Not many life experiences challenge couples more than trying to blend families together with children still in the home. Stepparents have a tough job, and stepmothers have even the hardest time because they spend more time with the kids. They are often given the most responsibility but have less power and appreciation, and they are often unfairly resented. While we have all heard of wicked stepmothers, most stepmothers work hard at a very difficult task.
Many things can sink a second marriage; the financial, emotional, psychological, and spiritual components of parenting children who can seem to have come from another world is daunting. All family members feel as if they're walking through an emotional mine-field blindfolded. No wonder the divorce rate is 20 percent higher in second marriages with children in the home than in first marriages with no kids.
Understandably, life is easier if just husbands and wives are negotiating a new marriage. When couples add children, ex-spouses, and extended families they require several years to blend together. It takes time to successfully navigate the differing traditions of christmas, thanksgiving, summer vacation, weddings, birthdays, etc.
Here are a few tips to make the blending process easier.
Don't rush into it
Couples contemplating marrying and bringing together children from two or more families may want to date for an extended time. Some professionals suggest they not commit to marry until they have dated three years. Most couples should date at least a year before marriage, but when blending families, and building new relationships, it may take longer. Many of the dating activities should be with the children. Disaster can follow when couples rush into marriage involving more than just the two of them. It is quite a challenge to meet the needs of spouse and children who all compete for attention.
Put the marriage first
In blending families, the marriage is first priority. Spouses need to carve out time from every day to talk, to share feelings, to plan, and to organize their lives both with and without their children. Couples need weekly dates alone and mini-moons away (short honeymoons of at least one overnight every six months). Let the children feel the power of the love and devotion couples have for each other for it is the glue that bonds the entire family.
Because it takes years for families to blend, patience is the big watchword. One father expressed his frustration at trying to relate to his new stepdaughter in a meaningful way. He was ready to give up when he was asked how long he had been working his plan to get close to her. He answered, "Three months." Remember, it takes longer than that to get used to a new baby, so couples should expect to spend more time and patience than three months to develop relationships, especially with older children. Some families seem to do well in three years; others take longer.
Think about the past
Consider the problems that come from the emotional pain family members carry from divorces, from betrayal, and from broken promises in old relationships that can be inflicted on new relationships. Think what difficult paths the children have traveled through such as broken trust, feelings of abandonment and more. Children come to the new family with different expectations, traditions, and schedules including bed times, chore expectations, eating habits, and so forth. The two families of origin are often poles apart. However, there is hope and help; stepparents don't have to go down this path alone.
Read a book
Unfortunately, many couples who are struggling with the overwhelming task of blending families have never read a book on stepparenting nor attended a support group for stepparents nor talked to a professional therapist. Couples will learn that the most important aspect of step-parenting is the quality of the marriage. Building a strong and lasting marriage requires significant effort and gives couples the necessary power to be successful in their parenting.
The strength of the marriage is only as strong as the depth of the covenant that both partners make to each others' happiness. There must be absolute fidelity; they will not allow feelings for anyone else to interfere or be a threat to the loyalty they have to each other. This also means that they will not give any preference to past partners or spouses or give allegiance to other family members or to anyone else. Assurances must be given to the new spouse of being first priority.
Remember the little things
Respect and listening are essential as well as letting go of minor annoyances, having a ton of patience, love, and a ready sense of humor. Laughing at trying to do what seems to be impossible feels better than crying or exploding into tantrums to get others to listen and obey.
Not enough can be said about mom and dad being united and working together as a team. It doesn't work for parents to have different rules or play different roles in which one is the heavy and the other is the nice guy. Couples must talk and agree on a policy and back each other up. They must not let kids divide and pit one parent against the other. There may be times when a response to a child's request will have to be postponed till there is time for mom and dad to confer with each other.
Be wary of punishments
When disciplining the kids, avoid a heavy hand, sarcasm, name calling. In particular, avoid grounding which, in the end, also punishes the parents and creates serious tension in the home. Not every infraction requires punishment when a simple apology will do. This works both ways.
Do something fun with your children on a regular basis. It doesn't have to be a huge affair or cost a lot of money. It could be as simple as going to the park and getting ice cream cones after. Play board games, play basketball in the driveway, or go for hikes. It is not so important what you do, but it is important you do something fun. Families bond when they are laughing and having fun together.
Watch your words
Criticism and coarse language is poison. Consider that every unkind statement requires five positive exchanges to erase the pain. When couples experience differences, talking while being physically close enough to touch helps them avoid yelling. Listen to each other with empathy. Be aware of opportunities for ways to give each other compliments, praise, and expressions of appreciation. Frequently acknowledge the kind and thoughtful acts done for each other. Delight in your privilege of touching each other tenderly, giving bear hugs, sweet kisses, and ample sexual activity. Put a lock on your bedroom door. Rarely say no to each other when invited to enjoy intimacy. Those who say, "I'm too tired tonight," cheat themselves as well as their partners when, in fact, by responding readily, both will actually sleep better. This one bit of counsel alone will result in huge benefits for marriages.
Seek spiritual guidance
In addition to talking with friends who seem to be doing well at blending their families, reading books and enlisting professional help, they would do well to seek divine assistance. A solid spiritual base gives couples strength on which to build a happy family. One of the best things for blending families is to affiliate with a church that has a successful youth program and that offers classes in strengthening marriage and family. Attending church as a family may be the very key to enjoying success. Parents need all the help and support they can get.
Remember, we can do hard things, and the many couples who have successfully blended their families together will testify, "It's worth it."
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Strengthening Marriage and Family. It has been modified and republished here with permission.