Blended Families — 07 May 2006
How to expedite the success of the blended family

Blended families often experience the same relationship phases as couples do. They begin with excitement and anticipated harmony, proceed to disillusionment and power struggles and some evolve into loving and functional new extended family. Yet, for blended families the challenges are greater and more complex.

Finding new mates after loss of the original partner is a joy and a blessing. The parents delight in having found a new love and hope that the children will also rejoice in the company of their new stepsiblings. The optimism often reflects the new partners’ wishful thinking. They prefer to project a happy joyful household as a way to reduce their fears, guilt and concerns about having found their own happiness, which may or may not match their children’s.

For many blended families the initial adjustment is challenging and is excused by its’ newness. It is only after a while that the practical, emotional, and financial hardships declare themselves.

The practical difficulties stem from the coordination needed to organize a new structure within the family that incorporates the children’s visitation with their non-custodial parent, their school and after school activities, lessons, practices and performances, birthday parties, social interactions and all other needs that must be calendared and enabled. The more children a blended family has, the more complex are the arrangements. It is like running a very involved business employing people who do not wish to join the business.

For the children the attention that they used to get is now greatly diluted by the needs of additional children. This often creates competition, resentments, cries of favoritism and unhappiness. The parent of the unhappy child of the day often feels guilty about his or her child’s feelings of deprivation and lost attention.

Since feeling valued is a crucial element in a child’s developing self-esteem, any act by the parent that is viewed as sharing the attention the child needs, reduces the youngster’s sense of primacy and worth. Children also are very sensitive to the stepparent’s better treatment of his or her biological children. They may use this as evidence of not being loved or treated fairly.
When parents attempt to convince their children that the stepparent loves them equally, it is received as untrue, insincere and is thus dismissed. It only authenticates to the child that his view is accurate and may produce additional anger, resentments and dislike for the stepparent and for the favored child.

Parents in blended families describe how conflicted they feel at times when they see inequities in the treatment of the children by their spouse. Some overcompensate their children by overindulging them with material possessions or exceptional attention that excludes the other children. Guilty parents also try to make it up to their children for the loss of the original family by exclusive attention, gifts or money.

Financial issues arise for parents in blended families as well. The stepparent may feel resentment toward the child’s biological parent if it is perceived that he or she is insufficiently contributing to the child’s welfare, and thus strains the assets of the blended family. The blended family’s parents differing views as to their financial responsibilities to all the children can be another source of parental stress. When those attitudes are not shared or negotiated, frustrations and hurt may accumulate to the detriment of the couple’s relationship.

What blended family parents need to understand is:

• The choice to blend the families was yours, not your children’s. Youngsters commonly prefer to live with you and see their other parent as the closest alternative to an intact family.
• The children have their own chosen friends and are not necessarily thrilled to live with the ones you brought.
• Sibling rivalry, jealousy, resentments, and feelings of rejection, abandonment and loss are normal emotions for children even in the best-blended families.
• Your happiness as a couple is likely to be impacted by the enormity of the tasks, your protective feelings for your children, your children’s dissatisfactions, the limited couple’s time and intimacy, financial pressures and attitudes, interactions with former spouse, and the scarcity of personal time. All this is normal and can be alleviated by ongoing, open and candid discussions between you that produce team decisions and actions towards the children.
• When all the children see a unified, fair, consistent and positive approach from both of you, their positive adjustment will occur more quickly and all of you can delight in your successful blended family.

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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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