One of the vast challenges for remarried couples and their children is the uniting of two very different family cultures. Each party brings a history and hundreds of familiar habits, rules and routines to the newly created stepfamily. Agreement on everything from whether you can start eating before everyone sits down at the table to whether you hang your coat on a hook or throw it on the sofa to how much TV is permissible, are simply taken for granted by the biological parent and the children. But these rhythms of being are unknown and not understood by the newest member of the family.
The difficulties that emerge in this situation have to do with the relatively thin common ground shared by the remarried partners and the thick common ground forged over years, by the biological parent and his or her offspring. The newly married couple has not had long to work out their own differences, agreements and easy pathways to action. A new and different common ground must be created over the course of time, one that includes all members of the newly created family system.
To cite an example, before remarrying, Carol Burke had explained to her live-in adult stepchildren that she would not intrude on their privacy in their wing of the house. But she did ask that in their shared kitchen they would put the dishes in the dishwasher and dry the pots and pans and put them away. However, her husband Ted’s children simply ignored her requests, and left the sink full of dishes and the wastebasket overflowing. Her laid-back, permissive husband kept insisting that this created no real problem; the difficulty was all “in Carol’s own mind.” She was feeling increasingly invisible, ignored – an alien in a strange land. Indeed, Carol feared that she might in fact be going crazy.
As any remarriage gets underway, a host of unanticipated issues become suddenly up for discussion, and the opportunities for hurt and distress are legendary. The new couple must understand that they need to work in tandem to negotiate the changing mores of daily life. In the Burke’s instance, Ted needed to understand how shut-out of the family system Carol was feeling. Carol needed to understand Ted’s frustration as he tried to placate both his new bride and his children.
The Burke’s story took some highly unusual twists and turns.
In the more commonplace situations where younger children are involved, the best advice is to focus initially on what is vitally important, such as safety and civility. Also, to reassure the children about what familiar parts of their routine are going to stay the same.
“By educating yourself about this vital issue and addressing the problem, you are halfway to solving it. ….