Marriage and Family — 14 August 2008
How to create a healthy remarried family

Remarried families constitute a couple and one or more children from a previous union. It is synonymous with stepfamilies. Achieving an emotionally satisfying relationship between all parties of the newly constructed family is a long and arduous process that requires mastery of certain principles and practices.

Researchers Martin and Bumpass, found that “about half of U.S. marriages are a remarriage for one or both partners”. Dr.Seltzer estimated that one third of American children will spend time in a blended family. Yet, Dr. Cherlin highlights that there are no norms for role performance, socially acceptable methods for problem resolutions, or institutional support and guidance for merging couples with children, which may contribute to the higher divorce rate for remarried families as compared to original ones.

Drs. Fine, Coleman and Ganong found that merging couples face hardships in agreeing upon and enacting roles and guidelines for stepparenting. A lack of a clear role leaves stepparents confused and ineffectual. In counseling, many well- meaning partners say: “I have no intention of becoming your children’s mother and do not expect you to be the father of my children”. Though this stance intends to be respectful, it only states what is not expected rather than what the new parent is invited to do.

Excessive protectiveness some parents feel about their children may contribute to family disharmony. Parents, who want to “make up” to the youngsters for the loss of the other original parent, may become overly solicitous, excessively permissive, and competitive with the children for the new mate’s attention. These are ineffective parenting tools that disrupt the smooth unification of the new family.

Children are also a large part of facilitating or obstructing their parent and stepparent’s attempts to merge gracefully into a well functioning new family. According to Drs. Brown and Booth’ research, stepchildren lower the marital quality of remarried adults. Drs. Pasley, Koch and Ihinger-Tallman identified that conflicts in remarriage generally center on issues relating to the children.

Youngsters in blended families may find themselves sharing a household with a new, unselected and sometimes disliked stepparent. They grieve the loss of their original family and the absent other biological parent. They may feel angry with one or both parents and helpless to get their wish for parental unification granted.

Parents must realize that: their children are entitled to feel unhappy about their new living arrangement but they are not entitled to cause household misery. The children are entitled to be angry with the custodial parent and/or the stepparent, but are not entitled to be rude, disrespectful or obstinate. The youngsters are entitled to dislike taking parenting instructions from the non-biological parent but they are not entitled to refuse to act as requested. Young people are entitled to not like their parent’s spouse, but are not entitled to sabotage the adult’s mate choice. Children’s feelings are always valid and need to be affirmed. Yet, their conduct must be agreed upon and enforced by either parent regardless of genetics and history.

To create a new family structure, the couple must accept responsibility for parenting all children in the household. You may not be someone’s dad or mom, but you are all the children’s parent. Without that clarity, havoc will reign. Children need behavioral boundaries, rules and routines to thrive. When they succeed in creating a rift between the two adults, they feel falsely empowered to break up the family, which causes insecure, confused and fearful feelings about missing the needed guidance.

If you are a partner in a blended family,

• You and your mate must take back the charge of the family. Respect all children’s wishes and maintain the power of decision-making.
• Tell the children that you are not two parts of former unions, but a new family with two caring parents, who will parent them individually and as a team, regardless of their genetic origin.
• Reassure the children that each child’s needs will be determined by their merits not on an even basis or on equalizing benefits.
• Schedule a weekly meeting with the children to discuss household chores, conflicts, wishes and future plans. Group decisions will be made by majority vote of the children pending parental approval.
• Use the words: “we”, “ours” and “us”, not “mine” “yours”.
• Abstain from attempting to be “the loved parent”. Be an effective one.
• A considerate remarried household can become a safe haven for youngsters, can help them learn respect and love and grow to be effective parents as well.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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