The blended-families challenge requires patience, maturity

Don’t expect miracles — it can be rough going for some time. Get professional help if you need it.

Meet the Smiths, a typical American family. Just married, John and Mary have four children. Sally 14, Joe, 12, are John’s. David, 10, and Bill, 4, are Mary’s.

Sound ordinary?

This new American family is a blend of mine, yours and ours — brought to you by a significant divorce rate and a high remarriage rate. This hybrid is competing with the conventional “Ozzie and Harriet” family of yesteryear.

The natural life history of divorce and remarriage brings about new facts of family life. From the rubble of marital dissolution rises the single-parent family, often headed by Mom. Dad has the kids every other weekend and sees them on certain weekday nights.

Usually, men don’t wait very long to remarry (a subject for a future blog!). Soon, Dad’s remarried and his second wife has two children. A year or so later, Mom remarries, and her new husband has two children. Both families need an onboard computer to figure out who goes where on which weekend!

This modern family is extraordinarily complex. All too often, spouses-to-be plan for “one big happy family.” They picture happy stepbrothers and stepsisters playing together, relaxed family dinners around a big table, and close, warm relationships between stepparents and stepchildren. Newlyweds assume their love for each other will spill over to their children. After all, love conquers all …

Unfortunately, the honeymoon is brief. Most second marriages are unprepared for the intense conflict to come. Sally hates stepbrother Joe and won’t talk to him. All the kids argue about what to do on Sunday visits. David won’t listen to his stepfather. John worries that his new wife doesn’t treat his children the same way as she does hers. The list goes on.

To make matters more complicated, both husband and wife are still healing from the breakup of their first marriage. Hurt feelings, anger and disappointment don’t disappear overnight. New spouses often feel threatened by the active presence of first husbands and wives in their everyday lives. Sharing children guarantees that ex-spouses will have regular, often conflictual contact with each other.

Youngsters still struggle with intense feelings about their parents’ divorce. All too often, children direct anger at stepparents that is really meant for their own mothers and fathers. Kids rarely want their parents to separate. They hope and dream that someday, somehow, their parents will get back together again. Remarriage signals the end of that dream. It’s easier to dump your anger on a relative stranger than on your own parent.

I grew up in a blended family. Both of my parents remarried, and their spouses each had two children. As a teenager, I often resented my stepsisters. At first, I distrusted my stepfather, and didn’t much care for him. That lasted for about 15 years or so. Later, in adulthood, we became very close friends! Who would have guessed? My stepmother hoped for one big happy family — it never happened.

Navigating through the stormy waters of blended family life requires patience and maturity. It can be rough going for some time. Here’s some practical advice.

Don’t expect miracles. Expect challenges. Depending on the age of the children, it can take years before genuine friendships between stepchildren and stepparents develop, Stepparents can help by respecting the need of stepchildren to keep their emotional distance at first. Coming on too strong will push kids away.

Don’t interfere. Let your spouse develop his or her own relationship with stepkids.

Hold regular family meetings! Acknowledge that making a blended family work requires ongoing discussion, negotiation, and open communication. Hold weekly family meetings to work out conflict.

Get help when you need it. Adjusting successfully to blended family life can require professional help. If you get bogged down, don’t be a do-it-yourselfer — get help.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. healthwellness-library.html.

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