Getting married and starting a family is tough.
It’s extra tough when it’s the second (or third) go around and one or both of you already have children and an ex- who comes along with the package. Each family is unique and there are few resources for navigating this sometimes treacherous terrain.
However, with A LOT of patience, listening, and compassion, families can successfully blend.
Here are five ways you can help your blended family become a family:
- Slow down. Blended families become families in a slow-cooker, not a pressure cooker. Whatever your situation, it’s complex. There are several different people each with their own perception of what’s happening and their own feelings about it. Don’t expect that everyone will be excited about becoming a family. Children are often still grieving the loss of their first family. They may resent a new step-parent. They may fear the changes in routine and rules. Be aware of your own expectations for how things “should be.” Families grow and become over time, so it’s important to give each member time and space to have their feelings and grow into this new set of relationships.
- Focus on relationship first. In all relationships, we just want to know: Can I trust you? Can I trust you to care about how I feel? Can I trust you to listen? Can I trust you to protect me? Can I trust you to understand? In marriage, this is the fundamental question, especially early on. However, our children want to know the same thing, especially when their family goes through such big changes. By focusing on communication and connection first, it is possible to turn down the volume on family member fear and anxiety and build up trust and openness. Check in with each other. A lot.
- Make sure your current spouse knows and feels like they’re the priority. This can be especially tricky for men who feel that their spouse is the priority in their heart, but complicated dynamics with his ex-wife, and fear of separation from his children, may drive him to feel he has to appease his ex-wife, inadvertently making his current wife feel deprioritized. It is critical that spouses communicate regularly and thoroughly about these issues. Really try to understand what this is like for your spouse and what they need. When both of you feel heard and it’s all out on the table, then you can work as a team to decide how to meet each other’s needs – often hers to know her time and family is protected, and his to know that he is supported around making difficult choices to protect his relationship with his children.
- Keep some old traditions and make new ones. Families become families over time due to shared experiences and traditions. Children will need to know that important things from their first family will still happen. It’s ok, especially in the beginning, to have special time between parent and child(ren) without the steps-. Create opportunities for time that is separate and together. New experiences will create new memories and shared meaning. This is about the long-game – investing in the family of the future now, even if everyone isn’t feeling like a family today.
- Don’t wait to get help. If things are really tough, don’t wait to get help. Individual, couples, or family therapy can help. Sometimes one or more children are really hurt and angry and make sure everyone knows it. Sometimes the actions of an ex-spouse are very disruptive and sabotaging to a current marriage. Sometimes we want help for ourselves in learning how to best navigate the blended family situation. By proactively seeking help, families can better ensure their success and everyone’s well-being.
Remember: you don’t have to have all of the answers. It’s OK for things to be messy. How it is right now is not how it will always be. You won’t go wrong by focusing on relationship and connection over behavior.
It will get better.
Find a therapist or support group that focuses on blended families from the beginning. It is important that you have someone in your corner and that you get to see that you are not alone.
Also, remember that children know when a parent is healthy and caring for them well. If they express all of their big feelings to you, then you know that you are their safe harbor. As they grow up, they will gravitate toward the people who cared for and supported them.
Strive for a healthy process, not just an idealized outcome.