So you have found someone to share your life with, congratulations! You love and complement each other so well, you have so much in common, there is no doubt in your mind this is the one. The big day is set, the invitations are sent, the gown is picked and the cake is taste tested. Multiple times.
But then there’s the added wrinkle that your kids might not quite be on the same level of readiness as you. Whether there is conflict between the two merging sides or within, it is quite common for this transition to hit a few bumps along the way. Entering into a marriage where one or both of you bring in children from a past relationship can provide numerous challenges, but fortunately it is something that you can accomplish together, and accomplish well.
It used to be that when two people brought in children from past relationships, we called these step-families, but that does not quite describe all the possible routes and variations on the family you have now. Many families consist of a combination of step- and half-siblings, children of divorced parents, children who have lost a parent to death, and/or children of adoption. The common thread connecting families here, then, is the merging and growth of an entirely new family unit. We call these families blended families.
In America, divorce has become as normal as staying together. This reality means that there are a lot of families with children living with step-parents and step- or half-siblings. How you interact with your step-child will affect how she interacts with her half-sibling, and will affect how your spouse interacts with you, and then in turn how you talk to your child … this chain goes on and on. Overnight or over time, your relationship will become a much more complex unit and every permutation of these relationships opens the door for conflict to arise. However, all these new connections also create the opportunity for supportive and lasting relationships to grow.
As loving parents, you are sure to desire a unified family and a smooth transition to it, but chances are the situations that led to where you are now were less than ideal. Whether coming from divorce, separation, or a death of a loved one, underlying pain likely still exists and it is important to acknowledge that both in yourselves and in your children. Having some honest and frank conversations about what this new reality might look like compared to the past will help to keep things open and clear. As hard as it might be to talk about the past, letting the emotions and thoughts out to breathe is better than letting them fester and burst out later on.
Counseling for Couples
Should you and your spouse or spouse-to-be decide that some counseling would be a good route to prepare or strengthen your family, it is good to know what this might end up looking like. Whether you’re just getting ready to enter into marriage or you’re mid-stride and finding the growing pains in the blending process, it’s never a bad time to jump right in.
Pre-blending Counseling for Couples
If you and your loved one are getting ready for the big day, pre-blending counseling for couples can be helpful to get on the same page about things such as routines, roles, and discipline. Like pre-marital counseling, pre-blending counseling for couples helps you to tackle the challenges involved in marriage, but further focuses on bringing two existing families together.
Further, pre-blending counseling can bring in the children involved and offer them a space to prepare for their future as well. Perhaps you have been in pre-marital counseling before and ultimately that relationship ended up failing. Understandably, you may hold some apprehensions about giving it another shot. I would encourage you to take a preparative step and have some faith that this time things might be different. It may be helpful to enter into pre-marital counseling again to help heal wounds that have been dug up from your past relationship as well. You and your partner may find the process both one of healing and one of preparation, setting your family up for success from the start.
Post-blending Counseling for Couples
Perhaps you and your spouse are in the other camp, and have already tied the knot. Now you are finding yourself in the midst of trials and tribulations where you are having to navigate not only a new marriage, but the roles of having new adopted (or not) children. You might even be considering having a child of your own between you two, and this could be complicating matters further if you have already established roles based on the parentage of the children that you came in with.
In these instances, counseling for couples can be immensely beneficial to help smooth any tension that may arise in the relationship. Differing from individual counseling, in couples counseling neither of you are the “client” per se, but rather the relationship between you enters the spotlight and is the focus of treatment. Something between you may have been frayed, and so easily couples fall into patterns of behavior that tear each other down rather than lift each other up. Adding a child or children to the mix that one of you has no biological relation to, can easily become a point of contention as roles become confused or ill-defined. Usually after a couple of months, however, some dedicated work can serve to mend this relationship and re-write the cycles in which you might be finding yourselves stuck.
An issue that often faces couples bringing a blended family together is the role of each partner in disciplining the children of the other. There is no agreed upon consensus as to what the “right” timing is for the non-biological parent to start taking on some of those disciplining duties, but in general it is agreed that it should be taken slowly. Some have said to consider how long it was before you disciplined your child after they were born – 2-3 years? In this time, you built a relationship in which your child learned that love, trust, and safety came from you, so discipline was effective.
