Blended Families are hard work. Statistics show that 60% of all remarriages will end in divorce and when there are children involved that rises to 70%. That’s roughly twice the amount of failed first marriages where the rate is around 30-35%. How about that for a sobering opening paragraph? Why all the blended family conflict?
Why is this the case? Shouldn’t we be better at picking our next partner? Not so according to Psychology Today which poses some thoughts on the subject summarised below:
- The break down of gender stereotypes brings greater independence to both genders – we are less reliant on each other. Women are more financially independent and men are more domestically independent.
- There could be some complacency around divorce. You have been through it before, you can do it again. The agony of going through a divorce might actually be easier than the pain of continuing in a marriage that isn’t working.
- The second marriage could also be a rebound. The people involved are vulnerable and not given enough time to reflect on why their first marriage was not a success.
The article, however, goes on to state that primary factor affecting the breakup of second and third marriages is the lack of family “glue” holding them together – children. Children are a stabilising factor for marriage, but only for a first marriage.
The majority of children born today are born to first marriages. The lack of shared responsibility for the children in second or third marriages means it is easier to leave and that the idea of being a family is not central to the marriage.
In fact, the presence of children in second or third marriages is actually a contributing factor to the break down of the marriage. They bring rivalries and arguments that cause tension.
Married or not this is for you
Now I have not remarried. I’m not opposed to the idea, it’s just not happened yet. You dont’ need to be married for the statistics above to apply or scare you! Equally the advice below can apply to you (as it does to me) without needing to be married.
I’m not saying all of these things to be the harbinger of doom. I want you to be aware that for a blended family to work you need to put in the time and effort. It’s not going to happen on its own.
The good news is that family stability and not its structure is key to children’s academic success and the bonds between adolescents and both their biological and step-parents give a much greater sense of belonging.
So, what can you do to reduce the conflict in your blended family and give yourself the best chance of success?
1: Be a Family
When me and Nicky first got together we were very clear with each other about what we wanted out of life. One of the reasons we work so well together is that what we want is very similar.
This vision extended to family life. How we wanted to live, the lifestyle we wanted and how we were going to achieve it. We were very clear from the start that we were going to be a family and that is what we would call ourselves.
We made this non-negotiable.
It’s a key part of who we are that we want our children to feel safe, secure and loved. This is what a family is. We look out for each other, share the highs and work through the lows together as one unit.
As humans, we aren’t limited to being in one family unit. We can move freely between different family units and different family dynamics without too much trouble.
While we were clear on what we were as a collective group, we made sure that the kids didn’t feel pressured into giving each other labels. No-one was/is made to call anyone by anything other than their name.
After 4 years I feel like our family is finally starting to feel like a cohesive unit. The kids all play together and seek each other out when they want too. They all have their own unique relationship with each other and respect each other’s boundaries (most of the time). You cannot force or rush this process. It takes time.
What you can do is foster those relationships by planting and sticking firm to the idea that you are all a family. We reinforce the idea that we are a family with our family photo wall.
2: Check-in with your partner (in crime) – Communicate!
It is critical that you check-in with your partner as often as you can. You are going through this together and you can’t do it on your own. There are so many things that can derail a blended family or cause upset and hurt.
Often there isn’t the time to talk about issues as they arise, the kids are always there (ALWAYS F-ING THERE!). Small issues can turn into big issues if they aren’t talked through or worked on so make sure you find the time when the kid’s aren’t around. Talk about things you didn’t like, talk about money but perhaps most importantly talk about things you did like. I often tell Nicky when I really liked something she did with one of the boys.
I would say that 80% of the disagreements between me and Nicky are due to poor communication. I would go even further to say that assumptions are the biggest enemy in a blended family. The assumption as to why this or that happened. In most cases the assumption was wrong and the resulting emotion is far worse than the actual reality.
We suffer more in imagination than in realitySeneca
Talk to your partner about how you feel, every day, multiple times if you have to. You might find that if you both know where the other is coming from and any miscommunications are rectified that you spend less time being hurt or upset.
