Divorce and Remarriage, the Blending of Families
"The Brady Bunch" is probably the most famous story of two families blending after both parents are widowed and remarry one another. This very successful and entertaining television program had a major flaw. It presented a totally unrealistic, idealized version of what it's really like for two families to blend. In fact, the original plot involved divorce. The network, at that time, found the notion of divorce to be unacceptable and turned it into widowhood on the premise that this would not offend anyone's religious sensibilities. So, right from the start, the program was off to a fantasy rather than a realistic portrayal of what it's like for people to cope with family blending.
Unlike the way it is portrayed in "The Brady Bunch," the cycle of divorce and remarriage brings with it the daunting task of mixing and blending families after divorce or death. The process involves shifting alliances, changing parental role expectations, dealing with unclear boundaries, resolving conflicts and the setting of new rules to govern daily family life. The task is so very challenging that many families fail and wind up in another divorce.
For the purpose of this article, blended families occur when two people, who have been divorced, decide to marry each other and bring their children from their previous marriages into the new relationship. This sets off powerful dynamics among the children and as well as between the children and their biological parents. When you add to the formula the fact that some of these children continue to have a close relationship with their other biological parent, emotions become very powerful.
The bottom line is that the new adult who enters the family scenario is a stepparent. Fairy tales and myths are filled with horror stories of evil stepparents who hate the children and wish to "eat" them. The role of stepmother in these stories has multiple representations in the form of herself, the step mom and as the evil witch who cooks a brew in which to cook and eat the children or casts a spell putting them asleep forever. In all of these tales, the new parent or stepparent is the intruder who, after the biological parent dies, attempts to destroy the relationship between the child and the surviving parent.
Indeed, it can be very difficult for new spouses to be accepted by their stepchildren. Children must adjust not only to the new parent in the home but to the new children who vie for attention. It is easy for resentment to take hold as these stepbrothers and sisters search for ways to relate to one another without feeling a loss of parental attention.
It is not unusual for the biological children to attempt to manipulate the situation by playing the parents off against each other, reporting every detail of family life to the other biological parent in an attempt to get the stepparent "in trouble." The challenge for all parents involved is not to submit to the childish manipulations, while keeping all relationships, both new and old, functioning in ways that are healthy and adaptive.
Child and family experts have many suggestions on how to ease the entire process of blending families in ways that reduce strain and angst.
1. Post divorce, people need to give themselves and their children time to adjust to a new life. Accustomed to living with both biological parents under one roof, children must now learn how to move from parent to parent households according to custody agreements reached during divorce proceedings.
2. It isn't easy for kids to adapt to changes in family structure. That is why it's important that adults, when contemplating remarriage, take time to get to know one another and to help the children get to know all the potentially new family members. It's been suggested that parents build a solid foundation for themselves and for their children by taking a couple of years before actually marrying and blending. Those years need to be used to learn about and adapt to all the new players in the family. This means being with one another for more than weekend visits. However the adults plan to do this it needs to be done gradually, with an ever increasing intensity and depth of relating.
3. It's vital that stepparents understand that it will take time before they win acceptance of their partner's children. There will be lots of frustrations along the way, with the possibility of the stepchild attempting to disrupt the new family structure. It's important to understand that these children feel scared about all the new arrangements and that is why lots of patience and time is needed.
4. It's important for all involved not to allow the children to force a choice between the parent and their new partner. Children must gradually learn that the new arrangement involves mutual acceptance and not choosing alliances.
5. Clear boundaries and specific ground rules must be set for mutual respect.
6. Ideally, it is best if all biological parents accept one another, at the very least, for the sake of the children. Open communication is necessary as a way to prevent childhood manipulation via playing parents off against one another.
7. One good way to build a solid family foundation is to have daily family rituals. For example, dinner at the family table every night with everyone present is a good way to build solid relationships. Parents need to find some time each day to have private time with their biological child in order to provide attention, warmth and reassurance that they are loved by their biological mom and dad.
8. There are many stepparent support groups in the community that provide suggestions, advice and emotional support for stepparents.
9. There can never be too much communication. Each day, ongoing talking, conflict resolution, decision making, and planning need to go on.
None of this is easy. However, there are successful blended families.
Your comments and questions are encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD