Marriage within the Blended Family: Traditions

Jennifer and Ben had been married for just under four months. Ben entered the marriage with his four teenage boys and their active social lives and sporting commitments. Ben always believed it was important to support the boys in their activities by attending as many events as possible.  Sometimes he even volunteered to help coach their teams. Jennifer had one eight year old daughter who was used to being the center of her mother’s attention. Jennifer had often joked that they were more friends than mother and daughter. As Ben and Jennifer entered into their new commitment, they knew that adjustments would be needed for everyone in the family, but were unsure of how to help everyone feel supported.

The kids were now a few weeks into school and the parents had started to look ahead to plans for the holidays. They worried about how to balance each other’s past traditions with their new family identity.  Jennifer was struggling between spending less time with her daughter to make room for time with Ben.  She could see her daughter’s concern about some of the changes and was feeling pulled to be everything to everyone.

It is natural for stepcouples to want to set up rituals and traditions that will communicate their love and desire for connection to their families. Blending “old” and “new” family traditions may be difficult for new stepfamilies. Family members often attach a great deal of significance to daily rituals and traditions they are used to. Stepcouples cannot and should not erase memories or downplay the importance of their children’s past.  However, there are ways in which old traditions can be honored, while allowing new interactions, memories, and connections to be built, helping to create the new family identity.  The follow are just a few suggestions for integrating and building new family rituals and traditions.

Flexibility and Compassion

As much as stepcouples may want to, it is impossible to make everyone happy. Being flexible means we are willing to try our best to incorporate both new and old traditions, and modify where needed. Family members may need to be reminded that their favorite, irreplaceable old tradition may be seen as new (and therefore optional) to new family members.  Combining traditions may take some creating planning, but if stepcouples remember people are more important than picturesque holiday images they can learn to honor their children’s pasts while creating new traditions.

Talking with family members about their favorite traditions, either in a formal or informal setting, allows children the chance to share what they love and the history behind those experiences. In the case of Jennifer and Ben, Jennifer’s daughter may be missing Girls Night with her mom, where the two of them shared events and happenings with each other and laughed together. Jennifer can show compassion by setting up a regularly scheduled time to continue this tradition. Having individual time with children honors relationships. It is not a snub to the stepparent. In fact, stepparents who encourage these times relieve stress on the family and actually strengthen the marital relationship.

Use Creative Planning

Planning is vital to all families, but especially to stepfamilies. Creative planning means stepcouples need to know their own preferences and where they are willing to sacrifice before they even begin discussions with other households. It also means taking into account the wishes of their children while making plans. Children cannot always have their wishes met, but they should always feel heard. The more households that are involved, the more important it is to begin planning for holidays and vacations early. Once plans are set, stepparents should remain flexible. Changes do happen, but when parents dig in their heels, it is the children who lose.

Be A Full Time Family (365 Days a year)

When my son was 11 years old, we had a family planning meeting where my husband asked our children if there were any areas they thought we could improve. My son looked calmly at my husband and said, “I think we could use a family holiday. A day to celebrate being us.” We were surprised by his suggestion, but enlisted his help as we planned our first “Christiansen Day.” We have been holding Christiansen Day on the third Saturday of June for the past eight years.  We have had barbeques, movies in the yard, relay races, pizza making contests, street art competitions, rock band playoffs, and more. The kids help us plan the event and we all enjoy an excuse to have some fun every year.

There may be times when stepfamilies cannot spend the usual holidays together. Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and other holidays often have to be divided up between parents.  Even though they may not be together for as many holidays as they wish, stepparents should remember that they are parents every day; it is not just the holidays that count.  Stepfamilies should make memories, laugh and create together. They can even create their own family holiday, but should keep the focus on the relationships and not on the events.

When their children are away with the other parent, parents should give them the gift of support for having a good time. Words such as, “I hope you have a wonderful time with your dad” or “I can’t wait to hear about your trip” tell children they are safe to love and be loved by all family members.

Do what you can and accept what will not change

One of the hardest parts of co-parenting with someone in a different household can be a lack of control over the decisions of others. Parents should do their best to be respectful, to work on sharing information all year long and continue to apply creative planning with flexibility. Even with all of this effort, stepcouples should realize that there will be issues beyond their control. When this happens, stepcouples should try not to focus on the frustration and hurtfulness of the situation. Instead, they can practice saying to themselves, “For my children, I choose peace.”

