Are you in or do you know someone in a blended family? The chances are that your answer is “Yes”. A blended family is formed when one, or both, partners have a child, or more, from a previous relationship. Today, this term includes many different types of family profiles: non-married cohabitants, double remarriages (when both partners remarry) or when both partners are widowed or divorced. This term can also include a dating relationship.
A Blended Family is Born of Loss
The old term “stepfamily” was derived from the Old English word steop, which described a bereaved orphan. A blended family is born of loss – of a parent, perhaps extended family, home, school, friends, family rituals, etc. Loss is part of the blending process, and there will be a period of grieving and adjustment for all family members. Children often fantasize about their parents getting back together, and holding on to these fantasies may halt or delay their adjustment to their new, blended family. The new married parents may think, “My new partner will never love my kids as I do” or “His/her kids won’t love me”.
You must address stability right away. Replacing unrealistic fantasies with achievable goals will help your new blended family to build a cumulative foundation of security to bind it together in difficult times (the children’s adolescence, or one parent’s illness, for example). There can be confusions of roles and relationship boundaries between the adults, adult/bio child and adult/blended child and the blended children. Each of these dyads emanates from a unique family culture.
A Successful Blended Family Looks for the Silver Lining in Change
The blended family is rife with echoes of the past and needs to establish new family rituals and traditions. You and your new spouse must take the lead and guide your children to enjoy and appreciate some new ways of doing things in the blended family.
Some feelings that come up when blending a family include loneliness, confusion, anxiety, anger, failure, fear, resentment, and insecurity. Family members may feel underappreciated and overwhelmed. Such feelings may be experienced at different times by various family members so they may be out of sync with each other at times. Acknowledge and validate their feelings, then help them discover the positive aspects of their new situation.
There can also be confusion regarding boundaries between new family members. Children learn, and then test, the limits of the new couple. Still another emotion is hope. This is the seed that needs to be nurtured. Patience and persistence can prevail!
Complex Role Definitions and Structure
Inherent in a newly formed blended family are complexities of role definitions and structure.
For example, the insider/outsider positions. The bio parent and child/ren form an insider grouping while the blended parent and children are outsiders. Bio parents and children have a lifetime of prior experiences, good and bad, tried and true. They have developed ways of relating to each other that are, if not always the best, are at least familiar and often predictable. Parental loyalties and guilt can tug at the adult relationship.
Whose home and community are hosting the new couple? Perhaps they have chosen a new area. If not, one partner/spouse has to adapt to new surroundings, people, perhaps a new school and house of worship as well. At least initially, the new spouse will be an outsider in the family and the community – a difficult position to be in. Sometimes, all members of the blended family will feel as though they are navigating a maze of differences – and some may resent having to make the effort. However, you must discuss and handle internal and external differences (former partner/spouses, extended families and friends), set clear expectations, and define new boundaries and relationships between members of the blended family.
The blended couple takes the lead and guides their children to enjoy and appreciate some new ways of doing things. They can help the children understand that the loss of their first family can make room for new family members, and that their new stepparent is an addition to – not a replacement of – their other parent. New and special, a blended family offers more family members to love and to be loved by your child.
Sharon Klempner (MSW, LCSW, BCD) offers therapy for children, adolescents, adults, and couples. Her areas of specialty include Separation and Divorce, Stepfamily counseling, and Sibling Issues. www.sharonklempner.com