Parental conflict is one of the top challenges in blended families. This may come as a surprise, given the fact that a blended family is created when at least one of the spouses has been previously married, and logically should not repeat the same marital mistakes. So let us have a closer look at the issue of how this may not be the case.
First, let’s look at the term “blended families”. The word “blended” might give the impression that things are going to work out perfectly the moment man and wife exchange marriage vows. As it turns out, often, this might not be true.
Every man and woman enters a marriage full of hope, laden with dreams that sharing a life together with a spouse will transform one’s life to become happier and more meaningful. For some married couples, children come into the picture pretty soon; others prefer to start a family later.
Over time, issues at work, personality differences, in-laws, misaligned values, and even the presence of children themselves, may push the husband and wife apart. To their shock and dismay, one day, they may realise that they no longer look forward to seeing one another. Worse, seeing one another may become a constant source of stress as bickering, fights and conflicts surface again and again to a point of no return: divorce.
Some divorced men and women choose not to delve into marriage again, for the trauma, pain and suffering brought about by divorce are great. A good number of divorced men and women consciously choose to give marriage another try. The reasons are as many and unique as the couples themselves. Some do it because of the loneliness. Some feel that raising children might be more successful if another parent is present to complement and support whatever one is doing.
Perhaps one would imagine that having had a failed marriage would make it easier for anyone to go through the motions of another marriage, as no one would want to repeat whatever mistakes they made before. Yet, if one goes into marriage not knowing the challenges unique to a stepfamily, it would be difficult to find happiness and navigate the journey successfully.
Similar to countless first families (both husband and wife have never married before), many men and women starting a blended family would not consider it worthy of stepping back to ask themselves: How realistic are my expectations with respect to my new marriage?
Consider the case of a man and a woman, each with children of their own from previous marriages. They both start with the common fantasy. The man thinks: Since I am deeply in love with my new wife, my children will instantly bond with her. Likewise, for the same reason, her children will instantly bond with me. The new wife is likely to have the same expectations. To the couple’s disappointment, this does not happen due to a number of reasons.
A stepmother might feel hurt if, after a year of marriage, her 10-year-old stepdaughter only acknowledges her father, and does not even make eye contact with her despite all her efforts. A stepfather who assumes that he must be the figure of authority from day one might feel offended if, despite living in the same house for months, the stepson refuses to accept instructions from him.
Worse, the man and the wife suddenly realise they have rather different ways of raising children, from what’s good for breakfast to whether children are allowed to just dump their wet towels on the floor or if the dirty dishes in the sink must be cleared the same evening. Although experiences have been rough for many stepparents whose fantasies of a fairy tale marriage quickly come to an end, the good news is that stepparents who realise that making gradual adjustments to their expectations can really help, often turn their family dream into a reality.
First, acknowledge that loving and liking are two human emotions that can only develop given the time and space. Building rapport takes effort. Trust is earned over time, preceded by rapport. The dynamics within a first family changes once one parent leaves. For example, suppose you are a working mother when you divorce your husband, leaving you with two children, a girl aged 15 and a boy aged 10. The girl, feeling responsible for you, might step up, taking more responsibilities in the house and over her younger brother. If you come across someone you like and you two choose to marry, your two children quite likely will feel as if they are losing you to someone else. Although this someone is a person you like and love, your children’s reality is quite different from yours.
Added to this is the loyalty they feel towards their biological father. If they were to love your new spouse as their own father, where does that put their biological father? Indeed, the parent-child biological bond is one of the strongest possible, not to be dismissed or taken lightly. In cases where a child is abandoned by one parent, when the parent raising the child remarries, at some basic level the child will tend to be extra careful before starting to trust and respect the new stepparent. Naturally, the child will wonder if the new stepparent might abandon him or her just as his or her biological parent had earlier.
Experts say it might take as long as four to seven years before a stepfamily is able to resolve deep-seated differences. Having one-on-one time is a good idea. The biological parent might make one-on-one time with the biological child without the other members of the family. And the stepparent might do the same with the stepchild. Otherwise, either the stepparent or the biological child or stepchild will feel invisible, giving rise to resentment, ill will, and animosity in the long run.
A stepparent who is single might be shocked at how overwhelming it all is, dealing not only with stepchildren but also with a former spouse who might deliberately make things difficult. For this kind of stepparent, there would be no “grace period” where he or she has the luxury of time to get to know his or her new spouse, with children instantly on the scene. No matter how perfect, noble and beautiful one’s intentions are, take it one step at a time.
If you are a stepparent, as concerned as you are about putting things in order, making sure that your stepchildren are disciplined and of strong character, the last thing you want to do is to sit them down and tell them your rules and regulations the moment you assume the stepparent role. Rather, it is far wiser for you to start by having regular chats with your new spouse, checking how things were done before you arrived, and the appropriateness of new ways of doing things. Navigate your days with realistic expectations for a more lasting and positive relationship with everyone in the family. As concerned as you are about parenting, your marriage comes first. As parents, raising children who contribute their best to humanity is part of your shared vision; this becomes your marriage glue as well, a strong reason for you and your spouse to transcend beyond minor differences.