Accepting what they cannot change is also a lesson for children to learn, as there will likely be times when they are required to comply when they do not want to. Helping them to release what they cannot change will allow family members to have a greater feeling of peace.

Image credit: http://kerncountylibrary.org/event/game-on-family-fun-8/

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Marriage within the Blended Family: Balancing Time and Relationships

From the time I was a little girl, I watched my parents work together. Side by side they handled the responsibilities of our family. There were partners in work and in marriage. They carried the burdens of our home and they lifted and supported each other. When I tested the boundaries of our family rules, they stood strong in their unity and I felt the full power of their oneness.

Most researchers agree that couples who learn to put their marriage first bless their families with security. Does this guidance also apply to stepfamilies?  Is it fair to place the marital relationship first, when children were there before the spouse?  How can parents balance the needs of their children and their new spouse? The answer is they give time and priority to both.

Especially during the beginning of the marriage, children need to see they are not in competition for their parent’s love and affection.  It is okay for biological parents to have regular alone time with their children. This will require some sacrifice on behalf of the married couple, but it will bless the couple and the whole family with greater harmony.  Stepparents who encourage and support the relationship between the children and their biological parent bless their family and their marriage.

Prioritizing Spousal Relationships

Entering any new marriage, it is important that spouses position their partners as a teammate, confide in them, share concerns with them, and take time to enjoy leisure activities with them. When couples prioritize their relationship, they demonstrate to all family members that their marriage should be respected and can be depended on. Research has found that children tend to remain “withdrawn and mistrusting until they feel and believe that marital and family relationships are on solid ground.” Therefore it vitally important for couples to invest time in their relationship.

How much time does it take to develop a strong spousal relationship?  Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute teaches that couples can improve their relationship by taking a few moments each week. He suggests couples begin each morning by asking about each other’s plans for the day and end the day by engaging in stress-reducing conversations. Couples who find ways to communicate appreciation, offer affection, and hold weekly date nights tend to experience higher rates of marital satisfaction. When couples take time for their relationship, they develop a closeness which helps them be more unified. Daily rituals of connection and date nights provide an opportunity to focus on individual needs as well as shared visions for the family. Regular date nights have also been found to guard against divorce.

Prioritizing Relationships with Children

On average, it takes a stepfamily 5-7 years to fully integrate. Some family members may want close relationships with their new stepfamily, and there are likely to be some moments of success on this journey.  However, patience and understanding will lessen the pressure to form these relationships and give them a better chance to grow naturally with time. Simply put, children need time to adjust to the changes that are happening in their lives.

Biological parents should introduce and validate the authority of the stepparent to the children. Statements such as “When I am not at home, Gary is in charge,” demonstrate value for the partner’s role. Children are also more likely to accept a stepparent who is upholding their parent’s rules, than a stepparent who jumps in and tries to demand respect and adherence to their own rules.

Biological parents can also help their spouse to develop connections through planning family activities, holding family councils, and celebrating children’s accomplishments together. These are wonderful times for creating or adopting family rituals which will help stepfamilies to establish their new identity.

Honor Histories and Relationships

Stepfamilies often need help learning to respect one another’s histories while transitioning into a family where children and adults have traditions honored and needs met. Especially while creating a stepfamily, patience and respect are needed in copious amounts. One of the greatest ways a stepparent can ease this transition is through honoring and encouraging the relationship that already exists between the biological parent and their children.

Therapist Ron Deal, author of the Smart Stepfamily book series, reminds us that while marriage is a gain for the couple it is often felt as a loss for the children involved. Children who have lost their family relationship are those who need understanding the most. They often see their parent’s remarriage as another loss, brought on by the amount of time their biological parent is now spending with the new spouse.

Finding a marriage partner whom we love and feel we can share our lives with is what most individuals hope for. For those who make this choice, once the wedding is over the work of marriage begins. For the average stepfamily, marriage and family life begin simultaneously. This requires a bit more planning and a great deal of more patience. Couples can bless their relationships by prioritizing their time together, allowing time for adjustment and honoring the relationships that parents have with their biological children.

