Raise your hand if you’re a parent of a blended family.
There’s a good chance you raised it. Blended families are quickly becoming the new norm in our society.
While it’s no secret that having a stepfamily creates intense complexities that simply don’t exist in intact families, you don’t have to let these complexities hinder your marriage.
I set out to identify the 10 most critical nuggets of advice you’ll ever need for a healthy blended family. Here they are for you to read, glean, and use!
1. Understand that blending a family requires time
Bringing two families together is a long-term investment. Keep in mind that the divorce rate increases for people who get married a second time around. Look at blending a family as a long-term goal rather than a quick fix.
Research even shows that blending a family takes upwards to 5 years, so prepare yourselves for the long haul.
In the early stages of the relationship, couples feel excited and spend a lot of time together. You’re re-falling in love again. Especially for those coming out of a loveless marriage, this feels wonderful.
You go from divorced to in-love. You have hope for the future. You’re spending so much time together because it feels good.
The downside: your families don’t spend a whole lot of time together. When they do, your partner’s kids think of you as a glorified babysitter or a playmate.
Then you go from dating to re-married…
2. Prepare for relationship changes
If you had a positive relationship with the child of your partner, it WILL get strained once you become a stepparent.
Before the marriage you might have a positive relationship with your partner’s kids. People sometimes feel a little sigh of relief. “Yes! I really hit it off with my partner’s kids!”
It’s unusual that the sentiment stays positive. It’s much more usual to see strains in the relationship with kids, simply because the roles change.
Parents of blended families question their level of discipline. Maybe they don’t agree with their wonderful new partner’s parenting style.
…He always lets him get away with this…
…She always lets her stay on the iPad…
All of a sudden you’re no longer there for fun and to impress one another. You walk into a new role. Do you discipline or do you remain a casual bystander? The strain from these relationship changes challenges blended families.
3. Create a shared list of values with your blended family
Fun fact: I do this all the time with my patients.
Why? Because the second most common reason why I see patients starts from not having shared values.
Couples of blended families come into my office. They say: we’re struggling. I say: let’s create a list of shared values.
Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s not. Often times people share a common list of values already, but the order of importance differs. For those with a monster list of values, typically only the top few on the list get our daily attention.
Once you create a list of shared values, try to identify the top 3. Then make it tangible. Match those values to everyday actions — as an individual, as a couple, and as a blended family.
Believe it or not, this exercise challenges people. But do it and you’re working your way to blended family bliss.
4. Build household rules
Think of your shared list of values as the foundation on which to build your household rules.
I recommend you cover these household rules before you get married:
- Whose house will we move into?
- What are the rules going to be around chores, TV time, homework, sports, and curfew?
- What are the consequences of not following the rules?
- Does everyone have their own room?
- Will you share rooms?
(I’ll let you in on something here. In my experience working with blended families, moving into a brand new home is best. Kids become territorial when one family moves into another family’s house).
The reason behind building household rules relates back to the following concept. When you’re with your family of origin, your life unfolds and you roll with it. In a blended family, you just don’t get that luxury.
When you’re with a blended family, your marriage begins with a 3, 8, 9, 13, and 15-year-old in your life. BOOM! Toddlers, pre-teens, and adolescents all under the same roof.
You don’t have any history with their childhood. You don’t have time to slowly build relationships with the kids.
It takes an incredible amount of planning to make the roll-out of blended family rules successful, but determine those rules early and stick to them.
5. Know that you will see your spouse differently
I often hear the husband report that he sees his new wife stricter than he ever imagined.
Mom feels like she needs to compensate for dad’s lack of structure and relaxed style of discipline.
And dad responds by saying the same thing.
Hence begins the dynamic stress of the blended family marriage.
You will absolutely see your spouse in a different light once you officially blend your families.
As a general trend, dads have a harder time setting rules. This could be because rule setting wasn’t their role in the previous marriage. Now he’s mom and dad. He’s everything.
In terms of guilt, dads seem to carry more guilt from the stress of the divorce. Now he has a new marriage and all these new kids. Guilt drives a lack of follow through on rules.
On the flipside, moms often carry multiple roles. It’s not as striking for them to fill the everything role.
Solve this discrepancy by talking about your parenting style to your spouse. Key questions to ask:
- What was your established parenting style in the previous marriage?
- What’s working for you?
- What’s not working for you?
- What’s working for your kids?
- When we get married, do you want to see that change?
- Do you want to be more nurturing/disciplinarian?
- Where do you want to grow as a parent?
6. Make schedules
Whether you like it or not, blended families run on schedules. You better make some.
Your life will live by schedules because you’ve added more moving parts to the equation. Oh, and you’ve got extended family that still wants to visit your kids.
Blended families need to schedule, at a minimum, space for these 4 things.
- Time to all be together
- Time to be with just your kids
- Time to be with just their kids
- Time to be alone as a couple
Let’s pause here.
