After perhaps a long dry spell of emotional deprivation, you finally find your soul mate and are in love with the person of your dreams! Elated and full of enthusiasm, you dream about how you will share your lives one day in a blended family. There will be someone to come home to. You will be part of a family again, instead of living alone as a single parent, which isn't easy. You will help each other, support each other, and happily co-parent your own and the other's children. The children will see an example of how partners should love each other or what a marriage should look like. The kids will feel happy and secure tucked into in such a positive environment, won't they?
Well, maybe, but probably not right away. It's important to have realistic expectations because creating a successfully blended family is a major and long-term investment. More second marriages fail than first, because of the complexity of the challenge and the more than average emotional maturity required to pull it off. Here are some suggestions to consider and talk about with your future spouse or partner:
1. Finish business with your former partner. Be divorced or finished before bringing new people to the children. Having closure with your ex will clarify the ending for you and for your kids.
2. To the best of your ability, forgive your former spouse. By forgiveness, I mean to let go of the negativity you carry internally. When new partners are harboring anger towards their exes, it brings dissonant energy into the home. You will not change your former partner. Let it go.
3. For stepmoms, be the kindest, gentlest stepmother you can be. All children must be loved and accepted in their own homes. The tendency to favor your own children is natural but by agreeing to marry or live with another person with children, you are implicitly agreeing to love and make welcome your partner's children. If you can't do that, don't live together until you can.
4. For stepdads, be accessible as you can be. Listen to all, show appropriate affection to everyone, most importantly your partner. Show interest in each child. Do individual activities with each child, even for a short time. Take a walk, toss a ball, help with homework, take a driving shift, go to a game or performance, and be encouraging to all the kids. Children thrive with attention.
5. Understand that you will not replace the children's biological parent. As a stepparent, always speak kindly of the other parent or say nothing. Stepparents are important but not primary. Generally, the biological parent has the hands-on responsibility for his or her own children.
6. Reflective listening helps a child feel understood, so if I child is reporting an upset, instead of saying "Yes, your mother is terrible," observe what the child is feeling and say "You seem very upset. I'm sorry to see you in pain. How can I help you?" Listening is powerful and supportive to both children and adults. You will be connecting with the child without demeaning the other parent. If necessary, discuss what was reported with your partner privately or support the child in speaking to his or her parent.
7. Realize that your children do not experience separation, divorce, parental dating, and remarriage or cohabiting the same way you do. Their perspective is entirely different. It does not at all follow that if parents are happy, the kids will be happy. It can be quite the opposite at times. Yes, they want you to be happy but not at their expense. Asking them to like, love, respect, live with a stranger, and conceivably his or her disruptive children is asking a great deal. They don't have a choice about this as you do, so they need to be seriously considered.
8. Kids need time. Try not to rush into the new situation. Give everyone a chance to get to know each other and feel at least somewhat comfortable, before living together. Time is on your side in beginning a blended family.
9. Know that you will not agree perfectly about how to raise children. This is normal, but potentially upsetting. Each of you has had plenty of experience—in your own families of origin, in your former partnership and after being a single parent. You are bound to see things differently. Dads also generally think differently than moms. Differences are to be expected in blended families.
10. Considerate communication is key to success. Rather than defend your own point of view, listen to your partner carefully. Come to a considerate agreement or agree to disagree. The way you deal with differences will determine the success of your relationship. Your children have already painfully lost one dimension of family, so you need to work hard at resolving differences to preserve this one.
11. Gather a library of books about child development, kids and divorce, and blended families. Agree in advance that when you disagree about what to do, go to the books for objective information. Stop arguing and pull out a book. Look for answers rather than defending your own point of view. You'll avoid insulting your partner and learn as you go. There are some book recommendations at mickimcwade.com and many available at bookstores and at Amazon.com.
12. Get professional support when necessary. Go to a family therapist together as a couple when you're stuck. It's also a good idea to get advice before you live together. You are not alone as a blended family and there's plenty of help to be had. Don't wait until you're at your wits end to get it. Think of it as taking a course in something you are really interested in, rather than someone or the family itself being troubled, wrong or "sick". Therapists study these situations and have ideas to offer. It will make a difference and you will be glad you made the investment. Your children are counting on you to make it work.
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