Rabbi Azriel Hauptman
Blended families, for better or for worse, are more common than they used to be, and the challenges they offer can be overwhelming, especially if you do not prepare in advance. Stepparents, step siblings, and step relatives lead to complicated family dynamics, and a positive outcome requires a proper navigation of this tricky minefield. Being that this article is a psychology-related column, we will attempt to offer an explanation of some of the subconscious forces that are at play in the adjustment process that is experienced by both the parents and the children.
In order for the blended family to be successful, the children must accept that their parent’s spouse will now be a parental figure in their life. The parents of a blended family must realize that the children are receiving a new parent that they did not choose, and as a result, acceptance might take quite some time. This does not mean to say that biological parents are chosen, but the bond of biology overrides the lack of choice that children have in their choice of family. This is not the case by a blended family. As such, do not be surprised if there is a lingering sense of resentment from the addition of a new parental figure that is not of their choosing.
Whether they realize it or not, children are grieving the loss of a “normal” family. The marriage of their parent to another person is a constant reminder that they are not going to be able to live in a home with their two biological parents. Grieving is a process that cannot be rushed. We all know that unresolved grief is a recipe for mental illness and allowing the process to take its course is essential for the success of a blended family.
Every child in a family develops a role in their family hierarchy. When a blended family combines children from two families, the entire family hierarchy has to be rearranged. Imagine a youngest sibling who was always being doted on and overnight receives three younger stepsiblings. The expectation of graduating overnight from the role as the baby of the family can be jarring. It might take some time before every child adjusts to their new role.
The regular biological process of receiving a child is in the form of a newborn. By the time the child is old enough to communicate, the parents have had time to develop a unified parental approach. In a blended marriage, children of all ages are thrust into a new parental situation, and it is common for the newly married parents to disagree regarding how to deal with the myriad parental questions that arise on a daily basis. This can have disastrous consequences. The children sense a lack of stability in their new home situation, and can even play the parents against each other and thus manipulate their lack of consistency to their benefit, which can then wreak havoc on the budding marriage. It is therefore of paramount importance that the parents have a unified approach with the children.
The Personal Relationship
Amid all of the difficulties that blended families offer the parents, they must not forget to cultivate their own relationship. Any bumps in the road that they experience between each other, will be sensed by the children, either consciously or subconsciously. Children yearn for security and stability. After the upheaval of their parents’ divorce and the subsequent remarriage, they are longing for a sense of normalcy. Children whose parent remarries after the death of the other parent have to deal with this in addition to grieving the loss of a parent.
These are just some of the hurdles that might be encountered in the formation of a blended family. Do not hesitate to seek professional help. An experienced family therapist can be a vital resource in navigating the tumultuous waters of a blended marriage.