Blending Families #1

Categories: Children, Divorce, Family, Marriage, Parenting, and Transitions / Change.

A reader has asked me to write an article about “blending families.”  In all the years that I’ve written this column I was surprised that I haven’t covered this topic before.  This is an important topic, because currently the U.S. Census indicates that approximately one third of children today are living in blended families. Studies of family structures children in the U.S. are currently living in suggests that a little less than half of all children are growing up in nuclear families.  About 30% of children are living in blended families, and that leaves about 20% of children living in single-parent households.  This is just a snap-shot in time, because children will often experience more than one type of household in their lifetime.

“Blended Family” is one of many terms used to describe families that consist of a couple, their children together (possibly) and their children from previous marriages/relationships.  Other names used to describe this type of family include “stepfamily” “instant family” and “bonus family.”  I like the term blended family because it denotes a mixing of various constituents.  This is different from the “nuclear family”, where the constituents consist of a couple and their children resulting only from that union.

One reason that special focus should be given to blended families is their unique and often challenging differences compared to nuclear families.  These challenges are the reason why divorces occur almost twice as often in blended families as they do in nuclear families.  Let’s take a look at some of the bigger challenges facing blended families, and what can be done to face those challenges successfully.

First, a blended family is formed through changes and losses.  Emily and John Visher, authors of “How to Win as a Stepfamily”, explain that the natural stages of family development are disrupted in a blended family.  Children and parents alike may be looking forward to a new family while at the same time still experiencing unresolved grief over the loss of their original family unit.  For the children, there is often a lingering and strong loyalty to the memory of their original family.  This can often create a powerful internal conflict for children that result in them sometimes being excited and supportive of the blending family, yet at times very hostile and resistant to the new blending process. This is normal.

Along those same lines, parents who bring their children into a new marriage often feel more loyal to their children than to their new spouse.  This sets up a pattern of the parent putting their children before the marriage, often out of guilt.  The internal dialogue for parents who have brought a step-parent into their kids lives is often “…these kids didn’t ask for this.  I owe it to them to give my life to them now.”  Or, a parent might think about their new spouse…“if you love me, you’ll love my kids just as much as I do.”  This is also normal and naturally a loyalty that is brought into blended families.  It’s also unrealistic and counterproductive.

The problem with both of these loyalty issues is that it takes energy and focus away from building family unity.  Specifically, the marriage (which brought all of these different kids and parents together in the first place) is often neglected.   If these loyalty issues are not addressed and resolved, they will be the beginning of the end to the marriage. The Vishers, long considered experts in the study of blended families, assert that husbands and wives in blended families must make their marriage a priority and devote time and energy to strengthening the marital bond.  The reason this is so important is that it is this marital bond that has brought the blended family together, and it is the foundation of the stability that the children desperately need in their lives.

How long does it take for a blended family to successfully blend and feel like a family?  Experts say it takes at least four years, though it often takes longer, for full integration.  That’s a long time!  As you can see this is not an easy task and not one for the faint of heart.  But first things first!  First a couple must make sure they are working on staying together and not get divided by the loyalty conflicts so prevalent in those first few years.  Blending families is such a big and complex issue, it will take a few more article posts to adequately explore it.  Look for more blended family articles from me in the future.

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