Easing the Pain of Blended Families

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Dr. Linda Mintle
Dr. Linda Mintle

Blending families when divorced or widowed parents remarry can be a challenge. Here are some steps to take to help the process go smoothly.

Stepmom. What word pictures come to mind when you hear that word? Perhaps you are like my young daughter, whose first encounter with stepmom went like this: "Mommy, Mommy, Alison has a stepmom! Will she be mean and wicked like the stepmother in Cinderella? We've got to help Alison!"

Or maybe you know a boy like Billy--quiet, shy and frightened that his "new" mom will take off like his first. One year ago Billy's real mother abandoned the family, and now the stepmother is trying to love him. Billy is resisting. From his point of view, one rejection is hard enough.

Shari, an unhappy teen-ager, refuses to talk to her stepmom, who became part of the family after an affair with her dad that led to divorce and remarriage. Dad has repented of his sin, but Shari has no intention of accepting the "other woman" as her stepmother. She can't stop thinking about how Mom suffered as a result of her dad's infidelity. The stepmom is a living reminder of the family pain.

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Such are the stories of stepchildren trying to adjust. Hurt and wounded, these kids can be a handful. Often their pain evidences in opposition, anger and flat-out rejection of the stepmom. And no one knows how difficult it all can be better than the stepmoms themselves. Stepparenting can be summed up by the Spanish phrase about social revolution, La lucha continua: The struggle continues.

The government estimates that by the year 2007, stepfamilies, or blended families as we sometimes call them, will outnumber traditional nuclear fam ilies. Stepfamilies are an outgrowth of our divorce culture, the result of the growing number of failed marriages.

What Kids Face When families blend, everyone experiences change, but from the children's perspective, the world has turned upside down. Suddenly there is a stranger sharing the bathroom, giving directions and checking their homework. Dad is no longer exclusively theirs. Mom's daily presence is lost. Holidays become complicated. And what do they call this new person who shows up at the breakfast table with habits that annoy them?

Their former family has been torn apart and replaced with another. This loss and new arrangement are not by choice. Feelings of anger linger long after the parents' divorce is final. If the child hasn't openly worked through anger and forgiveness toward the original parents, these feelings carry over to the blended family as well.

Even in the best of situations, stepchildren struggle to find ways to honor stepparents without dishonoring biological parents. They experience a constant division of loyalties that evidences in the smallest of issues. It is this division of loyalties that resurfaces throughout the new marriage and serves as an unpleasant reminder of the price children pay for divorce.

And consider this: According to an article in the American Sociological Review titled "The Quality and Stability of Remarriages: the Role of Stepchildren," couples with stepchildren are more than twice as likely to divorce again (White and Booth, 1985), and children who live as stepchildren are more likely to move out of the household at an earlier age. Research indicates that families with stepchildren have more rivalry and aggression and less empathy and involvement.

How Stepmoms Can Help But what about the stepmoms, the unforgotten women who need help overcoming the stigma of their new roles and adjusting to children who may resent their presence? Their challenge is to become accepted as part of the reconstituted family. Doing so takes time and effort. And their husbands, the ones who are supposed to support them through the adjustment, are often in precarious roles dealing with the guilt of divorce and loyalty to the children whom they have hurt.

Stepmoms don't always know what to do. The main problem for reconstituted families is that the original intact family is gone. That first model, no matter how good or how poor, no longer applies to the current situation. Consequently all members struggle with ambivalence, attachment, emotional reactions, reorganization, unresolved issues and spiritual redevelopment.

The stepmom typically has the added frustration of juggling the family's needs--her husband's, her own and their children's. Most times contact regarding visitation and extended family goes through her. And all too often, ex-wives are not eager to cooperate with stepmom's needs and wishes, particularly if stepmom is the woman who broke up the intact family.

When the new couple has a child together (ours), the parenting work goes easier because of parental cohesion that develops. Yet the interplay of relationships with "yours" and "mine" can remain stressful.

Keep in mind that remarriage is a complex process, not a one-time event. Remarriage is easier when:

  • There is a reasonable interval between marriages, and losses are grieved.

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