn to let go of behaviors that are merely annoying. Remind yourself that you lack the hard wiring to see this child through a kinder, more loving lens.
- Do NOT ask your spouse to spend less time with his children because you are feeling neglected. If he feels forced to choose, resentment toward you will grow.
- DO ask your partner to carve out quality time for the health of the marriage, but not at the expense of his children.
- Do NOT express jealousy toward the ex-spouse. They are divorced for a reason.
- DO seek individual counseling to get to the root of your jealous feelings and to find strategies for managing them before they become a cancer in the relationship.
- DO remember that your children (biological and step) will one day grow up and leave. Make sure the marriage that is left behind has not been corroded past the point of recovery.
- DO seek marriage or family counseling to learn best practices, to process difficult feelings and to get unstuck when necessary.