When I think of ‘blended’ families, I remember what one of my counselling students said years ago. I was teaching a course on working with blended families, and she thought I said ‘splendid’ families!
That kicked the course off to a positive start, as most of us had experienced some of the societal shame of living in blended families.
The majority of us, including myself, had either lived in a blended family as a child, or were currently a co-parent in one, or both. We’d all experienced some of the complex issues inherent in living with both biologically-related family and acquired family.
I use that word ‘acquired’ deliberately. Isn’t every spouse acquired by another family?
So the concept of living with acquired family is in fact not strange but normal.
What is new is that children live with acquired caregivers, their parents’ new partners. Nowadays blended families are normal.
When I meet with a new family in my consulting room I’m surprised when I hear that their parents are still married, in fact. Two-parent, married families, still outnumber the other family situations, but this is fast changing:
Step-parenting, or blended families, are also still generally thought of as having more than their fair share of difficulties.
I’d like to explore some themes here that I hope will make it easier to name and then solve some of those difficulties. I’ll start with my own story.
Growing up in a blended family
When I was nine, I was saddened, scared and relieved when my parents told us they were divorcing. I was sad my father was moving out, scared of how our family would cope financially, and relieved that the fighting would stop.
Over time I was happy that my father had the chance to partner, and later marry, a woman far healthier emotionally than my mother.
His acquired partner was not maternal, which had its pluses and minuses.
The plus was that she didn’t try to be our mother, which allowed a full freedom for us to choose how close we wanted to be to her. She never gave us advice or criticized our behaviour.
The minus was that when our mother was no longer looking after us his second partner didn’t either. With a traditional father who didn’t see his role as caretaking children, we were left to our own devices!
Blended families – Choice and identity
I am referring to choice and identity, of both child and acquired parent. I’ll start with the child’s ability to choose:
Because children don’t choose when the original family separates, it is vital they have the chance to choose the level of intimacy between themselves and the new parent figure. Most of the time, the new partner is not known to the child, so time is needed to develop trust.
Research shows that allowing ample time between the end of the first family and the beginning of the new one ensures a much healthier long-term outcome.
Time to grieve and time to choose
- Process the grief of losing the first family;
- Develop trust in the new partner;
- Process divided loyalty between the biological parent and the new partner.
Even if your new partner is someone you had an affair with while still with the child’s biological parent, it is essential your child has lots of time with you, one-on-one, before the new partner is introduced.
It’s especially important that the new partner doesn’t co-habit with you for some time.
This allows the family to grieve the end of the original family. Without time for this grief, and the anger and bargaining involved, the new family will be bound by the invisible bonds of the old family and will suffer for it.
The new partner’s identity
Romance grows between the biological parent and a new partner, who is later introduced to the children. The best prognosis for happy integration of this new partner into the family is if they feel a sense of choice in the role they play. They need the space to allow that role to evolve over time as family members get to know and trust (or not) each other.
A recipe for disaster is to skim over the grief of separation stage, find a new partner and install them as the new mother or father to carry on ‘as normal’.
This is understandable, as humans are generally afraid of grief and uncertainty. It’s really quite unfair to the children, and will guarantee that boils will burst in later years.
Caregiving roles of the new partner should be carefully negotiated so that a sense of choice is respected, as well as an ability to judge the children’s reaction.
For instance, the new partner should have no disciplinary or boundary setting roles for a long time, or until they have been fully accepted and respected by the children. Teaching and guiding are the biological parent’s job.
I highly recommend Jan Rodwell’s book, Repartnered Families, in which she interviews many families who describe it being problematic when the new partner (especially a woman) is expected to take on parenting duties.
Beware the ‘honeymoon’ stage
Give yourselves lots of time before introducing a new adult (and her or his children) to your children.
When we’re in the honeymoon stage of a new relationship we often think, ‘because I like Dave I know my girls will like Dave too.’
Be sure you’re past the honeymoon stage of the relationship before introducing Dave (or Davina!) as a potential new member of the family. Be really cautious of trying to too quickly fill a hole left by the last relationship. More often than not, this ends up with a projection onto the new partner of someone you believe will dispel your fear and loneliness.
- Let your kids talk on and on and on, about how much they wish you and Mummy/Daddy would get back together. Let them see you cry about the end of the first family. Let them cry and rage. Let the grief process happen.
- Have a conversation with your kids about whether they’re ready for a new step-parent. Give your children and your new partner full choice of the degree of closeness. Just because you’re in love doesn’t mean they will be. Try not to enforce boundaries, on the new partner or the kids, too quickly. Don’t push for ‘happy families’.
- Give your partner full choice to not take on any caretaking roles if they wouldn’t be fulfilling and meaningful. This is no time to try and play happy parents, or happy families. Take time to just learn to get along first.