Gregory K. Popcak, Ph.D.
Chuck and Melinda were both married and divorced before meeting each other. Married to each other for 5 years, they have two step-children between them. Chuck’s son from his previous marriage primarily lives with his mother, but comes to stay one night a week and every other weekend. Though she feels guilty admitting it, the back and forth tends to drive Melinda crazy because of the constant disruption of the family schedule and rhythm. Melinda’s son, Luke, who she had with her ex, lives with them, but he butt heads with Chuck, especially when Chuck tries to correct him. When these conflicts flare up, they can take days to blow over. Somehow, they make it all work but they often wonder if they aren’t missing ways they could make it work…better.
Jennifer, a young widowed mom of 3, was single for 4 years when she met Mark, who had been previously married to Ann and had two children by her. After a year of dating, they were married. Mark says he loves Jennifer very much but he often feels like he has to compete with her children for first place. As he puts it, “I’ve always believed that the marriage should come first, but I feel like the kids get the best of her and I’m the 4th runner-up. I just get tired of waiting around for my turn.”
For her part, Jennifer says that she doesn’t want Mark to feel left out, but she feels an obligation to be as present to the children as possible especially since they still miss their dad so much. “I just don’t know how to be everything everyone needs me to be.”
They’re called blended families, but trying to meld two different families together into one can often feel more like living in a blender. Making any family work is a challenge, but add the constant whirl of activity, competing needs, and the effort it takes to meld the conflicting cultures of two entirely different groups of people into one, and you can end up with a situation that looks like the pitch for a new surreal reality tv program. Sadly, this pig-pile of problems is one of the primary reasons that close to 70% of second marriages end in divorce.
While every blended family will go through these kinds of conflict in the early stages, the good news is it doesn’t have to stay that way. Many blended families evolve into strong families in their own right, and the wisdom they have gained can be a great help to those families following after them. Here are some of the ways you can stop living life in a blender.
Everyone’s Needs are Important
In the example of Jennifer and Mark above, the needs of the children were unwittingly set in opposition to the needs of the family, which is always a recipe for disaster. People often ask, “Whose needs are more important? The kids’ or the marriage?” But from a Catholic perspective, this is the wrong question.
The Church believes in the need to work for the common good which, in family life, means that everyone has a right to get their needs met, but is obliged to do so in a manner that is respectful of everyone else’s needs. So, the couple has a right to take the time they need for prayer, communication, and intimacy, but it cannot be taken at the expense of the children who have a right to know that their parent and step-parent will be there for them, especially when they are not so sure of their place in the new family dynamic. With a little creativity, couples and the kids that make up their blended family really can all get their needs met. For instance, instead of imagining marriage as something that can only happen when children aren’t around, couples should try to do as much together as possible–around and with the kids–maximizing relationship time around the regular rituals and routines of their daily life and then celebrating that partnership when they do manage to get a date night or other alone time.
Matthew and Gina have been married 10 years and both have children from their first marriage. They realized the importance of making every moment count early on in their marriage. They didn’t have reliable sitters when they were first married so date nights were rare. Rather than becoming resentful, they rose to the challenge. Matt says, “We just decided that what we did wasn’t as important as doing it together and making the most out of it. We made a point of trying to cook together, do the dishes together, and do chores like grocery shopping as much as possible.”
Gina adds, “It sounds boring, but we looked for ways to make it fun with good conversation and a playful attitude. It helped us feel good about each other, the kids really responded to seeing us be such great partners–and wanted to be part of that too–and when we finally did get a date night, we feel like we really have something to celebrate because we’ve been taking care of each other.”
One other thing Matt and Gina did for each other was to name one thing they tried to do to take care of the other and make the other’s life easier or more pleasant. This enabled them to keep the marriage in the forefront of their minds and look for little ways to say, “I love you” every day. Instead of waiting for a special occasion, they inserted little special occasions into every day.
Matt said, “We started out just trying to make the best of a difficult situation, but it ended up helping us through the transition we see so many other couples tripping up on.”
By taking full advantage of the little opportunities for intimacy provided by the daily activities of marriage and family life and attending to their marriage all day long in big and little ways, Gina and Matt were able to take care of each other while simultaneously managing to be present to the children, demonstrate that they had a real partnership that their kids could trust, and engender a sense of team spirit that invited–rather than demanded–the children’s engagement as well.
