Blended Families: Handle With Care Saying

The hidden pitfalls in yours, mine, and ours.

by Maxine Marsolini

Many might say Charlie and I were adventurous that wintry weekend, twenty-four years ago. Others might believe the snowstorm we braved was a precursor to the stormy life we would discover. But we had a goal: We were eloping — and not even our children knew of our plans. This was to be our wedding night.

“Do you think we can make it through?” Charlie asked. “Maybe we should turn around.”

“We’re doing okay,” I answered. “The snow is powdery and the tires are still grabbing well. Besides, we’ve come so far already, it will be as difficult to turn back as to continue.”

By eleven o’clock that night (twelve hours after we’d set out on our six-hour journey) we were married in a discrete, yet tasteful ceremony in Reno, Nevada, by a minister and witnesses we’d never seen before. It didn’t take long for the nuptials to be accomplished — fifteen or twenty minutes. We bought the picture package and exited the chapel. Two days later we were home, announcing our news to family and friends.

Manageable details

All five young children (I had two and my husband had three from previous marriages) accepted the surprise report of our marriage. My two would be living with us, and my husband’s would come for visitations. At this point, all these details sounded manageable. Every other week we would pick up three children and bring them to our house. Every other week the two children living with us would go to their father’s house.

Charlie and I jumped into this blended thing with both feet. Surely two mature adults could make an “our” thing out of a “yours” and “mine” thing. It didn’t take long for our naiveté to become evident to us all. Little did we know we had said yes to being a part of society’s most difficult family formation to live in. The emotional high of new love and a second chance at happily-ever-after had blinded us to the unique issues we would face after the wedding bells stopped ringing.

New challenges

One of the biggest challenges centers on remarrieds themselves in finding time to nurture the new marriage. There is no gradual adjustment to a new partner or extended time for “just-the-two-of-you” bonding that’s customary to a husband and wife without children. Blended families go almost instantaneously from “I do” to packing school lunches and coping with intrahousehold and interhousehold demands.

To maintain a healthy relationship, remarrieds must nurture the new marriage despite the frustrations so common to the blended family. One of the best ways to plan time for the two of you is by keeping a weekly date night on your calendar. If possible, arrange to have a weekend away every couple months. When intimacy diminishes, anger and disillusionment are often close at hand.

If remarrieds don’t have enough to deal with, they have to consider the adjustments of their offspring. It is common for these fragile family units to see instant competition between stepchildren. Our sons and daughters were not shopping around for extra brothers and sisters — or for a new parent figure. Now there are rooms to share, less bathroom time to go around. Mom isn’t as available as she used to be — you know, like before she married “him.”

Trust must be built between stepparents and stepchildren. Weekend visitations must be managed. Discipline and financial solutions to multiple needs must be sorted through. All this is in addition to figuring out who has to take out the garbage and why the visiting child doesn’t have to do as many chores as the live-in son or daughter.

Family dynamics

To get things off to a good start, stepparents need to take their new family dynamics seriously, while lowering personal expectations. Don’t just assume children will be adaptable. In fact, a recent article in The Seattle Times warns about children in remarried homes.

While this may seem to be a largely positive change for these children, in reality remarriage can be a mixed blessing — or worse. The arrival of a new adult — often with a child or two from a previous marriage — can turn a child’s world upside down, prompting fears, conflicts and doubts about the child’s role and status in the family. [1]

When parents remarry, children will normally act out, positively or negatively, to establish their position in the power structure of the new family. Try to allow time and lots of forgiveness for youngsters to feel at home in the new extended family. Don’t take every naughty behavior so seriously.

Educate yourself about the grieving process the youngsters are involved in, because most often they are not mature enough to explain why they are unhappy. Instead, their discontent shows up in negative actions and attitudes.

To be honest, it’s hard enough for adults to verbalize their true feelings. Parents need to look beyond behaviors and understand broken hearts. Holding family meetings, seeking occasional outside counsel, or becoming part of a blended family support group can help.

Blended families should come with a Surgeon General’s warning: “Fragile: Handle with care. Blending in process.” When the inability of family members to cope with the enormous change thrust upon them supersedes the joy developing in the blended home, family members begin to feel trapped. This hopeless state opens the door for emotions to escalate or plummet out of control for everyone. Rage, jealousy, blame, substance abuse, despair, and even suicide can earmark these pieced-together families. It’s true: Children in blended families are more likely to be troubled simply because they experience conflict within the home plus conflict from interhousehold issues.

Love and acceptance

How do you combat the stress of blending and avert disaster? By making each member feel loved and wanted. Husbands and wives should set the standard by showing a deep love and respect for one another. Since it’s way too easy for us “blendeds” to fall into a space of feeling unwanted, we have to make deliberate love choices with our family members. Love in the home begins with the mom and dad and spreads to embrace the children. When this happens, a safe environment is created.

All of us hunger for assurance of loving relationships. Rejection hurts; it fuels anger and can leave scars that last a lifetime. I value a message left behind by Mother Teresa:

I have come more and more to realize that being unwanted is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience. Nowadays we have found medicine for leprosy, and lepers can be cured. There’s medicine for TB, and consumption can be cured. But for being unwanted, except there are willing hands to serve and there’s a loving heart to love, I don’t think this terrible disease can be cured. [2]

It doesn’t take long to give a hug, write a card or say an encouraging word. Don’t forget to plan some fun into the family schedule. Children and fun go hand-in-hand.

Don’t turn back

Remember our trip to Reno through the snow? The same questions apply to blending. Can we make it through? I thought it would be easy; I was wrong. But would it really be easier to turn back? The answer is the same as it was back then. It is as difficult to turn back from the blending process, and bring even more confusion to our children, as it is to continue to our destination: binding up the wounds of two families and becoming a family where we embrace one another despite the bonds of blood.

The blended family isn’t just an ordinary family times two. It’s a special kind of family with special needs. Some issues our family is still working on. Stepsibling relationships with one another as brother and sister remain incomplete — but they are getting better.

One thing is for sure: Blending doesn’t just happen; we purposely journey into it. Though it takes years, we have this promise from God: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to give you hope and a future'” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV).

It is time for adults and children to take God’s promises seriously. We are not destined to a pathetic life. God’s kids walk a path of victory.