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Marriage within the Blended Family: Handling Conflict

Recently, I asked 26 people to finish the sentence “Conflict is like________.” 73 percent of the answers portrayed conflict as a negative interaction. Answers included “Conflict is like a war in your heart,” “Conflict is a needle in the knee,” or “Conflict is a sign of emotional immaturity.” Those who described conflict positively used phrases such as “Conflict is an opportunity,” “Conflict is like moments of self-awareness.”  One respondent was firmly in both camps:  “Conflict is like a fire. If used for a purpose it can bring warmth and light, but if left unchecked it can destroy everything around it.”

According to the book “Interpersonal Conflict” by Joyce Hocker and William Wilmot, conflict within stepfamilies is destructive 95% of the time. Statistics such as this give people the idea that conflict means something is wrong. While this may often be the case, couples in healthy marriages understand that conflict handled constructively can be a useful tool within marriage.

Conflict is part of our everyday lives. Scientists have developed a Lens Model of Conflict which shows how perception affects the constructiveness of a disagreement.  The model progresses through three steps:  (1) communicative acts or behaviors, (2) the meaning we attribute to those behaviors, and (3) the meaning we and our partner attribute to the relationship. As an example, (1) our partner could say “I wish you would come to bed with me.”  (2) We might think “My staying up does not affect your going to bed.” (3) We might then move on to think “You are trying to control me or dominate me, just like my ex-spouse” or “If I give you power over me now I may be in a weaker position in the future.”

It is important to remember that all conflict is filtered through our own perceptions, and that our perceptions do not always reflect our spouse’s intent. It is also important to remember that our intentions do not always equate to the meaning our words and actions can have on our partner. How then can we engage in conflict with our spouses in a constructive way?

  1. Recognize and Avoid Avoidance

Avoidance can feel like a natural reaction to conflict, especially when we feel criticized or have experienced unpleasant results in the past. Avoidance takes many shapes. Most of us think of avoidance as simply not speaking, but it can also mean choosing not to have an opinion, joking, asking the other person a question, or changing the subject. All of these reactions limit the learning and connecting opportunities available when conflict arises.

  1. Manage Conflict, Don’t Suppress

When couples use relationship tools to help them communicate and manage conflict, it creates a greater sense of intimacy between them. Knowing how to begin a discussion or bring up topics of concern is an important step in learning how to manage conflict. One formula for clarifying a concern is the X-Y-Z formula. When a concern arises it can be broken down into an expression:  when you do X (be specific about the action), I feel Y, and what I would like for you to do instead is Z. For example:

X – When you are critical of my children…

Y – I feel like a failure as a parent and a bit defensive of my children.

Z – What I would like instead is for you to talk to me gently and in private about your concerns, so we can work on solutions together.

  1. Counsel Together

The idea of having a partner, someone to help in the daily tasks of raising a family, is one of the most attractive reasons why stepcouples decide to remarry. Sadly, finding unity after marriage can be more difficult than expected. One way to limit spontaneous contention is to set a weekly time to counsel together. During these meetings, parents should take the time to come up with a plan of action. This can be accomplished through brainstorming ideas, agreeing on one solution to try, and deciding what role each family member will play in order to make the plan work. Take time at subsequent meetings to review your progress.

  1. Focus on What Is In Your Control

Today’s families, just as those from generations past, have an image of what the family is and how relationships within family boundaries should interact. Yet, today’s stepfamilies are faced with new issues and a greater number of relationships that require their attention. This “New Normal” means their expectations also need to adjust. There will always be individuals and issues that are beyond their control, but when stepcouples choose to focus on what they can control, they tend to experience a higher level of satisfaction in their marriage.

Stepcouples are faced everyday with unique people and issues that first-marriages usually aren’t troubled with.  It is important that stepcouples focus their effort and response on what is in their control. An ex-spouse may be unwilling to discuss summer plans.  Before approaching them, stepcouples can help the process by having several options available which they are comfortable with and then letting their ex-spouse choose. This year’s schedule may call for the children to spend Christmas with the other parent; stepcouples can focus on making Thanksgiving a special family event and making special Christmas plans with each other.  Couples who are flexible adapt easier and will teach their families creative problem solving skills.

Conflict is a natural part of any meaningful relationship. When two people choose to become close with each other, there will be times when they have a difference of opinion. These are times for learning, working, counseling, and focusing on what they can control. When conflict is seen as a problem to be solved, a greater unity and love between partners is a natural result.

