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Any couple involved in a remarriage can tell you there are definitely some complicating factors. 

Extended family is even more extended. There are typically at least three people involved in parenting decisions, if not more. Visitation with the other parent involves consulting more schedules, and co-parenting is often complicated. 

Here are some blended family facts from Pew research and others:

  • 42% of adults (102 million) have a steprelationship, and when you add the 11.6 million stepchildren in the U.S. (16% of all kids), an estimated 113.6 million Americans have stepkin.
  • 52% of married/cohabiting couples with at least one living parent (or parent-in-law) and at least one adult child have a stepkin relationship.
  • 52% of “sandwich” generation couples have at least one stepparent or stepchild. 
  • The percentage is even higher for younger households, with 62% of married/cohabiting couples under age 55 having at least one stepkin relationship in the three generations.
  • 4 in 10 new marriages involve remarriage.

In many instances, children find themselves trying to navigate two worlds, attempting to understand why they have to follow different sets of rules at each house. Sometimes parents talk badly about the other parent in front of their children. It can very quickly become confusing and complicated for the children.

“Parents have to remember and accept the fact that while they can end a marriage to someone, they will never stop being parents,” said Ron Deal, speaker and author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family.

“While you may be relieved to be out of the marriage, your children have been in a transitional crisis. How well they recover from that crisis has a lot to do with you. The key to successful co-parenting is separating the dissolution of your marriage from the parental responsibilities that remain.”

Deal says that children can successfully adjust to the ending of their parents’ marriage and can fare reasonably well if: 

  • the parents are able to bring their marital relationship to an end without excessive conflict;
  • children are not put into the middle of whatever conflicts exist; and
  • there is a commitment from parents to cooperate regarding the children’s material, physical, educational and emotional welfare.

“I do realize that many ex-spouses have great difficulty cooperating about anything, let alone the nurture and discipline of their children,” Deal said. “That does not absolve you of the responsibility to try. Your children deserve your best effort.”

Although blending two families together comes with plenty of challenges, Deal wants to give stepfamilies the keys to unlocking some of the most difficult struggles they face. 

Deal helps families answer some of their most common questions, such as:

  • Should we develop new family traditions together? 
  • Are my boundaries and influence different as a stepparent?
  • How do I make sure no one feels left out or unheard?
  • What about dealing with ex-spouses? Are there dos and don’ts?
  • Sometimes, our “blended family” feels awkward. Will it ever feel normal?
  • Our marriage often takes a backseat to figuring out the stepparent dynamic. How can we stay connected?

Your blended family can grow, learn and become stronger, no matter what season you find yourself in. Work together to develop a game plan – one that builds connection and intimacy at home while keeping your marriage strong,

 

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

“How do I get my ex to be consistent with discipline?”

“Sometimes I find it very hard not to talk bad about my ex in front of the children.”

“There is nothing that will make my blood pressure go up faster than when my ex says they will do something and they don’t.”

“I honestly believe my ex does things intentionally to get back at me.”

In the aftermath of a divorce, people often realize that instead of being better off as they hoped, they have traded one set of problems for another. There are a lot of frustrated moms and dads who don’t understand why they can’t agree on anything after the divorce when it comes to parenting.

Life is Different

Even though you have lived with this person for a number of years, you are now learning how to live separate lives while still parenting your children well. There may be things your ex is doing that you totally don’t agree with, but you have to figure out how to work within the boundaries of your new relationship – while always considering what will be in the best interest of your children.

For starters, it is important for you to plan how you will manage as a single parent.

  • Get organized. Make a plan for moving forward. Take time to sort through activities, job demands, a budget, available resources, friends who can provide support and backup, etc. This will help you to be more in control of your situation and to focus on what is important.
  • Focus on family. Set expectations, keep the lines of communication open, establish boundaries and set aside time to be together as a family.
  • Throw perfection out the window. It isn’t about having it all together. It is more about doing the best you can under difficult circumstances.
  • Ask for help. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. There are resources available, but you have to make the connection. Neighbors, friends and co-workers are often ready and willing to step up to the plate when you need them.
  • Take one day at a time. After you have put a plan together, don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture.

This transition time can be very challenging. Having a plan in place will help you bring some order into your life and help you keep your cool when things don’t go as planned with your ex.

Keep the Children out of the Middle

An old African proverb says, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

“Biological parents who fight and refuse to cooperate are trampling on their most prized possession – their children,” says stepfamily expert Ron Deal. “Elephants at war are totally unaware of what is happening to the grass because they are far too consumed with the battle at hand. Little do they know how much damage is being done.”

Parents who want to reduce the negative effects of divorce on their children should strive to be effective co-parents because it reduces between-home conflict and increases cooperation. Taming your tongue, for example, is critical to cooperating. Conflict containment starts with controlling your speech. You cannot be an effective co-parent without doing so.

“Parents have to remember and accept the fact that while they can end a marriage to someone, they will never stop being parents,” Deal says. “While you may be relieved to be out of the marriage, your children have been in a transitional crisis. How well they recover from that crisis has a lot to do with you, the parents. The key to successful co-parenting is separating the dissolution of your marriage from the parental responsibilities that remain.”

