Blended families are an ever-evolving dynamic which, when nurtured, can be immensely functional and inclusive. But, creating that blended family is nothing short of a skillful work of emotional art. Brick by brick, building a patchwork family out of the shards of what was once a nuclear family is fraught with difficulty. There are conflicting loyalties and allies, enemies imagined and real, and children are often caught in the middle of a power struggle.
Having created a blended family myself, I wear the struggles and joy of the experience proudly. Gleaned from personal and professional experience, here is what I offer to you:
1. Build a foundation. Children need to get permission from both their parents that it is okay to love another adult other than their mom or dad. But take caution! “Not too soon, and not too fast” is the mantra you must abide by in this situation.
2. There has to be a leader! In most situations the spouse who has taken on the responsibility of a new relationship sets the stage for inclusion of a new significant other. He or she must reiterate that this new person is not a replacement, but that adults need companionship and friendship as children do. This leader must be attuned to the children’s developmental levels, as well as their needs, to determine how frequently this new partner should be present. You as an adult will be much more comfortable, more rapidly, than your children who will be more resistant to the blending process.
3. Make your new relationship work first. This is a non-negotiable: Do not to introduce your children to a new partner until the relationship is very solid and strongly established. This is for your benefit as much as your children’s. The new significant other is likely to be viewed as a scapegoat, the one who interrupts the new relationship between parent and child. The new partner can be the repository for testing loyalties, limits, and boundaries, so having a firm foundation for a relationship that can stand the brunt of the backlash is crucial.
4. Create a culture of respect. Your children are only as healthy as the ex-spouses’ relationship with each other and with their significant others. If you establish a relationship structure that is based on respect by refraining from gossiping or complaining about your ex, his/her new partner, or your new partner, your children will mirror that. Be firm about the fact that it is not okay to denigrate others and lead by example. Talk about the choices of everyone involved with respect and love.
5. Don’t expect your children to automatically fall into step with you. As sincere and genuine as your efforts to create a culture of respect are, understand that your children may never come around. If they do it may take them a lot longer than it does you to love this new person. The new partner will have to earn that love. He or she must not be too effusive in his or her desire to quickly be loved. This is a mistake that I can admit I made myself in creating my own successful, blended family. It is natural to want to try too hard, but remember that oftentimes the only outcome of this effort is your own sense of frustration at continually trying and failing.
6. Create new rituals. A divorce ruptures family rituals. What was easy and fun is now structured, calculated and limited. This includes everything from routine day-to-day tasks to what may now be considered “vacation time” with the other parent. Suddenly, there are parameters around everything. When introducing a new partner try to offset this by creating new rituals that are interesting and different from what you had done before. Don’t try to mimic the old rituals, which will surely feel forced and unnatural to your children. Be supportive of the conflict children may feel, regardless of their age or rituals. And, no matter how natural it may feel, never usurp the biological parents’ roles.
7. Keep things light at first. Remember that timing may be different for everyone, and that it’s best to go gradually as this makes everyone feel comfortable; especially if you are in it for the long haul, which presumably is your goal. Don’t rush it. Develop a dialogue with your partner, which includes transparency and the setting of boundaries and limits. Restrain yourself from interfering with your partner’s parenting unless asked. It is a process! Keep your efforts slow and steady and minimize expectations regarding receptivity.
8. My favorite tip? Create good times. The key to survival and success in a blended family lies in laughter and specialness. Have fun and enjoy getting to know one another. It’s never easy, but it’s all worth the effort!