Question #4 is when couples stop and look at me in confusion. They ask, “Where is there time this month to be alone as a couple?”
I understand. But here’s why you need to make alone time…
Off-weeks tend to become catch-up weeks from built up stress. You rarely make the best use of your time during off-weeks. You’re getting back into your routine and your swing of things.
It’s not good for marriages.
Parents ask me if it’s ok to have a babysitter on the nights that they have their kids. Most people’s knee-jerk reaction to that question is NO WAY!
You only see your kids 50% of the time, how can you possibly justify taking a night away from being with your kids?
I’ll be honest. I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong way around that because every situation is slightly different. Regardless, it’s worth asking this question and discussing it openly.
Many of my patients take a few hours to go do something as a couple — attend an event, movie, dinner — even on the nights they have their kids. It’s ok.
Alone time also carries some mental health benefits, too.
Half the month you’ve got 4 kids to manage.
A lot of kids = a lot of stress.
Taking 2 or 3 hours “off” to go out to dinner or go for a walk reinforces your marriage and status as a couple.
7. Master transitions
We know that kids go through a lot of transitions throughout their childhood. For kids in blended families, this could mean a transition every week as they’re moving from one house to another. My advice is to create a ritual and routine around these transitions.
Whether you’re saying hello or goodbye to the kids, you need a transition plan.
Start by asking these 5 questions:
- How are we going to transition?
- Will we always do it together?
- Will just one of us do it?
- Will I go when you transition your kids?
- Will you come when I do it to mine?
Every blended family has their transition plan based on their situation.
After you establish this plan, start to create rituals and routines around getting the kids.
I really encourage having family meetings at every transition. Use this as your time to check-in with your kids, even if you talk to them frequently on the phone during off-weeks. Many parents don’t get the highest quality conversations from phone conversations because kids aren’t big phone talkers.
A family meeting strengthens your family and your marriage. Kids see that both parents are interested and invested in how everyone is doing. Everyone has a voice.
Kids will soon understand that every time they go from this mom’s or dad’s house to the other’s, they have parents and stepparents to connect with. That’s powerful.
8. Deal with the ex
Want a healthy marriage? Then you’ve got to find a way of dealing with your spouse’s ex. Ex-girlfriend or ex-wife, or ex-husband or ex-boyfriend. Manage your negative feelings around them. Communicate with them consistently. Establish this from the get-go, even if they communicate poorly.
Dealing with the ex shows your current spouse that you’re truly there to support them and be part of their team. You’re interested in all of their life.
Set a rule not to speak negatively about your spouse’s ex. Negative speaking sets a bad example for your kids and weakens your marriage. Couples that sit around talking about how awful someone else’s ex is basically waste what could have been quality time.
Time is so incredibly limited in a blended family. If you need to talk about something an ex did, talk about it briefly and intensely. Then move on.
9. Forget about keeping up with your ex
“You’re never going to believe this, but my ex Rick just called me and said he’s taking all the kids on a Disney cruise for Christmas.”
Those sort of comments should be avoided at all costs. They’re toxic
What that statement instantly does is make your spouse feel like needing to keep up with the Joneses.
From gifts, trips, vacations and everything in between, trying to keep up with your ex is always a losing battle.
Plus it causes friction in your marriage.
There’s no use in playing games so make a point not to play them.
Kids with divorced parents will frequently see one parent as wealthier or more relaxed and the other as poorer or stricter. That’s a divide. Anywhere that a kid can split parents and dichotomize the situation is unhealthy.
This is where having values very grounded comes to your rescue. If your top value is accountability, then you’ll remain accountable to your words and actions.
Instead of responding negatively about Rick taking the kids on a Disney cruise, you’ll say that you’re so happy they get to go on a cruise. Then maybe you’ll ask if you should remain accountable for saving up enough money to go on your own cruise next year.
10. Maintain traditions from your original family
Step 1: Acknowledge that you are two families with your two histories coming together.
Step 2: Discuss some old traditions that you want to continue doing.
Step 3: Determine if you want to make new traditions.
Anything is fair game as far as traditions go. Is there a song you listen to every Christmas Eve? What does the tooth fairy leave under the pillow? How do you celebrate birthdays?
Maintaining traditions respects and honors the lives you lived before you and your spouse got married.
That’s it. That’s the best marriage advice you’ll ever need for blended families. If there’s one list of how to do blended families right — you just read it. Want more to read? It’s as easy as subscribing to my newsletter.
Sheryl Ziegler, Psy.D. is a Doctor of Psychology who specializes in children and families. She is the author of the upcoming book, Mommy Burnout, How Addressing Yours Will Make You A Better Mother And Create A Better Life For Your Children. Dr. Ziegler is the mother of three children in Denver, Colorado. You can follow her parenting advice in her newsletter by signing up today. www.drsherylziegler.com.