Help for the Blended Family: Moving From Chaos to Thriving Connection

Your Blended Family Means Everything

This marriage is another chance for love for both of you — yet your blended family has quickly become wrought with issuesBlended Family you had not anticipated. You and your partner may find increased arguing, your new marriage is strained and you’ve both started to feel increasingly hopeless.

What you may not know is that the divorce rate for second marriages is higher than for first marriages, at about 67 percent.

We’ll help you understand the hazards your blended family can encounter as well as key areas the two of you can address to help guide you toward improved relationships for you — and with your children.

Blended Family Challenges Abound

You and your partner have fallen in love and eagerly made steps to move under one roof. However, the others around you — the children, grandparents and previous spouses — may not be so keen on this major change in their lives.

For the kids in blended families, the adjustment can be challenging indeed. They’ve already endured the divorce, separation, or death of a parent. Now, they’re wondering how they’ll fit in with the new household and step-parent. If the move means a change in schools, there’s another major adjustment to be made, as well as feelings of loss and distance from their friends.

Grandparents may fear lost connections to the grandkids and may struggle with how to develop a comfortable relationship with your new partner.

The ex-partner or spouse can be feeling a broad range of acceptance or conflict. Suddenly, there’s a new “parent” in the picture for his or her kids. Importantly, the ex-spouse may hold negative feelings from the separation or divorce. Issues about co-parenting may not have been resolved.

It’s a lot, right? Balancing all the emotions that come into the mix for the blended family is no easy feat. The new couple may find it hard to maintain their connection. The kids’ adjustment can take considerable energy and time, as can any conflict with the previous spouse and in-laws.

When Blended Families Begin to Struggle

Given all the challenges, it’s no wonder couples often find that arguing can begin even shortly after the marriage and relationship blends into one household.

Here’s what we often hear when blended family couples come to counseling for help:

“My partner treats my kids differently.”

“The kids aren’t getting along with each other, and we don’t know what to do.”

“Life and rules at his or her ex’s house makes it difficult when the kids return to our home.”

“My children’s grandparents won’t accept my new spouse.”

“We really disagree about parenting!”

While these dilemmas are fairly common, many couples struggle with how to cope or address these concerns.  Attempts at discussions can lead to arguments because the emotions underlying the concerns are so important.

Yet, what we find most often is that these new couples have failed to fully discuss so many aspects of blending their families prior to moving in together.

Without a foundation of understanding and mutually agreed-upon ground rules, blended family couples are then struggling to resolve issues that have gotten under way and likely caused hurt feelings among many of those affected.

Our “Before (and After) You Blend” Check-List

Of course, it’s always best to discuss and reach agreement on key issues before the “blending” occurs. Yet we feel this list also is useful after you’ve partnered and settled in to the new blended family household. The arguing typically comes from lack of clarity. Taking time to slow down and reach agreements has the potential to clear the way for greater understanding by everyone involved.

  1. Discover your parenting styles. Often, different parenting styles can be the root of conflict in blended families. Learning to take the best of different parenting styles and your personal strengths as parents can produce a great combination to benefit your children.                                                                                                                                                                        
  2. Develop house rules, preferably in writing. After all, it’s a new household — so new rules might be in order.

Older children can be invited to participate in developing the rules. Of course, parents have the final approval; however, when children are involved in creating rules and have agreed to them, they have some ownership. Then, they may be more likely to adhere to the new requirements.

Additionally, you can involve them in setting consequences for failure to adhere to the rules. Again, if they have a voice, they may be more compliant in accepting those consequences. Still, however, parents always have the final say. And, if you understand your parenting styles, enforcing consequences may go more smoothly.

  1. Discuss between you and your partner the needs of each child for support and comfort during the transition. Recognize each child’s strengths as well as how each child may be struggling with the transition. Working to meet these needs early on can aid in each child’s adjustment to his or her new life in the blended family.

This step can be critical. Spending time with each child to hear his or her concerns about the new life can help prevent some of the fears and stress later. Realizing the depth of the change each child is experiencing helps you accommodate their individual needs as best as possible. Also, it’s powerful that the child feels heard and understood by the biological parent and supported in feeling comfortable with the new parent.

  1. Explore acceptable boundaries with extended family members. Friction can result from the absence of a clear understanding between you about interactions with grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.

A not-uncommon challenge in blended families is when the new partner does not feel accepted by the extended-family members. Discussing how the new partner feels and the type of support they would like can be vital to preventing these issues from impacting your new relationship with each other. Of course, you won’t be able to foresee every possible problem, but knowing how to support each other will strengthen your bond and connection.

  1. Develop some clarity about issues and concerns related to the ex-partner and the biological parent of the children.

For example, one partner may not agree with how his or her partner handles conflict with the kids’ other biological parent. Talking beforehand about what input each partner wants or doesn’t want on this issue can avoid conflict between the two of you.

Conflict with the kids’ other parent is often painful and difficult to resolve in blended families — and can be the source of considerable stress in your new relationship because of the impact on the children. This is another way in which having a clear understanding of how to support each other can help avoid some common pitfalls.

  1. Protect your connection. In Emotionally Focused Counseling, which is the most successful approach to helping improve relationships, therapists help couples develop “rituals” for staying close. These are special times and activities you set aside just for the two of you, such as a quiet time in the morning over coffee, an evening chat on the patio and date nights. Remember: Your relationship is the foundation of your blended family.

Better Relationships = Better Blended Families

You have a second chance at love, AND you also have a new opportunity to model for your children a happy, close, loving relationship.

We know from research that the bond children observe in their parents can have a far-reaching impact. Whether you’re aware or not, parents are making powerful impressions on their kids. Children are like sponges — absorbing the world around them. They’re keen observers of your relationship.

By resolving emerging issues calmly, by being open with children about rules and expectations in the new home and by tuning in to each child’s needs, you set into motion the possibility for children to learn valuable life lessons.

To learn about improving your communication, read Communication in Relationships

To learn more about having challenging conversations with each other, we recommend the book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson, the principal creator of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.