A recent study showed that stepparents who succeeded in their relationship with their step-children achieved this enviable relationship by giving significantly more praise to, and spending more one-on-one time with, their stepchildren than stepparents who struggle with their stepchildren. By contrast, stepparents who did not provide as much praise and one-on-one time with their stepchildren had more complaints about stepchildren’s behavior and attitude than those that did. The researchers were able to show that it was the adult’s actions that predicted the child’s acceptance of the stepparent and the child’s good behavior and not the other way around.
Stepparents often are too easily put off by a stepchild playing “hard to get.” But this is a tragic mistake. Stepchildren are afraid to trust their heart to someone who might not be there for them tomorrow. Their touch stands as just another way of saying, “Can I trust you to love both the best and worst parts of me?” The stepparent who continue to praise the reluctant child and invite the child to work, play, pray, and talk with them despite the child’s early resistance will win the child’s heart.
Don’t Role Play
When Eric married Carrie Ann, he really wanted to make it work with her two kids from her previous marriage to Chad who passed away three years before. . Eric didn’t have much experience with children, but he didn’t think it would be too difficult. He tried hard to befriend her kids; to put on a bubbly persona and be a friend, but they would have none of it. Gifts, trips to the local amusement park, and other acts of what the Carrie Ann’s teen-age daughter called, ‘ aggressive niceness’ all failed to win him any points. “I’m killing myself to get them to like me, but nothing’s working. I don’t know what they want from me.”
When fostering a relationship, the stepparent should not try to play a role for the stepchild (e.g., “best buddy”, or “other mother/other father”, “ big sister”) but rather, just let the relationship evolve into something unique between the step-parent and step-child. Too often, adults just expect kids to just accept them in whatever role the adult cares to cast him or herself, but that’s not the way it works. A relationship–especially a complicated relationship like the one between stepparent and stepchild–cannot be imposed on someone. It has to be allowed to evolve into its own unique animal by putting in the time, and building up the emotional bank account through praise and a willingness to hear, and work through, the often difficult and conflicted feelings the child has about participating in a new family while finding ways to remain faithful to the old.
Between Two Worlds
Elizabeth Marquardt is the author of Between Two Worlds, the most comprehensive study of the experience of children of divorce to date. In her study, the one theme children of divorce returned to again and again was the feeling that they were never really home. When they were with mom they didn’t feel it was ok to talk about dad or dad’s life or their experiences in dad’s world. And when they were with dad, they felt the same about mom.
Stepparents can go a long way toward gaining their stepchildren’s respect and increasing rapport by working hard to make it safe to talk about the other world in which their stepchild lives and bring their two separate worlds together.
Blended families can be happy and joyful, but most agree that it takes a lot work, time and effort to get there. The events that precipitates the blending of two families, for instance; death and divorce, are traumatic for children whether or not we want them to be. In reconstituting themselves, blended families can’t just skip to the happy ending, they have to embrace the cross before the resurrection can come. The good news is, those families who are willing to do the work, put in the time and make the effort can live to create the beautiful family they want to be.
Tips For Discipline
There is a saying that “rules without rapport = rebellion.” Never was this more true that with stepparents and stepchildren. “Because I said so” doesn’t work for stepparents, especially early in the game, and attempts to use more autocratic parenting styles almost universally fail.
Two tips can help blended families with discipline. First, make sure that the natural parent and the stepparent are in agreement about rules and consequences. If the stepparent doesn’t have the natural parent’s support, a conflict will erupt that will not only alienate the stepparent and the child, but also the couple from each other.
Second, rather than having rules that apply only to the children, try to have household rules such as, “We treat each other with respect.” Or “we look for ways to take care of each other.” “We take responsibility for our mistakes.” When a rule is broken by either a child or an adult, the family should take time to review what should have been done differently and make a plan to prevent similar mistakes in the future. This more egalitarian approach still allows the parents in blended families to be the authority, since they set the agenda and mainly enforce the rules, but it also allows stepparents to command the children’s respect by avoiding a double standard that leads to charges of hypocrisy.