3: Date Nights
Easy one this.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you were not attracted to your partner because of their children. You were attracted to them because of them right?
Make sure you reconnect as often as you can – preferably away from the family home. But if you can’t then banish the kids upstairs as early as is reasonable, pour a glass of wine and curl up on the sofa for a film. Cook yourselves something nice and something you wouldn’t usually have as a family.
If you keep getting some visitors from upstairs then be honest and ask them for some time. Explain why it’s important. Our kids don’t mind, they know that we give them our all and we don’t ask for much in return.
I’m a big believer in caring for the caretaker. I know that I need time to recharge and date night is the perfect way to do this and reconnect with Nicky. I know that I am a better parent when we regularly get this time away.
We also try to take extended date nights by getting away for a weekend every 6 months or so. I firmly believe its a core part of me being a good dad. We have been to York, London, Wales and even Rome.
Don’t feel guilty, you are giving yourself time so that you can be the best parent you can be. If you arent feeling 100% then you cant give 100%.
4: Be Consistent and Fair
For everyone to feel loved, safe and secure there can be no favouritism.
No difference in pocket money, who gets the big tv more, who gets to hold the dog when out, who gets the most money spent at Christmas, who gets extras at dinner time, who gets longer in the shower, who gets to sit next to who, who gets the front seat of the car.
Under no circumstances should you ever give preference to your own biological children.
We are hardwired to favour this behaviour so it can be tough to break the habit. I was totally guilty of doing this. You see I had to go to family court to get to see my youngest. When I finally got access he got away with murder for months. It turns out I was fearful of losing him again. It drove a real wedge between me and Nicky.
I made one simple change to my perception and it stopped overnight.
In every decision I made I started to view all of the kids as my own and ask myself every single time:
What would I do here if this was one of my sons?
Treat your stepkids like you treat your own kids
I didn’t treat anyone differently. I even started to treat my stepdaughters when my boys weren’t with us – the odd tub of ice cream or magazine. Be as active in your step-children’s lives as you are in your own children’s. Don’t check-out when your biological children aren’t there.
It’s not easy. I for one used to be very conscious that I was spending more time with someone else’s kids than my own.
That was until I started to see them as my own. I have just as much impact on the future of these children as Nicky does.
So I started to act like it.
You should too.
It had a really positive impact on my relationship with my step-daughters, but also with my youngest son. I wasn’t doing him any favours by letting him get away with things.
It’s easier to change your own thoughts and habits but harder to change that of others. If you are having issues (we are extremely lucky and we don’t!) at birthdays and Christmas with grandparents or other family members favouring their own biological grandchildren than their step-grandchildren then just talk to them. Explain what you are trying to do and be firm, this is YOUR family. Stick to your principles that you are a family. They don’t have to spend more, just equal out what they already spend.
5: Set Boundaries and Present a United Front
Discipline. In my opinion it’s the hardest thing to get right in non-blended families let alone where two families come together with pre-existing ideas about boundaries and what is and isn’t acceptable.
- What’s an acceptable bedtime?
- What do we eat for breakfast?
- What films are ok to watch?
- Do we have pudding after every evening meal?
The list is endless and ongoing and the kids have already been through this with their biological parents. Changing these existing behaviours can be tricky.
It needs regular communication and work to get this right. Make sure you communicate with the kids – they are going to need to know what the boundaries are.
Have an open and honest conversation about general discipline. What is and isn’t acceptable. There isn’t a right or wrong here. Just try and find some common ground and then work out any areas where you don’t quite see eye to eye. We sorted out bedtimes, pocket money, table manners etc
Work through the more contentious issues by explaining to each other why you feel the way you do about each sticking point and why its important to you. You may find that you change your mind when you have heard what the other has to say. You might even change your own mind when you give your reasons out loud! “that’s the way my parents did it” is not a solid reason!
In that first meeting, you aren’t going to come close to sorting everything out. Things will happen that you didn’t even consider.
