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Blended Families Present New Challenges

by Maxine Marsolini

Some people might say we were quite adventurous that wintry weekend twenty-nine years ago. Others might believe the blizzard we braved that day was the backdrop to the stormy life we were about to discover. But, on that day, we were eloping ¾ and not even our children (three of his and two of mine) knew of our plans.

“Do you think we can make it through? Charlie asked. “Maybe we should turn around.”

“We’re doing okay,” I answered. “The snow is powdery and the tires are still grabbing well. Besides, we’ve come so far already it will be as difficult to turn back as to continue.”

By eleven o’clock that night we were married in a simple ceremony in Reno, Nevada, by a minister and witnesses we’d never seen before in our lives. The whole thing didn’t take more than fifteen or twenty minutes. We bought the picture package and exited the chapel. Two days later we were home announcing our marriage to our family and friends.

All five children, ages four through nine, accepted our news with smiles and hugs. Life as a blended family had begun. My daughter and son would be living with us and see their father every other weekend. Charlie’s son and two daughters would live with their mother and be with us every other weekend. I was to receive child support and my husband was to pay child support. Up front all these details sounded manageable. But they were far from ideal. It didn’t take long to feel the tension of blended living. All the rules written on those divorce papers, and signed by judges who had no real knowledge of our families, began to supersede the higher priority of parent and child relationships.

We made lots of mistakes in those early years of blending. Just thinking two adults are mature enough to make an “our” family out of two pieced-together families wasn’t enough to get the job done. The emotional climate of our home was unpredictable at best. We had never learned how events from the past could complicate and dominate every facet of our new family’s life. This set us up to crumble. It was easy for the unresolved grief, the unrealistic expectations, the non-custodial parenting, and the encounters with ex-family members to suck the happiness right out of our home.

Many couples tell a similar story. Like us, they married for the second time unaware that they were saying yes to such a complex life. They started out preoccupied with the feelings of new love and the high hopes for a second chance at happily-ever-after. Rare and few are those who can say they were well prepared for the challenges that uniquely set apart a stepfamily from a nuclear family.

Today, Maxine Marsolini is an author and speaker sharing her personal experience with others. She understands that the most difficult family to live in is the stepfamily. She also knows that living in a blended family will be largely positive, or largely negative, depending on two things: 1)healing from wounds of the past, and 2) a sensitive understanding for what lies ahead. In her book, Blended Families (Moody Press 2000), Marsolini shares practical steps that have helped bring harmony to many blended families. Her newly released, Blended Families Workbook (Pleasant Word 2004) will guide the reader through twelve chapters that dig deeper into constructive ways to resolve conflict and create harmony within the home.

Eight years into her family’s troubled blending, Maxine took someone up on a challenge and began to investigate whether the Bible contained any helpful solutions to the problems disrupting her home. It did. Maxine outlines those solutions in both her book and workbook, meeting a tremendous need with the insights she offers. More information about these books can be found at www.blendedfamilies.net.

One million American children experience divorce every year, while others journey through the death of a father or mother. Most of these youngsters become part of a stepfamily. Add to this population the large number of cohabiting couples today, the adoptions, and the children in long-term foster homes, and you will see yet another part of society where families are formed apart from full biological connections. It is said that there are more stepfamilies in America today than nuclear families.

“All blended families are born of loss,” Maxine states, “whether that loss comes through death, divorce, or abandonment. Non-biological family members are seeking to start a new family in the rubble of shattered dreams. This presupposes blended families to be fragile.”

New Challenges for the Marriage

One of the biggest challenges for remarrieds is finding time to nurture the new marriage. There is no gradual adjustment to a new partner or extended time for “just-the-two-of-you” bonding as is customary to a husband and wife without children. Blended families go instantaneously from I do to packing school lunches and coping with both intrahousehold and interhousehold demands. To equip your newly formed family to succeed, a healthy marriage relationship must be maintained. Make a deliberate effort to nurture the new marriage despite the frustrations that are so common to the blended family. Keep a date night on your calendar. Arrange to have a weekend away every couple of months. Attend marriage enrichment events. Remember that when intimacy diminishes, anger and disillusionment are often close at hand.

