Let’s imagine that you have healed from divorce, spent considerable time adjusting to life as a single co-parent with your ex, and have finally begun to consider your own future with someone new. As you begin dating again, you realize that most of the people you meet are also parents themselves.
Now let’s imagine that after a considerable amount of time dating, and discussing all that you each want to do differently the second time around, you conclude that you have found “the one,” and you begin to seriously consider a long-term future together.
You’ve likely introduced the children, had some fun experiences, and shared a few memorable beginnings together as a new “family.” Seems like it’s all going to work out, right?
Well, this is where it gets messy, because those exciting feelings of new love often cloud each parent’s ability to recognize the very real challenges their future will hold for their children.
As a family counselor working with blended families, I often witness parents respond with shock when they begin to address the challenges of loving someone else’s child(ren), managing the logistics of multiple custody and visitation schedules, and facing the harsh reality that their kids haven’t all “fallen in love” too!
This situation requires adults who are patient, realistic, and able to selflessly prioritize the needs and feelings of each of their children--together. The consideration and effort exerted on behalf of the kids will assure each of them of their value in their new blended family.
Those of us who came of age watching “The Brady Bunch” had no idea that this example of a blended family was all a ruse. The struggles, animosities, emotional scars, and inconsistencies of a life together — from two different worlds — are impossible to anticipate alongside our “idealized” version reflected in my title.
But, the struggle is real — even when the children in the family are adults themselves. My counseling practice is filled with remarried couples who admit they hadn’t realized how difficult it would be. Adult children often have strong opinions about their parent’s choice in a new partner, and are usually not afraid to voice it. Reports of adult children who disengage from their parent when they remarry, questions about how the parents balance their time, and the impact on relationships with grandchildren are just a few of the unforeseen challenges.
By the time they arrive in my office the dysfunctional dynamics are overwhelming. Working backwards to educate them on adjusting expectations, setting healthy boundaries, and letting go of that idealized version of how they imagined it all, are just a few of the tasks we take on.
However, if I had been able to offer advice PRIOR TO their union, it would be this:
Do not ignore or disregard the certainty of these inevitable challenges.
Talk A LOT about your kids; the good, the bad, and the ugly!! Commit as a team to support one another, and to respect the emotional limitations of others in your new family.
In 1987, when my husband and I brought together our kids from our previous marriages and, over time, added two sons of our own, we called ourselves a “stepfamily.” However, we never really liked that term. So, when the phrase “blended family” became popular in the mid 1990’s, we loved it. That term seemed to fit better with what we were trying to accomplish with our family of five uniquely different children, with uniquely different life experiences.
However, my counseling work with many of these parents has caused me to reconsider what it is we believe to be possible when we bring children from different unions together?
I recently went to my dictionary to attempt a deeper understanding of the disconnect that I am witnessing with these families. The definitions that I found for the word “blended” include: 1) to combine so that the separate constituents cannot be distinguished 2) to combine into an integrated whole 3) to produce a harmonious effect
Is it any wonder these parents feel challenged? Is it possible to “blend” children from vastly different beginnings, with what amounts to two (and sometimes four) complete sets of extended families and relationships such that the separate constituents cannot be distinguished, AND achieve an integrated whole that produces a harmonious effect???
Perhaps the most effective way to assist these parents would be to encourage them to recognizeand honor thedifferences that we desire to intertwine when we ask our children to embrace a life that has changed without their permission.