Therefore, it might take that long for your step-children to feel like they can trust you as well. Perhaps that timeframe is a bit long, but ultimately is a decision and conversation for you and your partner to decide together. Whatever you decide, then, it is imperative that you both are on the same page and back each other up. This is just one of the issues that could arise in pre-blended counselling for couples, but now you are the captains of this new team and will best accomplish your goals when communication is open and you fully support one another.
Perhaps you and your loved one are getting along ok, but you have begun to notice that your children appear less like an all-star team and more like two disgruntled cliques forced to play nice. Children, especially those under 10 or so, often are sponges to drama and conflict in the family. Even if you think you have kept the “adult problems” away, they often pick up on the little non-verbal and emotional transmissions we are always sending out. This can lead to acting out in a whole host of unpredictable ways. In these instances, blended family counseling can really help to bring the team together and resolve some of the hard truths that might be pushing through.
While you and your spouse may have resolved or accepted the circumstances that led to the disruption of your previous family setup, be that through divorce, separation, a death, or perhaps one parent had never been around in the first place, your kids may still be dealing with the effects. Before you can build your new home, you need to establish that it has a solid foundation. Especially in younger children who might not have the words to really explain their emotional state, there might be cracks, and the concept of a “family” that is whole and unified might not even be there at the moment.
Further complicating the matter, your children may now be the members of two households with different rules and routines. Through some family counseling, you can help to build a foundation for the children in your family to see that this new unit is loving, supportive, and there for them.
For families with adolescent children, the process of blending may be even more complicated. Put yourselves back in the shoes of a 15-year-old – you’ve only got three more years until you’re an adult. You might just feel okay enough to shrug off your mom or dad’s new partner and live it out. As we are all well aware, adolescence is already a tumultuous time full of change; your hormones, body, interests, beliefs, friends, and more are in a constant state of flux. A morphing home life, then, is just another change and the older the child, the more likely they might be willing to just ride out the disruption until college or moving out comes.
Raising a child through adolescence is hard enough, and adding the stress of a new spouse whom your child may not trust or like can make the process exponentially more difficult. However, this does not need to be insurmountable. The beauty of adolescence is that they are beginning to understand more complex systems and how the world comes to be. At this stage, they probably still do not have the autonomy in your home to make decisions about where to live, but they have the ability to form their opinions – and they will let you know.
Rather than fighting the opinions, listen to them. Validate that this is another huge change for them and that this is a tough transition. Granted, there are often realities that they may not wish to face and in those situations these conversations can become charged and challenging. If this is the route you are heading, family counseling can be incredibly beneficial to have a sort of un-biased mediator. Especially for adolescents who feel their parents might be blinded by their new spouse, having a counselor in the room to mediate and intervene, likely sending the same message that you’re trying to convey, can help them come to understanding and acceptance.
Within any family, regardless of the ages of the children, a sort of sub-culture with its own routines, beliefs, rules, and traditions is created. Who carves the Christmas turkey? Who is in charge of taking out the garbage every week? Who cooks? Does the family eat together or separately? There are decisions made all the time, both large and small, that become an engrained routine for families.
When blending, then, families may find themselves in conflict over which routines to adopt and which to prune. Especially if one side is moving into a new, established household, which rules and routines become regular can become quite contentious. Or even if it is less charged, the moving side may feel like a stranger in a new land and, children especially, may take a while to really feel like this new house is their home. It is helpful for families to co-create some new rituals and traditions for themselves, acknowledging the rich histories both sides bring to the table. It can be difficult for children from one side to feel like taking on something like a holiday tradition from the other as their own, so often creating entirely new ones can help foster a sort of family-team unity.
Granted, blending a family is hard work and every family brings unique challenges based on its own members and history. Coming together to counseling as both a couple and a family can help navigate this stressful, but beautiful, time. Whether it is in anticipation of the process to come or you have found yourselves in the throes of the post-honeymoon period, counseling can help you to bond the team and prepare for your new life together.
“Bliss,” courtesy of unsplash.com, pexels.com, CC0 License; “Family stroll,” courtesy of unsplash.com, pexels.com, CC0 License; “Ready,” courtesy of Emily Wilkinson, pexels.com, CC0 License