Expert Q&A: Dealing With Your New Spouse and Blended Families
Q: How do I deal with complaints from my children that they think I favor my new spouse and his kids over them?
A: Being a parent never ends and it's a difficult task even with a wise and caring spouse. So imagine the problems of jealousy and just plain old mismatches when you marry someone with children. The happy "his, mine and ours" scenario is not so easy to maintain. You need money, patience, rooms, time, a cooperative ex and an A+ in parental emotional intelligence. No wonder so many remarriages don't work.
At stake is a tug o' war of loyalties between responsibility to your children and protection of your new marriage. It shouldn't be this way, and it doesn't have to, but too many children do feel "pushed aside" in the new mix. Here are three typical scenarios from my clients:
As soon as young adults Clay and Charlotte's father married a woman with three grown children Clay and Charlotte felt "sent out to pasture." The father drove many hours to see his new step-children but never drove just one more exit to see his own children. He talked all about his step-children's accomplishments but never even attended Clay's graduation from graduate school.
When Suzanne got married to Sam, a very successful land developer, she thought she hit the jackpot. In her estimation her first husband was a loser. She and her three teenage boys moved into Sam's house where his teenage son and daughter stayed on alternate weekends. When Suzanne's son said he didn't want to spend the summer with his father, Suzanne freaked out in silence. She didn't want to take a chance on her moody son tainting her new marriage. She told him he had to go because he owed it to his father. When her son asked if he could just spend half the summer with his father, Suzanne said no.
John dated many women before he fell in love and married Joanna. When he finally introduced his grown children to her, John's young adult daughter ran upstairs, slammed the door and yelled: "She's only four years older than I am." John chose to ignore what he saw as his daughter's tantrum, but at the wedding, his daughter barely spoke to either him or Joanna. Now relations between them are strained, and John has still chosen to ignore the signs.
In these examples the parents washed their hands of their parental responsibility—not to mention their love. So, just how should you handle all the new family members? Here are some tips that have worked for my remarried clients:
1. Tell your children that you love them and will always consider their needs.
This advice sounds obvious, but like John in the example above, many parents just don't say it or act on it. Sometimes, parents feel "all thumbs" and don't know how to approach their children. Not everyone is gifted, after all, at addressing emotional issues.
Instead of a heart-to-heart where you might stumble and feel caught off guard by your children's reactions I recommend writing a letter. I am a big fan of letters, preferably the old-fashioned kind that you write by hand. In that letter you should list your children's positive attributes and accomplishments. Offer a few sentences about the divorce. Tell them that remarriage is not easy and that you can understand their concerns about where they fit in. Assure them that there is room in your heart to love lots of people. Of course, add your own comments.
Chances are your kids will not respond to the letter. So now you can feel free to approach them or email a "What Can I Do to Ease This Change?" Just don't let the issue drop.
Finally, get into their mindset and think about what they must be feeling. Write or tell them what you think might be going on with them and ask them if you are right. Usually, children welcome the chance to "correct" you.
2. Talk to your new spouse ahead of time about the parenting issues and develop a problem-solving team with your partner and children.
Again, it sounds so obvious, but many couples do not want to rock the boat. I recommend sitting down with your new partner and making a list of all the things that concern you about all your children. Swap lists and begin to brainstorm together solutions.
One technique that has proven successful with many of my clients is to pretend that you are your partner. Get into his or her mindset and speak about the issue as though you were him or her. Ask your spouse to then take on your mindset. Don't worry about solutions yet. The process can be very powerful. You learn about each other, and your ability to understand fortifies your love. Solutions usually grow naturally out of the experience. If not, then move directly to brainstorming solutions. Typically, your first few ideas are not the best, but mention them anyway since they might spark other ideas. You might also want to include your children in the decision-making.
Often parenting can feel as though you are constantly putting fires out in the waste basket. Remarriage adds more fires. There will always be the unexpected issue, but wise parents take a long view of key issues such as: Which events of our children are the most important to attend? What are our discipline styles and values? What will you do to make each child feel included?
3. Plan ahead of time how you will deal with your exes.
Yes, there truly are some impossible exes. Fights and power plays with them will certainly risk derailing your new marriage. Just as in the mindset exercise above, imagine your ex's issues. What does he or she want? Is there any way you can include your ex in your family activities? Can you form a sane and solid co-parenting team? Ask your new spouse for his or her perspective. Step-parents are often less emotionally reactive and can see things that the other partner doesn't want to acknowledge.
Many couples do work out arrangements that are smooth enough with the ex and that do not sacrifice the children to the new marriage. If you can't create a smart and calm-enough environment, consider counseling. Or browse the bookstore or Internet for books. Just get help. One book I strongly recommend is Karen Buscemi's I Do, Part 2. Small disclaimer—I was one of the consultants for this book. But, truly, it has good advice.
As a step-parent, I can tell you that happiness and peace are possible!
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D, MSS, MA, is a nationally recognized psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in women's issues in love, life, work, and family. Sign up on her website, http://www.lovevictory.com, to receive free advice, blog, cartoon, and information about her two upcoming research-based, self-help books for women: The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie-a cartoon, self-help book and Smart Relationships. You can follow Dr. Wish on Twitter.
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