Just how many times do the kids wear pyjamas before they need to be washed?
Be sure to check-in (see point 2) about these things as they happen and come to an agreement about how to tackle these things.
I set 3 rules for myself to stick by and the help me reflect and keep things on the right track:
- Talk to my partner often, don’t let differences fester and build resentment – check-in often!
- Don’t challenge your partner in front of the kids – the kids are smarter than you and will use it against you like a pack of hungry lions hunting an old wildebeest – You need to unite and don’t get separated!
- Don’t have different sets of rules for the kids! If you do decide on certain rules or boundaries then commit to them. Don’t let your own kids off because you don’t quite agree that you need to take shoes off at the door.
As with lots of things blended, this one can take time and will be contentious. But be patient, communicate (between yourselves and with the kids), be open to change and you will succeed!
Defence is the sometimes the worst offence
As a final note be very mindful about how you feel when your partner brings you information that your own child is not behaving as they should.
In this situation in blended families, the biological parent can go into defensive mode and justifying why and what and where and how their child is doing (or not doing) what they should.
I found it extremely difficult to not get super defensive and prickly when Nicky would say something about the behaviours of my two adorable, could never put a foot wrong angels. I mean who the hell does she think she is?
This is not how two adults working together towards family harmony should act. This is my very real Achilles heel and something I still struggle with today.
If your child has done something that needs to be addressed then do so, own it. See it for what it is, it isn’t a personal attack on them (unless you are living with a complete asshole and if that’s the case then you have bigger issues). If you don’t feel that whatever they have done is actually being “naughty” then talk it through, bring the context and emotion that sometimes only a parent can. I would wager that between the emotional heart-tugging of the parent’s view and the “cold light of day” step-parents view, somewhere in there is the correct approach needed.
6: Create your own Family Memories
Put aside time to do something all together. We love our family time. There are loads of options, here are some of the things we do:
- Family film night – make it like the cinema, lights down low, popcorn, blankets. Make it an event. Try and find a series of films that you like, create that suspense waiting for the next family film night to watch the next film in the series.
- Days out – these don’t need to be expensive. Take a picnic and get outdoors as often as you can. I always put the slow cooker on so when we get home there is a stew or something waiting for us to devour! Take lots of photos and use them for the family photo wall.
- Eat around the dinner table – This is a really good way of building and maintaining the connections between you all. It’s easier when the kids are younger and not out all the time on different schedules but try and make it 3-4 times a week.
- Play a board game – Always good fun and helps to bring peoples personalities out. Most board games are also great for building lots of different skills in children.
My children remember lots of times we have done this or that, the photos that rotate automatically around our smart home display are often a talking point amongst them.
7: Foster Relationships
The building and maintenance of relationships within the blended family is a vital endeavour. Not just collectively as a family unit but individual relationships too. This doesn’t have to be massively time-consuming and it can be fitted in around other things:
- My youngest step-daughter loves taking the dog a walk with me. That’s 3 hits in one go, the dog is walked, I hit my move goal and I get to spend time just me and her.
- She also likes coming to the shop with me to push the trolley (and pick the treats!)
- My eldest step-daughter likes watching films so we try and do that together
- With my sons, we all share a passion for Video Games so I carve out some time to play a game with them every weekend they are with us.
You don’t need to spend huge amounts of money either. Don’t fall into the “super parent” trap where its all theme parks and days at the beach. I have actually found the opposite to be true. Spending some time in the kitchen cooking up a batch of cookies with leftover Christmas chocolate is remembered and appreciated more than the grand gesture.
We alternate who is spending time with who and when. So if I am spending time with my sons then Nicky is spending time with her daughters.
Its important to not try and force this with your step-children too much, especially at the start of a blended family. The relationships will grow over time but you have to give them memories to grow from. You will be rewarded if you put in the effort.