Spirituality and Children of Divorce
In Between Two Worlds, Elizabeth Marquardt examines, in part, the spiritual lives of children of divorce. Children of divorce show that they are significantly less likely to be religious as adults. Factors such as having to go to “mom’s church” and “dad’s church” (even if they are the same denomination) prevent many children from feeling a spiritual home. Likewise, the lack of consistent religious rituals and routines between the two households children of divorce inhabit convey a sense of arbitrariness about faith that children of intact families do not encounter. Also, many children in blended families say that pastors never reached out to them or discussed their “living in two worlds status” perhaps for fear of offending the parents, and so they found little emotional or psychological solace in church. Finally, many children in blended families feel that they have lost their fathers (through death or virtual abandonment) and often struggle with concepts other children take for granted. For instance, while many people experience the parable of the prodigal son as a story of forgiveness and mercy, studies of children in blended families show that they experience the parable as a tale of abandonment and think of it in terms of the “prodigal parent” who left to seek greener pastures and who may return one day to seek the child’s forgiveness for having left.
Blended families can help heal children’s spiritual wounds by doing their best to maintain spiritual consistency across the households whenever possible (attend the same parish, continue the rituals practiced in the original family group). Fathers in blended families play an especially important role in their children’s and stepchildren’s spiritual healing by being faithful and committed to the relationship with the child even when the child is rebellious, sullen, or argumentative, thereby restoring the child’s sense of “parent” as a faithful constant rather than a temporary and replaceable role.
When blended families include members of different denominations or faiths, families should concentrate on celebrating as much as they can in common. For instance a family with a Catholic mom and Protestant dad may not wish to say a family rosary or attend mass together, but they will need to strive to pray and study scripture as a family as well as find other meaningful spiritual rituals they can hold in common. Interfaith marriages (Christians and Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.) present additional challenges. The interfaith family will need to find ways to share some common spiritual rituals and explore unique ways to bring the two cultures together in the context of the daily lives of the family. The greater the differences between the family’s traditions, the harder it will be for children to claim any religious traditions as their own, so the family must make seeking common rituals and routines a priority. Letting children “choose for themselves” among the parent’s traditions is not a healthy option as it gives too much responsibility to the children for sorting out their own place in the universe, their sense of values, and their understanding of what constitutes truth. Research studies show that parents who offload these tasks onto the children themselves will find that their children simply avoid the entire issue of spirituality and values and will tend to struggle with feelings of spiritual isolation and aimlessness in their life and relationships.
How Do You Know When You Need Help?
Does your blended family struggle with the following issues?
*Ongoing tension between parents and children (or stepparents and stepchildren) lasting for more than 6mos.
*Consistent disagreement between the parent and stepparent about discipline, which is negatively affecting both the family rapport and the marital peace.
*Encountering the same problems over and over without ever developing successful resolutions.
*You are having difficulty establishing consistent rituals and routines that meld the two different family cultures into a cohesive unit.
*Unresolved questions about how to prioritize the marriage and children that are resulting in growing resentments and jealousies.
*Deterioration in your children’s ability to function at school, home, or with friends.
*A growing sense of sadness or futility when thinking about your blended family life.
*Any issues that you are not sure how to resolve and are becoming more serious with time.
Help for Blended Families
National American Conference of Divorced and Separated Catholics–a national organization dedicated to supporting couples and families who have gone through divorce. They offer resources, publications, conferences, and regional chapters. www.NACSDC.org
The Dovetail Institute–An organization dedicated to supporting interfaith families. Provides resources, books, and local chapters. www.DovetailInstitute.org
Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt. This important book offers the insights of a ground-breaking national study of the effects of divorce (including “good divorces”) on children and provides recommendations to parents and helping professionals for how to help children negotiate the trauma of divorce.
Between Two Worlds: The Spiritual Lives of Children of Divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt. This dynamic, eye-opening, 30 minute DVD features young people describing in their own words the specific challenges children of divorce face to their spiritual lives. Based upon her research, Marquardt offers recommendations to parents and pastors for helping children through their spiritual pain. www.BetweenTwoWorlds.org
CatholicTherapists.com–a national referral source for local Catholic therapists. www.CatholicTherapists.com
The Pastoral Solutions Institute–an organization (the author is the executive director) that offers telephone psychotherapy services to Catholic individuals, couples, and families worldwide. PSI also offers books, CD’s and other resources for finding faith-filled solutions to life’s difficult problems. www.ExceptionalMarriages.com