The new American family
Meet the Smiths, a typical American family. Just married, John and Mary have four children! Sally 14, and Joe, 12, are John’s. David, 10, and Bill, 4, are Mary’s.
The new American family is a blend of mine, yours, and ours—brought to you by a divorce rate of about 41% of first marriages and a remarriage rate of 52-64% of divorced couples.
The natural life history of divorce and remarriage brings about new facts of family life. From the rubble of marital dissolution rises the single-parent family, usually headed by Mom. Dad has the kids every other weekend and sees them on certain weekday nights. Usually men don’t wait very long to remarry. Soon, Dad’s remarried and his second wife has two children. A year or so later, Mom remarries and her new husband has two children. Both families need an onboard computer to figure out who goes where on which weekend!
This modern family is extraordinarily complex. All too often, spouses-to-be plan for “one big happy family”. They picture happy step-brothers and step-sisters playing together, relaxed family dinners around a big table, and close, warm relationships between all of the step-sibs. Newlyweds assume their love for each other will spill over to their children. After all, doesn’t love conquer all?
Unfortunately, the honeymoon doesn’t last long. Most second marriages are unprepared for the intense conflicts to come. Sally hates step-brother Joe and won’t talk to him. All the kids argue about what to do on weekend visits. David won’t listen to his new step-father. John worries that his new wife doesn’t treat his children as well as her own kids. Mary thinks that her husband isn’t firm enough with his children and is too firm with hers.
To make matters even more challenging, both husband and wife are still healing from the break-up of their first marriage. Hurt feelings, anger, and disappointment don’t disappear overnight. New spouses often feel threatened by the active presence of first husbands and wives in their everyday lives. Sharing children guarantees that their ex-spouses will have regular, often conflictual contact with each other.
Youngsters still struggle with intense feelings about their parents’ divorce. All too often, children direct anger at step-parents that is really meant for their own mothers and fathers. It’s easier to dump your anger on a relative stranger than on your own parents.
I grew up in a blended family. My parents divorced when I was 13 years old, and both parents remarried, and their spouses had two children. As a teen, I often resented my step-sisters. At first I distrusted my stepfather and I disliked my step-mother. Over the years, I became close to my step-dad. We developed a very close friendship when I become an adult. My step-mother hoped for one big happy family—it never happened.
Navigating through the stormy waters of blended family life requires patience and maturity. It can be rough going for some time. Here’s some practical advice:
Have realistic expectations.
Depending on the age of the children, it can take years before genuine friendships between step-children and their step-parents develop—if at all. Step-parents can help by respecting the need of step-children to keep their distance at first. Don’t come on too strong. Be patient.
Let your spouse develop his or her own relationship with your kids. Let step-sibs develop their own connections with each other, without parental interference.
Hold regular family meetings.
Acknowledge that making a blended family work requires ongoing discussion, negotiations, and open communication. Hold weekly family meetings to work out conflicts. Don’t sweep problems under the rug.
Get help when you need it.
Adjusting successfully to blended family life can require professional help. If you get bogged down, don’t be a do-it-your-selfer—get help.