Traditional marriage is losing popularity; gay marriage is gaining popularity; more than half of second marriages fail; more than half the families in the United States are one parent households; and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau over 66% of marriages and living together situations end in break-up, when children are actively present. The concept of an American family continues to evolve.
Elizabeth Carter, ACSW, from the Family Institute of Westchester, states: “Our culture provides no guidelines … . It is our experience that this is one of the most difficult transitions for families to negotiate.” Carter continues, “Our cultural norms, rituals and assumptions still relate chiefly to the intact, first marriage family, and the most ordinary event, such as filling out a form or celebrating a holiday, can become a source of acute embarrassment or discomfort for members of [newly blending] families.”
It is predicted that at least 50% of children in the US will go through a divorce before they are 18. Approximately half of all Americans are currently involved in some form of step relationship. Statistics demonstrate that more Americans are living in step-families than in nuclear families. Blended families are clearly a key ingredient of our culture; so how can we launch them for success in the long haul?
Having experienced divorce and remarriage more than 23 years ago, I’d like to share some of what I learned in blending my family.
- Recognize that a blended family has its own developmental experience. This means that it launches at square one and this new family system begins “growing up” together. Don’t fall in the trap of believing that your new family should just pick up at the place where your old family left off. Consider the new system as an infant; treat it as such. This means giving the blending family plenty of your time, comfort, patience, nourishment, rest, administration and protection.
- Don’t be afraid to demonstrate to the children in the new blended family that you are just a “child” of sorts in that you have a lot to learn as a blended-family parent and that all members will make mistakes.
- Don’t expect the kids to behave well, if you don’t.
- Be prepared for inevitable conflict. This conflict will be necessary for blended family growth and intimacy. Learn to productively navigate through conflict to a win-win resolution.
- Let the child have his or her own experience with the tug of loyalties and ambivalence. Often, just as the child in a blended family begins to have warm feelings toward the step-parent, the child will pull away and negatively act out. He/she questions the feeling experience as something like this: “If I love you, does that mean I do not love my real parent?” This internal ambivalence is normal. Do not react to it negatively.
- Create new rituals and activities that provide cohesiveness in your new family. Let the children brainstorm with you on what these rituals might include. Set a family “birthday” date that signifies when the new family came together and celebrate it every year.
- Remember that unrealistic expectations set a climate of potential and unnecessary disappointments. An example of this comes to mind from the infancy stage of my own blending family. One of my two daughters from my first marriage asked my new husband, “What should we call you?” He responded realistically, “Call me anything you want; just don’t call me a bad name.” He didn’t expect the kids to like him right out of the gate. He also didn’t expect that he would like them at times. He was rarely disappointed as we all grew up together. Eventually, he walked both my daughters down the aisle at their weddings.
- Be prepared to feel afraid. Blending a family can be just plain scary at times. If you are prepared for this feeling, you will handle fear far more efficiently when it is upon you.
- Bring some level of universal spirituality or “higher thinking” into the blended family so that the children see the system as anchored and strong, with values and standards, although different from other types of families. Make sure you present it in a way that can be embraced by all members of the family.
- Remember that the blended family is a microcosm of the real world. Treat it respectfully and lead by example.
“Growing up” together in a blended family system can be a seeding bed for rich and rewarding memories. Just make sure you nurture it so that it starts with a good launch.