According to Deal, children successfully adjust to the ending of their parents’ marriage and can fare reasonably well if:

  • The parents are able to bring their marital relationship to an end without excessive conflict.
  • Children are not put into the middle of whatever conflicts exist.
  • There is a commitment from parents to cooperate on issues of the children’s material, physical, educational and emotional welfare.

Many ex-spouses have great difficulty cooperating about anything, let alone the nurturing and disciplining of their children. That does not absolve you of the responsibility to try. Your children deserve your best effort.

Co-parenting does not mean sharing all decisions about the children or that either home is accountable to the other for their choices, rules or standards. Each household should be autonomous, but share responsibility for the children. It also does not mean that rules or punishment from one home cross over to the other home.

For example, if your child gets in trouble on Thursday and he loses his television privileges, in an ideal world it would be great if your ex were willing to enforce the consequence over the weekend. That may not happen in reality, so the actual consequence would go into effect when your child returns home to you Sunday evening. Telling your ex that he/she has to enforce your consequence usually leads to more conflict between the two of you and more angst for your child.

Deal believes effective co-parenting should look something like this:

  • Work hard to respect the other parent and his or her household.
  • Schedule a monthly “business” meeting to discuss co-parenting matters. Make a list of things that need to be discussed. A word of caution: Do not discuss your personal life or that of your ex. If the conversation drifts away from the children, redirect it toward your children and their activities, schedules, etc.
  • Never ask your children to be spies or tattle-tales on the other home. The goal is to decrease distress, not create more. If you hear information about what happened while they were with their other parent, listen and stay neutral.
  • When children have confusing or angry feelings toward your ex, don’t capitalize on their hurt and berate the other parent.
  • Children should have everything they need in each home. Don’t make them bring basics back and forth.
  • Try to release your hostility toward the other parent so that the children can’t take advantage of your hard feelings. Bitterness, hurt and anger keep you from being the person and the parent your children need.
  • Do not disappoint your children with broken promises or by being unreliable.

In the midst of a complicated and difficult situation, you have the opportunity to show integrity, honor and respect. Even when you don’t like someone anymore or you don’t think they deserve it, you can still find a way to be respectful.

  • Make your custody structure work for your children even if you don’t like the details of the arrangement.
  • If you plan to hire a babysitter for more than four hours while the children are in your home, give the other parent first rights to that time.
  • Suggest that younger children take a favorite toy or game as a transitional object.
  • If you and your ex cannot resolve a problem, change in custody or visitation, agree to problem-solve through mediation rather than litigation.

Moving On

“The reality is many parents who were poor marriage partners are good parents and their children enjoy them very much,” Deal shares. “Give your ex-spouse the opportunity to be wonderful with the children, even if he/she wasn’t wonderful with you.”

You are traveling in uncharted waters. While you probably have friends who have experienced this and are willing to give you advice, it may not be right for your family.

A father once said that it had been six months since his divorce and it was time for his “kid” to get over it. Children of divorce don’t ever “get over it.” They may learn how to cope with it, but every day for the rest of their lives they will have to make decisions that are a result of their parents’ divorce.

As time goes by, you may feel like you are moving on, adjusting and putting this chapter in your life behind you. However, this is not something your children will ever “put behind them.” At every turn your child will gain new insights and more questions. They must understand the divorce was not their fault. Equally as important is being intentional about modeling healthy relationship skills with your children.

Additional Resources:

The Smart Stepfamily: Seven steps to a Healthy Family – Ron Deal

Parenting After Divorce: How to Work Together with Your Ex-Spouse for Happier, Healthier Children – Ron Deal

The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce – Judith Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakesless

What About the Kids?: Raising Your Children Before, During and After Divorce – Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee

Smart Stepfamilies

Looking for more? Check out this video by JulieB TV on this topic!

Creating a healthy stepfamily can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. In fact, since the number of stepfamilies has tripled since the 1960s, many men and women have done just that. If you have children from a previous relationship and you’re considering a relationship with another special someone with kids, there are a few things you may want to consider to help ease the transition.

First, what do you expect moving forward? Sit down and discuss your expectations as it relates to topics like buying a house together, purchasing a car, date night, soccer practices and many other things. It’s better to have an idea of what you think it should look like, but adaptability is key.

How you will handle discipline is another thing to think about. For instance, is it okay for the stepparent to discipline their spouse’s child? It is often more assuring to kids (and their other parent) if their own biological parent disciplines them.

What about bonding with the kids? The bond stepparents have with their stepchild is immensely important for healthy and stable stepfamilies. You both should be able to talk about each child and feel that you are heard, but when it comes to children, consider the fact that marrying their parent is a BIG deal. Remember that you aren’t there to replace their father or mother, so focus on encouraging and building your own relationships with the children.

What about holidays – how will you handle those? Taking into account that the kids will spend time with both biological parents during the holidays, work to create new traditions and ask for the kids’ input for making the transitions a little easier. When the biological parents talk directly and make arrangements ahead of time, it can lessen confusion. Encourage family meetings so the children feel heard and valued during the process.

