A blended family can be a challenge. For many, though, the benefits of creating stability out of the chaos of divorce outweigh the difficulties. As much as divorce signals the final ending of a relationship, it is often a beginning of one as well. Several of those who experience divorce quickly learn that a terminated marriage does not cut off the need for communication and some sort of relationship with an ex-spouse. In a divorce, a relationship changes rather than ends. This one concept of a family evolution is central to blended family success.
Blended families are increasingly common, too. While divorce has long been prevalent in our society, some of its stigmas have lessened. People often find themselves looking for love and family life after their divorce. This can complicate life, but can also provide structure and support for a healthy loving family.
What Is a Blended Family?
A blended family is one that features children from parents' prior relationships. "The Brady Bunch" is a classic example, where a newly-married couple blended their children from previous marriages. Of course, a blended family is much more complicated than a sitcom from 50 years ago. A blended family is a complexly layered set of relationships. For those who have gone through a divorce, a successful pursuit of post-breakup relationships requires understanding the struggle of these unique family dynamics.
Understanding blended families means appreciating how divorce and loss of a spouse affect all the parties involved. In the case of a divorce, there can be many more parties than just the spouses. When formerly married people seek to build a new family, an exponential amount of family members can enter the fold. Children gain step-siblings, step-parents, step-grandparents, uncles, and cousins.
A seemingly simple decision to move on to a new relationship can have complex results. This is not to say that pursuing a relationship post-divorce is impossible or even unwise. The struggle can be highly rewarding. Often, the best relationships grow out of the maturity and self-knowledge that a divorce or loss of a spouse lends.
Building a Blended Family Post-Divorce
Divorce can be ugly. Family law attorneys are known to say that matrimonial law clients are examples of good people at their worst. Emotions run high, and there is a tendency to look to assign blame for a failed relationship.
Understanding and accepting the fact that there will be hurt feelings and resentment is a critical component of healthy family building after a divorce.
Divorce has Multiple Sides
Each partner in a relationship has their own perspective. While one partner may bear the most responsibility for a marriage termination, dwelling on blame does little to repair the damages caused to any party in the marriage. We, of course, are not referring to situations of spousal abuse or any other scenario that is unsafe or unhealthy for any party. Otherwise, growth requires respecting the views of your ex-spouse. You likely did not see eye-to-eye on various parts of your life when you were together, so it is not reasonable or helpful to assume that you can attain unanimity in decisions once separated. You will have conflict, likely even more so than when you were married. Accepting differences and the other’s point of view is crucial for finding a middle ground.
Children's Perspective on Divorce
No matter what age your children may be at the time of a divorce, their wants and needs and opinions are essential for the future. Divorce sends kids through a roller coaster of emotions and is often much more disruptive to their lives than ex-spouses'. Behavioral health professionals suggest following the three R’s — Routines, Rituals, and Reassurance — as a way to reestablish the family order that a child needs.
Moving On: Building a New Family
Understanding how the termination of a relationship affects the various parties to a marriage, including spouses and children is the first step of rebuilding a new family. A blended family is going to amplify these concerns for several reasons. First, there may be more children with different expectations and needs. When you add new parties to the family mix, respecting these varied perspectives becomes increasingly difficult.
Challenges of Relationships Post-Divorce
Of the many challenges facing those seeking to forge a blended family post-divorce, realizing that a termination of a marriage does not often mean termination of a relationship with your ex. Divorce is a change, not an end. Divorce does not wipe the slate clean; it just adds another page in your family’s story.
Steps for Success
Forging a successful blended family starts with self-knowledge then moves through a series of evaluations and choices to move in a positive direction.
Who are you? What do you want in life? What do you want for your family, and for a future family? The change that accompanies divorce can be overwhelming, but it can also be life-affirming. Something about your previous choices didn’t work out the way you expected. Maybe the termination of the marriage was your fault, perhaps it was the other spouse’s fault, or maybe it was neither, and you both just grew apart. No matter what the reason, a significant life event such as divorce is time to pause and self-evaluate.
For some, this means pressing a reset button on their life. Maybe years of an unhappy relationship has taken you far away from your real self. Your future success will hinge on your ability to identify your strengths and use them as building blocks for your future. Creating this strong foundation is crucial for a successful life, and can support the challenges of a blended family.
Letting go of the old vision of your family
Once you have evaluated your strengths, you can shed a common weakness. It is difficult to let go of the past, but it often is the main ingredient in a positive post-divorce life. Your family has changed. It will never be the same. It may be much better, but the old relationship that caused heartbreak and sadness is over. Understanding this need for a new perspective on family helps you take the next two steps, responsibility and forgiveness.