New Challenges for the Family

It is common to witness instant competition between stepchildren. Our sons and daughters were not shopping around for extra brothers and sisters ¾ or for a new parent figure. Now there are disrupted birth orders, rooms to share, less bathroom time to go around, and a mom or dad who aren’t as available as they used to be.

Trust between stepparents and stepchildren, between children and stepsiblings, builds over time. This is a good reason to begin holding family meetings on a regular basis. The more aware everyone is of what is expected the quicker the family will adjust to their new life together. Post a calendar to keep abreast of who is coming or going and when. Honor your word. Never break a promise. Lower your personal expectations while sorting through discipline styles and financial solutions. Talk things through. Be fair in figuring out who has to take out the garbage, do the dishes, or clean the hamster cage.

Don’t just assume children will be adaptable. In fact, an article in The Seattle Times warns about children in remarried homes. “While this may seem to be a largely positive change for these children, in reality remarriage can be a mixed blessing ¾ or worse. The arrival of a new adult ¾ often with a child or two from a previous marriage ¾ can turn a child’s world upside down, prompting fears, conflicts, and doubts about the child’s role and status in the family.” [1]

When parents remarry, it’s not uncommon for children to act out, showing their discontent in negative actions and attitudes, in order to establish their own position in the power structure of the new family. Educate yourself about the grieving process your youngsters are involved in, because most often they are not mature enough to explain why they are fearful or unhappy. Parents will need to look beyond behaviors and understand broken hearts. On occasion you may want to seek outside counseling. Many church groups are setting up blended family support groups now. These are a great source of encouragement.

Blended families should come with a Surgeon General’s warning: Fragile: Handle with care. Blending in process. Children in blended families are more likely to be troubled simply because they are exposed to conflict on more than one front. Their world can be marred with conflict from two different homes. Be careful not to push anyone in your family to a breaking point. When the inability of family members to cope with the enormous amount of change being thrust upon them supersedes their expectations of what they thought the new family would be like, the family is in crisis. This hopeless state opens the door for emotions to escalate to rage or plummet to despair. Jealousy, blame, substance abuse, depression, and even suicide can come into play.  

New Challenges for Love

The best way to combat the stress of blending is to make each family member feel loved and wanted. Husbands and wives should set the standard by showing a deep love and respect for one another. We have to make deliberate decisions to love our family. Love is not a feeling. Love is a choice. Mom and dad must lead by example. Embrace all of the children. Rejection hurts. It fuels anger and can leave scars that last a lifetime. Look at the words left behind by Mother Teresa.

“I have come more and more to realize that being unwanted is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience. Nowadays we have found medicine for leprosy, and lepers can be cured. There’s medicine for TB, and consumption can be cured. But for being unwanted, except there are willing hands to serve and there’s a loving heart to love, I don’t think this terrible disease can be cured.” [2]

Every child should feel he or she is loved one hundred percent. It doesn’t take long to give a hug, write a card, or say an encouraging word.

Do you remember when we eloped to Reno during the snowstorm? The same questions we asked then can apply to blending. Can you make it through? The answer is a resounding “yes.” It isn’t easy. But it really isn’t easier to turn back and give up on your new family. Determine to continue on to your destination. Face the challenges that will come. Find ways to bind up the wounds of both families. You will sense togetherness as you form creative paths that lead you to sincerely love one another with or without the bonds of blood.

The truth is blending doesn’t just happen. We purposely journey into it. Though it takes years, we have this promise from God: ‘“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to give you hope and a future.”’ (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV).

 



[1] Http://www.seattletimes.com/news/lifestyles/html98/step_20000223.html, When parents remarry, kids may need time to feel at home in the new family. Pam Gerhart, Special to The Washington Post.

[2] Mother Teresa, Peacemaking Day by Day, PAX Christi USA