Written by: Meghan Emerson, MSMFT
Although increasingly common in our culture, many blended families struggle and suffer excess stress around what was hoped to be a joyful joining of two families. There are no healthy cultural role models for blended families, the most notable example being the highly unrealistic Brady Bunch. This leaves partners struggling to juggle the needs of the new intimate relationship, their children, their spouse’s children, and any ex-partners, while also trying to meet personal needs. It is very overwhelming.
It is normal for the transition into a blended family to be turbulent, and it requires both partners to be flexible in their expectations for each other and the new family. Here are some common struggles faced by blended families with strategies for how to manage them in an adaptive way.
1) Establishing expectations for parenting.
When entering a blended family, there is often an unspoken expectation for how parental responsibilities will be shared, and unfortunately partners rarely have an open discussion of how parenting and step-parenting will be managed.
Parenting styles vary greatly and are heavily influenced by childhood experiences. Rarely are these styles instinctively altered to reflect the nuance of step-parenthood. You need to have an open discussion with your partner about how you would like to establish a respectful parenting boundary. Do you want the biological parent to have final say? How do you plan to address a complaint by the stepparent that he or she feels disrespected by the children?
Transitioning into a blended family is made less stressful when both parents present a united front, no matter the balance of power between biological and stepparent. Parenting rules and expectations will likely evolve over time and need to be re-addressed. Plan for an ongoing discussion about parenting expectations as the children grow older.
2) Managing expectations for developing a relationship with stepchildren.
Just as there is no guidebook on how to transition to a blended family for adults, there is also a lack of resources for children. Children may be confused or resentful for having to see one of their biological parents less often, and they do not come into the blended family with the attachment that already exists between romantic partners. The kids do not get to choose the situation, and they often try to exercise control in different ways – by acting out, refusing to listen to the stepparent, and voicing loyalty to the ex-partner.
While showing a united front regarding parenting expectations is helpful, it is not sufficient in building a relationship between the children and the stepparent. The children may feel that it is betraying the other biological parent to show an affinity for the new stepparent. This is normal, and the stepparent will need to tailor his or her approach given the emotional readiness of each child to develop a more serious relationship. Partners can help each other through this challenge by sustaining open communication and scheduling regular check-ins to see how they are each struggling emotionally. Sometimes a word of validation or understanding can make a significant difference in one's ability to have patience and persistence.
3) Finding ways to prioritize the intimate relationship.
There is often a heavy focus on how the children are adapting during the initial transition to a blended family. While this is temporarily necessary, it is also crucial to find ways, however small, to prioritize the marital relationship.
Make a habit of finding small moments for intimacy and emotional connection. From taking a walk around the neighborhood together to taking a weekend away, the intimate relationship needs extra attention and nurturance during the tumultuous transition. The inherent challenges that stem from beginning a blended family can be perceived as significantly more manageable when we feel like our partners are on the same team as us.
Blended families require flexibility in managing expectations and meeting the needs of each individual and relationship. Keep an open line of communication to reduce confusion, misinterpretation, and unhealthy assumptions. It is normal for the transition into a blended family to be rocky, and your partner is there to help keep you steady and feeling loved.