Blended families are becoming more and more common. After the difficult, often painful experience of divorce, it can feel wonderful for an individual to find love and companionship in a new relationship. The excitement and romance are very real and can be very helpful in creating a healthy new life. However, no one can deny that, certain challenges are inherent in blending an existing family with another, or even with just a new partner. Each person brings with them the experiences from their past and the environment that they are accustomed to, which may be very different from those in the other family. How can you make this transition as smooth and rewarding as possible for everyone involved? As MD family therapists, we hope to share our insights on handling this significant transition.
First, it is important for the new partners to have an open and honest discussion with each other about their expectations for their new family. If each of you have children, how much time do they expect to spend with them? How will parenting roles be shared? Similarly, keeping open and honest communication with your children will help them to feel secure and involved in the process. When you decide to marry or take any other big step (such as moving in together), take time to talk with each individual child to allow them to express their feelings, to reassure them about the changes, and to give them an opportunity to ask questions. This also can help the new stepparent to bond with each child and to show them they are cared about. Next, have a family meeting with all children and discuss what changes will be made and what everyone can expect. If you find these conversation difficult to have, you may wish to speak with a Bethesda MD family therapist to aid in this process
If your new partner has children, forming a relationship with them may feel incredibly important but at times, difficult. Know that this is normal, as children often have had very emotional experiences of a divorce and may be wary of another adult coming into their lives. Their relationship with you and their reactions to a new person in their life may depend a lot on their age – for example, teenagers may want a more “hands-off” relationship, as they are in the process of cultivating their own life away from the family. No matter what their age, children likely have some fears attached to a new adult being in their lives. They may worry about another potential breakup like the divorce, they may be afraid of too many changes happening in their lives (such as moving or accepting new siblings), and they may not trust you as a parent, yet. However, certain ways in which you can interact with your partner’s children, from the beginning, can help them to feel safer and closer to you. First, it is important to treat each child as an individual. Show the child that they are important to you by getting to know them for who they are, showing interest in what they like to do, etc. Taking things slowly and allowing the child to lead the relationship, not pushing or assuming closeness, will allow them to feel more in control. By taking time to earn their respect and love, you will enjoy a much stronger bond. Another tip that can help with this is to try to hold off on being their disciplinarian and defer that to your partner (their biological parent) at the beginning, until the children feel that you know them and respect you.
In every relationship, but especially in a blended family, the happiness and health of the couple relationship is paramount. It can be so easy for partners with blended families to get caught up in taking care of your children and in working to win your partner’s children’s respect and love that sometimes spending time together as a couple gets put on the backburner. This is especially true if a child has special health concerns and you may benefit from consulting a medical family therapist. However, especially in a new relationship, taking time to connect with your partner will keep your relationship strong and may help the transition with your children go more smoothly as well. Try taking a short vacation on the weekends every other month, just the two of you, or creating another way to ensure you have couple time together. Additionally, being aware of how your experience in your earlier romantic relationships may affect how you interact with your new partner can be especially helpful. If, perhaps, an earlier partner hurt you in some way, knowing and communicating your “triggers” to your new partner may help both of you avoid that painful experience in the future.
When you are all together as a family, try to stick together as a parental team to show unity and to foster a sense of security for the family. Make it a point to spend quality time together and to create new memories together, helping everyone get to know each other in a positive way. The upcoming holidays may be a special opportunity for new traditions. At the same time, it is important to respect children’s differences and the traditions they may have had in their old family environment. For example, respecting that a child may be accustomed to spending time with their other parent’s family on Christmas Eve night and allowing them to continue that tradition can be very important. Planning out the holidays ahead of time can help manage expectations and allow for those new memories to be created in a positive light.
This entry is just a brief overview of what might help the process of blending families go smoothly. Each relationship and family is different, and the process may therefore look differently. In the end, it’s important to understand your expectations for your new family as well as to understand what is realistic. Your new family probably won’t be just like the one you may have had before, and it may take significant time for everyone to feel comfortable with each other, but if you approach them with an open heart and respectful demeanor, you can enjoy wonderful new closeness and love. If you find yourself and/or your new family struggling with this transition, our Bethesda MD family therapists are here to help!