Blended Families- can you make everyone happy?

The blended family is rapidly becoming a common phenomenon, in celebration of the search for happiness we human beings treasure. Each new blended family represents an opportunity to overcome loss and loneliness, and a second chance at creating a stable and nurturing home for us and our children. Lofty hopes and expectations notwithstanding, creating a blended family takes time, effort and commitment the process.  For the committed partners who work at it, creating and managing a successful blended family can fulfill their dream. Nevertheless, certain stages must be experienced and surpassed.

Wishes and other fantasies

When two adults with children merge to form a blended family, they bring along a set of fantasies, wishes, and unspoken expectations. The hope most often carried into a blended family is that, at last, everyone will have the reliable and nourishing relationships that had been missing in their lives. This lovely fantasy, however, relies on an impossible expectation that step parents and step children, and step siblings, will immediately form loving bonds.  In fact, there is often mistrust and outright hostility, causing fear, anger, and doubt for parents and children alike. Adults quickly become disappointed and at a loss for what to do next, and kids hold on to the hope their parents will someday get back together. Giving up fantasies is especially hard when it means another loss.

Reality steps into the step family

The reality of step family structure becomes apparent relatively soon. While the resident step parent feels like an outsider, the biological parent and his or her children cope by being intensely connected. Step kids are suspicious, resentful, and often disrespectful of their new step parent, and quickly learn which buttons to push to keep him or her off balance. It is not uncommon for step parents to be threatened by the exclusive relationship between spouse and step kids, making them feel confused and inadequate. It is equally common for biological parents to wonder how their new partner could be such an inept step parent, or why he or she cannot love their children. An uneasy feeling that something is wrong surfaces and everyone wonders who is at fault.

Making sense of things

As time passes and discomfort can no longer be ignored, step family partners try to make sense out of the confusion. They begin to put names to their feelings and express them to each other. Step parents accept the powerful biological parent-child connection and the permanent connection with an ex-spouse co-parent, and learn to forgive themselves for feeling threatened. Accepting reality helps both adults better identify their needs and those of their kids. They let go of fantasies of what a step family should look like. As well, parents begin to understand more clearly, and to accept, that it is okay for them to feel more connected to their birth children than to step children; and they recognize the importance of a strong marital relationship to the survival of their blended family.  Taking a more realistic view of their blended family, they get on with getting to know the strangers they have joined.

Making meaningful changes

Change does not come without struggle, and step family growth can be especially chaotic and full of conflict. Arguments often appear trivial, but generally center around issues of power and control regarding the children, and the place of step parents in the mix. Step parents ask for inclusion and consideration with regard to step children and ex-spouses, and biological parents let go of familiar patterns and expectations. Blended family partners help their children learn to be more respectful and considerate, and teach communication skills that not only assist blended family goals but help build successful lives outside the family unit.

Walking the blended family walk

When blended family members finally realize that they are part of a system with ebbs and flows that will never be static, they finally reach the stage where agreements can be reached about how the family can best function. Adjustments at this stage change family structure as new boundaries are drawn and more realistic expectations are identified. Blended family members now understand each other better, and are better recognized and appreciated for themselves and their contribution to the family. Once every activity does not have the potential to devolve into a power struggle, blended family gatherings can become easier, mutually supportive and more loving. For more information and help for your blended family, contact The Blended and Step Family Resource Center.