I recently worked with a couple that is a good example of the challenges faced in blended families. This couple, married about 2 years now, each brought two children into the marriage. His two children (ages 8 and 10) were only there every other weekend and one evening during the week. Her children of about the same age were always with them as their father was “out of the picture.” The wife in this marriage accuses her husband of lacking commitment to her and her kids, explaining that every time his children were there “he virtually ignores me and my kids.” She explains that when his children aren’t there he returns to being attentive and loving to her kids. The husband initially denied this change in his behavior, but eventually he tearfully stated “I just don’t know what to do. I only see my kids 67 days out of the year, and your kids are always here. I’m trying to make sure they know I love them and that I’m their dad.”
You can see they both have good will, but have been reacting to each other out of fears. His fear is that his children will detach from him and forget about him. Her fear is that she will be neglected as well as her children. This scenario highlights two classic challenges in blended families; loyalty struggles and faulty expectations about adjustment to blended family life. These issues were addressed in my last column, but I barely scratched the surface of just how problematic these issues can be.
Taking a deeper look at this family example, it’s important to see how lack of awareness of loyalty struggles and unrealistic expectations can make the problem snowball out of control. Because the mother in this family sees her children being ignored by her husband (the step-father), she becomes resentful of her husband’s children. Unfortunately, this sets her up to play the part of the “evil stepmother” by doting on her own children and being cold to her step-children in an attempt to compensate for what her husband is doing when his children are living there.
In response to that, the husband will be overly attentive to his children to make up for the harsh treatment they receive from his wife. Furthermore, he will act resentful towards his wife’s children, blaming them for the troubles he is having with his wife and his own children. Add to that the negative interactions between the step-siblings. Jealousies and resentments boil over for them when they see the parents playing favorites.
How can a family caught in such vicious cycles ever succeed?
First address the unrealistic expectations; that each step-parent will naturally feel parental love towards their step-children immediately, that it takes time to accept the realities of the limited time in shared parenting arrangements, and so on. Remember that it takes 4 – 6 years for everyone to feel comfortable in the new family system.
Secondly, become aware of the loyalty struggles and discuss them openly. These types of discussions should be held in a non-blaming manner. Discuss and listen to each other’s needs in the family. Recognize openly the challenges of keeping it all balanced and recognize that “fair” is not really possible in stepfamilies or any family for that matter.
Thirdly, the parents must become super flexible. Continual shifts in household composition will be the norm in a blended family. Make sure that you don’t save special family events for only when the “nonresident” child is there. This will generate feelings of resentment in the “resident” children. Understand that children will often be angry about changes and losses they have not chosen. Many times, children are required to be the most flexible (i.e., moving, changing schools, new rules, sharing a room, etc.).
Along with becoming flexible, make efforts and time to nurture one-on-one relationships in the family. This means ALL family members (siblings with step-siblings, step-parents and step-children, parents and children). This will help eliminate the loyalty struggles and stop the tendency for family members to draw battle lines based on biological ties.
In the next article, I will share the “Ten Commandments for Stepfamilies.”