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Blending Families Takes Work!

Dr. David Hawkins
The Relationship Doctor –We live in a day when divorce is much more common than it was twenty-five years ago, and because of this, there are more and more blended families. We call them by different names—stepfamilies, ready-made families, and blended families—referring to families where one or both spouses have been married before and often have children from previous relationships.

Imagine the following scenario:

A woman was previously married for seven years and has two young children from that marriage. The marriage ended acrimoniously because of her ex’s chronic unfaithfulness. There is still a great deal of tension between them and any conversation concerning the children results in an opportunity for ongoing conflict.
After being single for three years, she began dating. A year and a half later she married her husband. He is several years older, and has been married twice previously, with one grown son from his first marriage and two teenage children from his second marriage. He gets along very well with his two ex-spouses.

While this woman loves this man, they are already experiencing some of the typical challenges facing blended families. This is one of many different combinations of blended families; his kids/her kids/ their kids; active ex-spouse, distant ex-spouse; cooperative relationships/acrimonious relationships with the ex, to name a few.

Consider some of these common hurdles for blended families:

• Children having loyalty issues between their natural parents and stepparents;
• Children feeling jealousy toward the other children;
• Entanglements, both positive and negative, with ex-spouses;
• Challenges with including the “new spouse” in decision-making about the stepchildren;
• Jealousy of the stepparent toward the stepchildren;
• Blending estates and finances;
• Blending religious and spiritual values;
• Ensuring the new marriage has appropriate time and attention;
• Guarding against too high of expectations for the new marriage and family;
• Establishing the identity of the “new” family.

With these challenges in mind, you won’t be surprised to hear that counseling those in blended families has been some of my most difficult work. While these families have many positive things to share with one another, they also have struggles not encountered by families without this history.

Here’s a recent Message Board request, suggesting concerns with blending families:

Dear Dr. Hawkins,
I am new at this and I consider myself to be a very spiritual individual, meaning that I do believe that my relationship with God is true. I recently married and now I am separated. To make a long story short, we started encountering problems when my 15 year old step daughter came to live with us. I have a 17 year old daughter who I admire, but I thought if I treated them with the same affection that every thing would be ok. Now he lives with his daughter and I live with mine. I pray daily for us to come together as a family, but it has been 3 weeks now. I want to grow old with my husband, but I don't know what to say without causing conflicts. I know that every thing happens for a reason, I just wish I knew this reasoning, I pray that it is from God and not from my husband’s reasoning. Pray for me because I love him and I want our marriage to work, I'm just at a stand still with being positive right now.

Clearly this woman is experiencing some of the “typical” problems encountered by stepfamilies. While the exact nature of their problems is unclear, it is likely that they, like most stepfamilies, failed to fully anticipate and prepare for blending families. Her note suggests there was conflict between her 15 year old stepdaughter and 17 year old daughter.

It is also quite obvious that she and her husband aren’t problem-solving effectively. They have failed to manage the conflict that is common to blending families and he has chosen to separate rather than continue to struggle with the issues.

What can this woman do now? While I’ll offer a few ideas, I’d love for you to weigh in on this issue. Assuming that the heart of the matter involves tensions between the two girls, and divided loyalties, what can she do now?

One, invite your husband to talk with a third party about the problems. Perhaps your pastor or professional counselor can help you untangle the conflicts and speak to each other in such a way so as to solve problems. Whomever you choose to counsel with, make sure they have some familiarity with stepfamilies and problems associated with them.

Two, use this time to examine your heart and reflect on the issues. While your heart is clearly breaking, the space between the four of you can be used to explore what isn’t working and how to come back together more effectively.

Three, consider family counseling, with a therapist familiar with blended family issues. It is quite likely that in addition to marriage counseling, the teenage girls need to have a voice in the matter as well. Children in blended families have a huge influence on how effectively the blending process occurs. You need to listen to their voice.

Fourth, read everything you can on blended families. I have written a very readable book on the topic: When You’re Living in a Stepfamily. There are many other good books that will help you understand what you’ve done well, and what needs improvement.

Finally, you are right about the separation occurring for a reason—though that doesn’t mean you should passively wait for it to end. Look and listen carefully to your husband to learn about what led him to separate. Listen with an open mind and a willingness to learn. Take what you learn and make healthy changes.

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