01.11.2010

Instant Family

Remarrying with children involved creates an instant family, with both challenges and joy
The saying goes that we can't choose our families. When a man or woman marries a second time and there are children involved, an instant family is created, bringing inherent challenges. Neither the new partner nor the children probably feel they have any basic say in the arrangement and so resentment can be present right from the very beginning.

What are the difficulties and what strategies can be employed to overcome them?

The nuclear family concept of Mum, Dad and a couple of kids doesn't exist any more for all intents and purposes.

It is probably the exception rather than the rule. These days, a child might be brought up by a single parent of either sex, two gay parents, a collective group of adults and children, an extended family or a mixture of stepparents and siblings. It's an eclectic mix and who can say if this is better or worse than the traditional model. I see this diversity as a very healthy sign because it transfers the focus from conformity to love.

Men and women come together essentially for love and out of that emerges a family, which, for better or worse, develops together.

In a step parenting situation, this doesn't happen. Assorted and unrelated people are lumped into an intimate co-habitation with little preparation. It's no wonder that step parenting is known to be one of the most difficult of all human roles.

The first and most immediate obstacle is the resistance and resentment of the children, whatever their ages. If they're very young, especially toddlers or pre-schoolers, the acceptance level is higher. The new parent is assimilated quite easily as long as he or she is kind.

But with older children, the stepparent faces an uphill battle, no matter the effort expended. This is often the hardest part in that children resent even the new parent's niceness, seeing it as merely a ploy to win them over. Teenagers understandably are the worst. They resent the loss of the original parent, whether through divorce or death, and the intrusion of the new one. Many, many blended families fail over time, simply because of the degree of difficulty. If both partners have children, the level of difficulty goes up several more notches.

The perfect Brady Bunch is fiction, as we all know. Blended families operate on a delicate balance and every member is an important component in the dance. For harmony to prevail, a great deal of tolerance and compromise is called for. It's virtually like two instant families under one roof. The secret here is to ensure that two opposing camps don't develop, there's no favouritism or preferential treatment for any individual and all rights, needs and feelings are respected. A tall order, indeed.

A second, rather obvious, hurdle faced by a stepparent is the existence of the ex-spouse, if there is one. Dealing with exes can be tricky enough for the primary person, but marrying into that situation is a minefield. Even if the ex is a reasonable person, stays in the background and respects the new family set-up, it still requires sensitive handling. Often, though, exes are the exact opposite, using the children as weapons, interfering with the family arrangements and basically making the stepparent's life a misery. The partner, whose children they are, is sandwiched between the old and the new, duty and personal choice, having to be diplomatic in the most trying of circumstances.

So, what strategies can you employ if you have married into and inherited an instant family?

Read up on the challenges of step parenting before the final decision to marry someone with an existing family. Talk to others who have been in a similar situation.

Be very sure it's what you want and are ready for before you commit. If possible, get to know the children before the wedding so that they don't feel a stranger is moving into their house.

Don't try to replace the original parent even if they are deceased. Be a friend first, but not to the point where the parent/child relationship is blurred.

Establish boundaries right from the beginning.

Don't set your own agenda too early in the arrangement. Be flexible, fair and accepting. The family you marry into already has its regular routines and schedules. To a certain extent, you will have to adapt and fit in, gradually introducing your own style and ideas.

As with all relationships, communication is key. Do lots of listening and minimum talking. Be approachable rather than imposing your personality.

Keep the lines of communication open, especially in any areas of potential conflict. Eliminate all criticism and judgement, no matter how hard this is, and it will be! Offer suggestions and assessments, by all means, but avoid all bossy or dominating attitudes.

Expect not to be liked and don't take it personally.
All love grows slowly and, in this case, a lot of resentment has to be chipped off first. So hoping for instant affection and respect is just setting yourself up for disappointment and hurt. Trying to force yourself onto the children will certainly create yet another barrier instead.

Never criticise the real parent to the children, whatever the provocation.

Be polite and pleasant in all your dealings with the ex. You don't have to like each other or become friends, but it's important that all dealings are affable.

Children will manipulate adults whenever they have something to gain so you need to be very watchful of this, especially in a step parenting situation when they have an investment in breaking up your marriage.

Concentrate on your own relationship first; after all, you are newlyweds and have a right to a lot of loving time and privacy, even though you're not physically alone as you would be normally in a new marriage.

Plan to be married for the long haul!

Step parenting takes a lot of strength, tenacity, faith and positive thinking. A friend of mine married a man with five children and a very difficult ex-wife. Many, many times, she wanted to walk away, but stayed because she believed in her marriage and grew to love the children. The new family she forged with them has developed its own identity and character over the years, unique and special, totally different to the previous one.

You may, in turn, resent the children's presence in your marriage, home and life. Don't show this, no matter what, but it's very natural so there's no need to feel guilty or beat yourself up for it. Love spiritually until you can love personally. With love, everything is easier and possible.
A sense of humour goes a long, long way in all relationship matters and no less here. Don't "sweat the small stuff"; keep things as light as possible.

Finally, believe in yourself and what you have to offer this new family. Many times your confidence will be tested, you will be constantly exhausted physically and mentally stretched, you will often find yourself lonely and living in a land of strangers and the one person you are close to will be torn between love for you and their children. This is not a negative description, but a realistic one. With your eyes wide open, you stand a better chance of success in your new life. Step parenting, despite all its challenges, can be extremely rewarding. Embrace it fully and put aside your fears. You may have your own children at a later date, but in the meantime, your "instant family" can be very precious if you let it be.

Q/When is it time to give up on a relationship? My guy and I have had an on-again-off-again relationship for years. We have two children together. We've been married and divorced once and are actually contemplating another walk down the aisle soon. I love this man more than anyone I've ever been with. Right now everything is wonderful between us. Still I worry about our old problems resurfacing. Is being in love and wanting a relationship to work enough?
Rebecca

A/ I tell my clients these two criteria for deciding whether to stay or go. Simple one: does the bad stuff in the relationship outweigh the good stuff? More difficult one: does loving the other person spell abuse for you?
When there are problems between two people, the worst thing is to resume the marriage without resolving the issues that broke you up. Do you think you have done that? Are you getting remarried out of mindless optimism?

Love is just the beginning. It certainly isn't enough by itself. I think there's far too much romance in marital choices and not enough common sense. Yes, I know it's not very exciting to use your head when deciding relationship things, but it's better sooner than later.

Now, on the flipside, don't second guess the future. If you're happy now, enjoy it; don't look for problems. To sum up, be cautious, be aware but don't be negative.

Q/ I have a lot of friends, but they all seem to be the same type - high maintenance! They're always having emotional dramas and involving me. They ring me every day and keep me on the phone for hours recounting every detail of their days and their various problems. Is this normal or am I attracting needy people for a reason? I feel like I'm being selfish, but I just find it all so draining.
Bill

A/I think you are attracting needy friends for a reason and the reason is that you need to be needed. I'm sure on the surface you don't feel this way, but scratch the surface and try to understand your underlying motivation. Once you do that, you can make some real choices. You could also do with some practice in assertiveness, which involves setting healthy boundaries with people, including the ability to say no. If you want to talk on the phone, that's fine. But when you don't or if it goes on too long, learn to say no politely, but firmly. You probably haven't done this up to now because you're afraid of losing these particular friends. But if all they want is to lean on you, you're better off without them. Rethink your priorities and start putting yourself first.

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