8: Praise and Encourage all of your Children – Get Involved
Go to all of the events that you can. It can be tiring, it can make your life hectic (my youngest son’s school is 25 miles away) but it is the biggest thing that the kids remember. My stepdaughters never say thank you or tell me that they appreciate me going to parents evening or the Christmas concert but when that is cited as one of the reasons they no longer want to see their own Dad because he doesn’t go to these things – the message couldn’t be clearer.
For my own son’s I often attend these things without them knowing because they aren’t staying with us that night, but I make sure I find a way to let them know I attend and am aware of what is going on in their lives:
“Your teacher was telling me about X the other day at your parents evening”
“I saw in your school’s newsletter that X is happening this week”
It’s so important that your children and step-children feel like they are important enough for you to make the time, make the effort.
Praise them often too. Take notice – find something they have done well. A spellings test, doing their homework, picking up their socks off the floor. Notice it and mention it.
It will do wonders for your relationship with your bio/step-children and with your partner. Nothing will make your partner smile more than openly praising your step-children.
9: Don’t Make Your Partner Choose
In a non-blended family if a child asks for help with his homework from Dad the Mum doesn’t see this as taking away time from her.
In blended families, it can be seen as a choice. You can either spend time with me or with your child. Blended Family Expert Dr Patricia Papernow had this to say:
In a healthy first-time family, insider/outsider positions shift between the adults. Sometimes one parent is the center of the child’s attention. Sometimes it is the other parent. In a stepfamily, insider/outsider positions in the adult couple are stuck.
Save yourself the anguish and see this for what it is. Don’t make the mistake of making your partner choose you or their children. Guess who they are going to choose?
Make sure you carve out dependable alone time for your partner and their children but also time for yourselves (see point 3).
Vocalise and communicate if this isn’t working – “I could do with a hug today” or “I’d really like to spend some time with you” rather than “You are not spending any time with me”.
10: Be Flexible
Your plans are going to change.
Sometimes they will be big changes and other times small ones. It might even be that sometimes it’s not anyone you even know that is having a direct impact on your family.
A few summers ago we were looking at options for the family summer holiday. My eldest sons’ mum has married a guy (a great guy!) who has an ex and he has a daughter with her. I was waiting to hear what she was doing with her holiday because that impacted what my eldest was doing with his mum which therefore impacted what I was doing. So my ex’s husband’s ex, a woman who I have never met and don’t even know her name was directly impacting my summer holiday.
Luckily it all worked out but I’m sure for a few weeks Nicky was seriously considering her options……
Be ready to change and roll with punches. Your life will be so much easier if you can just embrace it. Focus on the things you have control over – which in most cases is simply how you think and feel about what is happening.
Most of the other points in this list rely on you communicating with others. Its the single most important thing you can do. Constantly communicate with all of the key people in your blended family.
To have effective communication you need to listen. Really listen.
Make sure you are an active part of the conversation, put your phone away, turn off the tv. Empathise with the other person, how would you feel in that situation?
Come from a perspective of wanting to understand, not fix. Repeat back in your own words what the other person has just told you.
A big part of being a good listener is making sure the other person is feeling heard.
If everyone in your family is listening (respectful, active listening) then everyone is feeling heard and everyone has a voice.
That’s a solid foundation for a happy, healthy and engaged family.
- Be a Family
- Check-in with your partner (in crime) – Communicate!
- Date Nights
- Be Consistent and Fair
- Set Boundaries and Present a United Front
- Create your own Family Memories
- Foster Relationships
- Praise and Encourage your Stepchildren – Get Involved
- Don’t Make Your Partner Choose
- Be Flexible
I know that without these 11 things my blended family would not be the happy, healthy one it is today. It has taken work, time and patience. It will continue to take work, time and patience. Sometimes it has felt like Nicky couldn’t be further away from my position on things and that we would never ever be on the same page.
It has taken the determination, love empathy and tenacity of both us to not be another failed blended family. It’s also a testament to our kids, they have their part to play in this family we are building. We are all working to be in the 30% that succeed.
Piece by piece, little by little.