I don't know how I got here and I have no idea how to get out. This statement pretty accurately reflects the emotional state and total confusion expressed when remarried couples came to my office for help.
One couple compared it to being caught in a spider web they couldn’t see, feeling disoriented and powerless. For Joe and Sharon, both 44 and in their second marriages, it had been a year since their destination wedding. They described how they were feeling as like the arcade game of “whack-a-mole” with an almost daily onslaught of unanticipated challenges in their new relationship and new roles as step parents for a total of 4 children.
Everything they tried and thought would work was just making things worse. They worried that they were turning against one another. Having been hopeful and optimistic about their new and improved 2nd marriage in the beginning, Joe and Sharon were now asking “Why doesn’t love conquer all?”
The truth is that for all remarried (or recommitted) with children their new life isn’t only about their love for each other, but now must include love and/or acceptance for the other people their partner loves (children) and has loved (ex-partner, extended family, friends). The intimate relationship they started out with cannot be sustained in a vacuum and will not survive if they don’t acknowledge the unfinished business each has brought into the new relationship.
The divorce rate for second marriages in the US is 60% and for 3rd 73%. This dismal fact is in part due to the lack of preparation and respect for the serious task of joining two families each with its own history and possibly unhealed wounds from recent losses.
Some adults are wiser or maybe just lucky enough to take their time and educate themselves about what trials and joys may come with a blended family. More often they are so locked in the narcissism of new love that they don’t want to think about things like their respective children not liking their choice of step parent or the new step siblings or that the kids are not happy about leaving their home for a bigger one or all the new rules that are now necessary. They definitely don’t want to talk about child support, alimony, grandparents, or who will discipline children and how.
After a brief, hopefully private honeymoon, life moves in like a deluge. Weekends with step children filling the house, no privacy for conversations, intimacy, affection or sexual intimacy creates tension and resentment. Disagreements over children become the topic of the day. The result may be thoughts like: “They’re touching my stuff!”” I want my life back.”, “I hate her kids.”, “He isn’t the man I fell in love with.”, “Why can’t I parent my kids the way I always did?” “What was I thinking?”
Whether you need a do-over in a current relationship or are thinking ahead about one in the future there are basic things you can do to reduce the stress and pave the way for a lasting relationship and a happier home. These are a few:
1. Expect that you will have to change your ways even if they were good ways of doing things. Change is good for us and creates opportunity for growth. The more people we have in our lives, the more we have to bend and sacrifice. That is reality.
2. Establish workable role definitions. Usually it is best if you start out parenting (discipline, guidance) your own children and allow the step parent to begin with friendship and fun. It may take months, years or never to have a parental role with your step children. It depends on the child as well – age, gender, temperament. It is nice if it goes well but that isn’t always possible.
3. Turn toward each other as lover, partner, friend, or co-parent rather than holding tightly to your own children and creating “triangles” by alienating or protecting them from your partner. For example: Do not allow your children to criticize your partner to you or to be disrespectful. Don’t lecture your partner about how to handle your child. Stay out of the middle, out of the triangle or you may find yourself to be the cause of their strained relationship.
4. Handle the communication with your own ex. Write your own child support checks. Talk to your ex about important decisions concerning your child. Do not expect your ex to follow your new house rules. Kids are able to adapt to the differences. Don’t judge or criticize your partner’s ex., even if your partner does. Never disagree about or criticize the other parent around the children.
5. Create private space in your home where you can talk about what is working and what isn’t. Seek first to understand before you try to problem solve. Present a united front as much as possible by letting children know you will be making decisions together.
6. Allow for your own grieving what you feel you have lost or your struggles. These feelings come and go and will not harm your relationship if you can talk and listen without defending, fixing or discounting what you hear. Examples: I miss my time with my own child; I miss the freedom of making decisions as a single parent. Weekends are hard when all of the kids are here.
7. Have regular date nights. Get a baby sitter or a family member to keep the children over night occasionally. Keep the romance alive by having fun, spending time with friends, taking walks alone. Have one low stress family vacation and at least one private couple vacation.
8. Allow your relationship to grow by sharing activities and spending time together with extended family and friends. Every relationship needs a support system and community.
9. Validate and acknowledge to the children that this is at times a challenging situation but that you love them and will do everything you can to create a safe and secure home for them. They should also know that the adults are in charge and they know what they are doing. Patiently listen to their concerns and ask for patience and trust that love will prevail.
10. If your relationship is becoming defensive and distant get help as soon as possible. Your bond with each other is the key to a successful transition and lasting healthy family life. Seek help from a therapist with experience in this area who will remain positive, neutral and provide honest and direct guidance when needed.