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Marriage within Blended Family: Setting Healthy Expectations

Jan met Steve at a restaurant when a mutual friend invited him to join them. They felt an immediate connection. Talking was easy. Like Jan, Steve was divorced and seemed to understand her in ways only someone who had experienced similar trials could. By the end of the night they had exchanged information.  Within one year they were making vows to honor and love each other. They were both filled with hope for their future together. Jan was especially excited for the opportunity to have a partner who would complete her family. It had been just her and her three year old daughter, Jessica, for two years and it was hard playing the role of single parent. Steve was excited to have a partner who would understand him and help balance things when his two boys, 11 year old Alex and 5 year old Gavin came to visit. Both Jan and Steve used to feel like they were just surviving their family lives; now their partner has helped them find renewed hope.

Twentieth-century poet Javan said, “The need that offers the greatest potential for joy is also the need that offers the greatest potential for pain, the need to share our life with someone.” Marriage can be a source of joy, support, and love, but it can also be filled with frustration. When we bring to our marriage our histories of failed relationships and/or children, the opportunities for frustration and unhealthy conflicts increase.

Most remarried couples are aware there will be difficulties when combining families. In fact, 88 percent of couples admit they expect issues when combining their families, but there is a difference between expecting a challenge and facing the reality of stepfamily living. In a study conducted by Ron L. Deal and David H. Olson, only 35 percent of couples who identified themselves as “unhappy” felt like they were adequately prepared for the realities of having a stepfamily. Many of these couples admitted they failed to discuss and agree about the responsibilities of raising children and stepchildren prior to remarrying.

When “stepcouples” transition from the bliss of dating into stepfamily life, they often bring ideal expectations of how “things will be better this time.”  They are setting themselves up for disappointment when normal challenges arise within the family. Here are four common unrealistic expectations that people bring into marriage, along with how to help overcome them.

  1. Creating a Stepfamily Might be Stressful, But We’re Prepared

Like Jan and Steve, a successful dating life may make couples think they know what to expect from their new partner and family after the honeymoon is over.  However, dating is not a good indicator of what a stepfamily life will be like. Dating is often a time for best behavior and when elations of love often overpower people’s perceptions. Couples are rarely faced with mundane daily matters, or handling the needs of children, schedules and sometimes ex-spouses. During courtship, future stepparents are less likely to assert authority over stepchildren, but after marriage they may expect to be treated like a “real parent.”  To help embrace and prepare for the challenge of creating a stepfamily, household rules must be clarified and agreed to.  When couples have a mutual understanding of the issues that await them and a desire to work through problems with patience and understanding, they are more likely to face problems as a team and find solutions more swiftly.  

  1. If We Love Each Other, the Kids Will Learn to Love Our Spouse

A healthy couple relationship is important to the overall success of the family. Couples who take time to nurture their relationship are more likely to listen and have understanding for each other. This may show the children a good example of loving and respecting each other, but kids have minds and feelings of their own that must be recognized. Loving our spouse is not a guarantee that our children will easily connect to and feel  for them. Kids have the right to process changes in their lives in their own timetable. Parents can help this process through helping children to feel comfortable and safe, as well as honoring relationships between children and their biological parent.

  1. If Our Love is Enough We Cannot Be Divided

There are forces outside of marriage that will affect the family and the marriage relationship. Ex-spouses, extended family and even children all have an impact on the stepcouple’s relationship. All of these associations affect schedules, need attention and require patience and understanding. The key to successfully managing these relationships is flexibility. While ideally families can share every holiday or special occasion together, when we are flexible we create a peaceful home life for all family members.

  1. What happened in the Past Will Not Affect Our Future

Past fears, hurt and pain can resurrect themselves even after we believe they are dead and buried.  Our past relationships and histories often shape the way we see our current relationships. When faced with triggers from past trauma, we can counter them by communicating our fears with our partner and recognizing the differences between our past and current relationships. Accepting our spouse’s past relationships and learning how these relationships have affected our spouse is a healthy way of reassuring and loving our partners when their triggers have been set off.  Listening to your partner allows for connection and feelings of security to form.

The dream of a stepcouple forming a successful, loving relationship is achievable, but it is a mistake to assume stepcouples can rely on research conducted for first-time marriages. Entering marriage with healthy expectations, offering children time to adjust, and making room for each other’s families and histories eases what is often a stressful transition. Love is a blessing and having the tools to support those we love is essential to nurturing precious relationships.

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