Blended Family Relationships: Challenges and Helpful Tips

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Research has indicated that about two-thirds (67%) of second marriages with children fail. Blended families have unique and often complex issues to deal with in addition to the typical lifestyle changes that every new marriage experiences.

While all newlyweds must learn to adapt to each other’s routines and habits, opinions, and personal baggage (emotional and physical), a newly created family unit obviously involves blending these varied characteristics with a larger number of people. Since the majority of these newly-connected family members are often young children, and not mature adults, even greater care must be given to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. The process can be very tricky to navigate and the outcome can dramatically affect the quality of all involved relationships.

One of the biggest challenges often comes up even before the marriage when the engaged couple and their children start spending more time together: What’s the appropriate authority level of a stepparent when parenting stepchildren?

Unfortunately, this too frequently happens in one of two ways: (1) a stepparent assumes too much authority, or becomes almost a friend or peer, and cedes a parental role almost completely; or (2) major issues emerge when the stepparent tries to intervene, or become an authority figure, too quickly.

Another challenge blended families may face involves the role of ex-spouses. The “Ex Factor” can be the determinant that makes or breaks the relationship and typically stirs up lots of issues for the stepparent. This is especially the case if the #1 family priority is the kids, and not the couple’s relationship. If the stepparent feels secure with his or her partner, and the couple has prioritized their relationship, the “Ex Factor” issues are much easier to navigate.

The key to relationship harmony is in finding the right balance, with the stepparent gradually increasing his parental authority to an acceptable level that all parents and kids respect. Achieving this balance is particularly important if the children’s other biological parent is actively in the picture.

Effective communication between all adults involved can go a long way toward smoothing the household transitions. Establishing a parenting plan for all spouses, and their exes, is a critical goal that should be a focus as early on in the process as possible. It’s also important that the emphasis remain on what’s best for the kids. Personal issues between the adults should not color the decisions made while working out arrangements for their children’s wellbeing.

Stepparent/stepchild relationships need to be allowed to develop gradually, with the biological parent carrying out the primary parenting role in the beginning. Initially, the stepparent best serves as the “support parent,” not only for her partner, but also showing empathy to the child as well. This support will help build a solid foundation of trust and respect. It’s important to build a relationship with the child(ren) before becoming a disciplining parent.

Allowing the biological parent to have one-on-one time alone with his kids is also an important step in blended family settings. However, this can feel threatening to a stepparent, especially when the kids are deemed to be the #1 priority in the family.

Sometimes, stepparents are troubled by the fact that they may not love the child as much as the real parent does. Instead of trying to achieve an “unconditional love” status, the stepparent should focus on one or more qualities that they do like in the child. This is a helpful way to slowly develop a personal relationship.

Again, a blended family that prioritizes the children as #1 is often a setup for disharmony. The couple’s relationship will undoubtedly suffer if this happens and their children will likely witness yet another failed marriage.

Being on the same page with your new partner, as you work to merge two families into one, should ideally already be in place before the attempt at creating a single household.

Premarital counseling is often essential to support this process. Counseling can guide you on what to expect, and discuss possible solutions to any potential issues well in advance.

Therapy sessions can also address any concerns or reservations either partner may have about the new living arrangement. An open and honest discussion between partners can effectively help work through any grievances or doubts, and strengthen the couples’ bond.

If it’s too late for premarital counseling, attending marriage counseling sessions as a couple, or family counseling with the children, can still provide invaluable assistance and guidance in successfully maneuvering a blended family household.

If partners keep each other as their #1 priority in the family unit and respect is a central theme in all interactions (adults and children), blending two families can become a much smoother transition.

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