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The Challenge of Mixed or Blended Families

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

The Challenge of Mixed or Blended FamiliesOne of the consequences of the high rate of divorce and remarriage is that family structure has changed. People who remarry find themselves blending two sets of families from former marriages. That means that the newly remarried are now both continuing to be the natural parent to their existing children and step parent to the children who come with the second spouse. Sometimes it is only one spouse who brings children into the marriage. Regardless of the particular configuration of children and stepparents, everyone involved has to deal with difficult challenges.

On websites where people post asking for help with tough family situatins, it's common to see a wife or husband complaining that their new spouse seems to love their biological children more than their new spouse.  Here's an example:

"I have been divorced from my daughter's father for almost 11 years. The man I am now dating is the first real boyfriend I have had since my divorce. He is also divorced and has 3 daughters who live with their mother in another state.

The issue I have is with my 11 year old daughter. She is very jealous of every aspect of my relationship. She wants to know what we are talking about when he and I are having a conversation. She wants to know what he and I are doing when we are out on a date. We spend one night a weekend with her and allow her to invite a friend. We play board games, go bowling, to the movies, sporting events, dinner, all types of things and this was my boyfriend's idea. He wants things to be easier with her but nothing seems to be working. It's putting strain on our relationship and I don't know what to say to her to get her to understand how it makes me feel. I feel very stressed and caught in the middle because I want everyone to be satisfied and happy, including me."

Mother, boyfriend and daughter are struggling with lots of anxiety over impending changes in the dynamics of the family. The 11-year-old daughter, on the threshold of adolescence, may be experiencing fears about losing her mother, knowing how to cope with a stepfather and attempting to interfere with and even destroy the new relationship the mother and boyfriend have in order to maintain the status quo. From the child's point of view, the status quo feels much safer than the changes represented by the boyfriend.

It is very common for parents who have divorced to feel guilty because of the negative effects divorce can have on children. The result of this guilt can be to act over indulgently towards the child. This comes in the form of allowing the child to come between the adults who have formed a new family partnership together.

There is nothing more unhealthy than for a child to come to believe that he(she) can manipulate the adults. Divide and conquer is the most frequently used device used by youngsters in both the new blended families or within intact families. The bottom line is that if boundary lines between adults and children are not firmly set, children will "run rings around adults."

In the case cited above, the child is both being given too much power on the one hand and is being ignored on the other. Mother and boyfriend have decided what is best for the 11-year-old. However, do they really want her present at all of those activities? Is it best for their relationship that she be present so frequently? Mom is constantly appealing to the understanding and reasonableness of her daughter. Since when are 11-year-old girls rational and reasonable? Here is a mother who needs to set firm limits with her daughter while also encouraging two way communication through which mother and daughter discuss what each wants with Mom making the final decision.

The term "Boundary lines" is used by family therapists to describe the fact that parents and children are not the same. Children are dependent on parents for material and emotional well being. They are not at the age and level of maturity where they are capable of making sound judgments based on sensible thinking. It is now well established that the teenage brain is continuing to develop. The part of the brain that controls rational thinking is not yet as highly developed as the emotional brain. Teenagers continue to need adult guidance, advice and, sometimes, limit setting.

Adults are responsible for the executive decisions in a family. It is inappropriate for parents to discuss their sexual difficulties with their children. It is equally inappropriate to ask the children how much money should be spent for the purchase of a new house.

In a situation in which two families are coming together because of divorce and remarriage, boundary lines may feel fuzzy for a long time until new routines and rules are established. This is why it is vital for the new couple to fully support each other in encounters with the children.

Adults must engage in two difficult tasks in blending families. The first task is to set very clear boundaries. Setting boundaries means that adults consult one another before decisions are made. It also means that adults support one another while the children are present. There is plenty of time for discussion when parents are alone and can discuss issues in private. This is where the second task comes in. Both parent and stepparent must have private adult time with one another. This refers to the importance of doing things without the children being present.

None of this is meant to imply that adults act mean, harsh or authoritarian with the children. I sense that some people are fearful of setting boundaries with children for fear of  being thought of as dictatorial. This need not be. Firmness does not refer to being cruel or nasty. In addition, lines of communication must always be kept open in all families so that adults and children talk with and listen to one another.