Although blending families is no easy task, discussing things like these ahead of time can help everyone prepare well for the journey ahead.

Many divorced parents face the reality of divided time with their children. Arrangements vary from weekend visitation to splitting time with each parent right down the middle. This often creates problems between the two homes: sometimes one parent is strict and the other is lenient, one parent may try to fill both parental roles, or perhaps one parent’s home is like a vacation spot.

Occasionally, parents refuse to work together for the good of the children out of spite for each other. This sets up an environment of competition, guilt and resentment, according to stepfamily expert, Elizabeth Einstein.

How can you work together for the best interest of your child?

First, you must put your issues aside. It is helpful if both of you:

  • Complete a joint-parenting plan and agree on expectations and limits so that your child can’t manipulate you;
  • Work as a team to provide consistency for the children;
  • Agree not to degrade or talk negatively about each other even though you might still have unresolved issues and anger;
  • Allow the children to talk about their feelings while listening and comforting them, as they also are going through a very difficult time; and
  • Try to make home as normal a place as possible.

Each of you should have a plan in place for how to spend your time with the children.

  • Remember to make sure it is not necessarily all fun and games, but give them the freedom to learn and get to know you better, just as they would if they lived with you all the time. It is important that the parent-child relationship does not only become one of playmate, peer or buddy when visitation time comes, but one of bonding.
  • Mentally prepare yourself for the visitation, and do not expect your kids to be cheerful and happy all the time. They are going through adjustments that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
  • Remember, no one is perfect. Do the best you know how to do. Work with your children to establish new traditions. Stick to the agreements in the joint-parenting plan, and above all, be consistent during the special times you have with your children.

Remarrying with children often creates a complex dynamic. Expectations may not be clear and people aren’t sure how to behave. Ex-spouses and their new spouse impact what happens in your household. Is it any surprise that all of this creates stress and conflict in relationships?

“Most couples enter into remarriage with a tremendous amount of expectation and hope,” says Ron Deal, author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family. “They are filled with hope, expecting positive things and are well-intentioned, yet in most instances, they are naïve about the trip they are about to take.”

Believe it or not, transitioning into a stepfamily requires some prep work. If you are embarking on this journey, Deal’s recommendations can help you out.

  • Nurture your marriage and learn to communicate well. According to a study of more than 50,000 stepfamily couples, maintaining fun in marriage is the number five predictor of a high-quality stepcouple relationship. Good communication and conflict resolution skills were the number two and three predictors of successful remarriages.
  • Keep perspective. This is new for everyone, so expect to feel lost. Seek understanding and don’t force people to blend, because it takes time. It may even take years for your family to really unite, but it’s better than causing a lot of frustration by moving too quickly. Be patient with the process and have a “slow-cooker” mentality.
  • Talk with others. Before you begin, you might want to educate yourself about stepfamily living. Also, ask other stepfamilies about their experiences and the things that caught them by surprise. Find out how they handled the early days.
  • Help the kids. When appropriate, encourage biological parents to consistently spend one-on-one time with each child. Since this is also foreign territory for children, prepare them to expect a variety of feelings and encourage them to talk about it. Discuss what to call one another (e.g., stepdad or “George”) and decide how to introduce one another in public. Understand that kids may have different names/terms for stepfamily members depending on who’s in the room. For example, they may call a stepfather “Daddy” unless their biological dad is physically present until relationships stabilize. Don’t pressure kids to use labels that make you comfortable; try to follow their lead.
  • Traditions matter. For sure, keep some old ones (for the kids), but also create a new one in your first year. If you want to help form the missing family identity in your home, put intentional thought and effort into creating that new family tradition. Traditions tell us who we are and where we belong.
  • Be a team. It’s helpful if parents and stepparents can seek consensus in household rules and how to cooperate. Have lots of parenting meetings. In the first year, it’s a great idea for stepparents to focus on building relationships with the children. Be sure to move at their pace, not yours.
  • Anticipate bumps in the road. Stepfamily life can be challenging, so don’t expect perfection. Try not to overreact.
  • Keep your visitation schedule predictable. Give children continued access to the other home. Forcing kids to lose time with the other household will inadvertently invite kids to resent your relationship. Stepparents need to communicate a “no threat” message to the other biological parent. They need to know that you understand your role as a new person in their life who will never try to replace them. This message helps the other parent not to feel intimidated by your involvement with their children. Hopefully, it will also increase their openness to your role as stepparent.
  • Stay connected. Try to maintain old friendships and social connections. If necessary, reconnect to a family of faith. Find a mentor to help you through your first year or join a group where you can find tools and encouragement.
  • Take the Couple Checkup. The checkup provides an accurate view of your relationship and gives suggestions for strengthening your marriage. It not only tells you where you are and helps you decide where you want to go, but it gives you directions to get there. You can access the Couple Checkup and other resources at Smart Stepfamilies.

For more insight on parenting, download our E-book “10 Tips for Blended Families.” Download Here