Take responsibility for your part in a past failed relationship
Relationships are multifaceted. Divorce rarely arises from black and white issues. If you want to play the blame game, make sure to look closely at yourself when handing out penalties. If your self-assessment was honest and comprehensive, you should have noted your flaws. Consider the extent that these flaws may have contributed to your divorce, not to dwell on the past but as a preparation for the future. Learn from your mistakes, and you’ll follow in the footsteps of some of history’s greatest success stories.
Forgiveness - Remove Pain, Anger, and Resentment
Forgiveness in a divorce situation is a tricky subject. Maybe your core belief systems guide you to forgive freely, or maybe you believe some acts are beyond absolution. To build your new family, it is important to elevate your relationship with your former spouse. You don’t have to verbalize a pardon. But in your own mind, make peace with the past and move on. Do not allow past transgressions to cloud your positive future family. A healthy post-divorce family requires strength, and the heaviest lifting occurs when you step away from the past.
When you are unburdened, you can focus on those who may need the family structure the most, the children. More than anything, your kids want answers and security. Communication helps bring order to the chaos.
During and after a divorce, communication is the essential way to provide structure and reassurance to your children. In a blended family situation, respectful dialogue becomes even more critical. Family situations can differ, so it may be a struggle to determine the exact level of honesty with children. Do they need to know the precise reasons for a divorce? Probably not, but children do need to know that their lives can be better going forward.
A pressing problem in blended families is the ambivalence that some children can feel towards a step parents. This uncertainty, fear, and distrust grow when there is a lack of communication. Research shows that more blended families avoid discussing sensitive topics than first-marriage families. If we consider the previously suggested steps of self-evaluation, letting go, responsibility and forgiveness, we can see how openness builds peace. If a child hears nothing, they will resent, fail to forgive and will cling to the old vision of their family. It’s hard for spouses to take these steps, so how can children be expected to do so without communication.
Healthy communication means no disparagement
After the flames of the divorce proceeding have been long extinguished, communication continues to be a concern. It is, of course, important to refrain from disparaging ex-spouses in front of children. Anyone who has navigated a family court case for child custody or visitation will know the importance of not disparaging the other parent in front of a child. This importance extends to step-parents as well, and not for legal reasons. Children gain respect for those who take the high road after a divorce.
When communicating with your child about a divorce while it’s underway or even years after it is complete, focus on positive and reassuring statements. Some suggested comments include explaining that the children are not to blame for the divorce, and focusing on how both parents’ love for the children will not change. It is also crucial to clearly explain that divorce is permanent. If a child believes that mom or dad is taking a break, then they will understandably resent a new partner and resist the blended family situation.
Another crucial component of your blended family is how the individual spouse co-parent with their exes. All of the resentment, jealousy, and blame that destroyed a marriage can poke their heads into your life repeatedly if allowed. This is where a healthy perspective on the future helps illuminate a path. Without children, ex-spouses can be civil when they run into each other because they likely have no reason to interact. If only this civility were as easy when you have to communicate frequently to coordinate child care, visitation, vacations, school schedules, and financial matters. It is not easy, but it also is not impossible.
Successful co-parenting requires open communication, consistency, agreement, and positivity. It also requires planning. In many ways, co-parenting is like project management or work collaboration. You, your ex-spouse and the partners in blended families all have one goal: happiness and a positive environment for the children. Planning and communication mean there are no mistakes or misunderstandings when it comes to schedules.
Lack of communication is the primary cause of strife in co-parenting because it frustrates both parties. Imagine if your coworker kept forgetting key project deadlines and you had to compensate for another's shortcomings continually. Clear communication often solves this problem in the workplace and can keep parents on track for success as well.
It is equally important to know that family and individual counseling can help alleviate some of the burdens of a blended family. The communication ideals that make up a strong blended family are challenging. A professional may be able to help you, your children and other members of your blended family work through these steps. If you find that your attempts at positive communication are going nowhere, family counseling may help.
Further Steps: Finding and Building Joy
It’s easy to see how a blended family is a challenge, but also presents opportunities for happiness and additional outlets for love and affection. Although it may only come after time and patience, stepchildren can love and be loved by their blended family parents and siblings. While every situation is unique, one reason why a blended family may experience distance is neglecting joyful pursuits. Sometimes too much emphasis is placed on trying to get everyone to act like one big happy family. A less forced approach may be more effective.
Find ways to enjoy life. Let go of the past. Let go of regret and anger and fill your precious moments in life with brightness. Be good to your children, be respectful of your ex-spouse and build a happy new life that is positive and loving, and family strength will follow.