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According to US Census data, the divorce rate is higher for second marriages than for first marriages.
That’s partly because of the familial burden each partner inherits, says Lisa Marie Bobby, psychologist and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching in Denver.
“The reason second marriages often fail when children are involved is because of the blended family dynamic,” she says. “They can be extremely difficult and surprise people.”
Bringing a family together is undoubtedly a challenge, but with humility and patience, it can be done, says Bobby.
Here are her four tips for starting a successful blended family.
A common “source of conflict,” Bobby says, is when a parent enters into the family marriage believing they can change or improve the way the child is raised.
Therefore, it is important to have explicit conversations without the children about each person’s role in relation to the child.
“What’s your mental map of how you think things should be?” says Bobby. “That has to be discussed and often postponed in order to have a positive experience.”
What is your mental map of how you think things should be?
Discuss how your roles will develop over time as the children grow older. If each of you has children, how should the children treat each other?
Clear communication about how you want your family to develop can help keep you both on the same page.
“Be very, very clear about the boundaries of your role in the family,” Bobby says.
Your partner may not want you to discuss topics with their child or activities they shouldn’t do with them.
Learn what that is as early as possible to minimize friction later.
A stepparent should be a “kind adult” to their stepchildren, not an additional parent, says Bobby.
“These stepchildren’s relationship with their parents will be stronger and more enduring and must take precedence over your desire for unity,” she says.
Part of recognizing your place is knowing that you have no say in the lives of these children.
“Don’t expect to have parental authority,” she says.
It takes a certain humility to accept this, but it often eases tension.
“I think with time you can be a warm, pleasant, kind adult who doesn’t have a big opinion of how things are going,” she says. “You didn’t marry her, you married her parents.”
Regardless of how you behave, your stepchildren may not warm to you quickly or at all.
“Don’t expect these kids to like you, let alone be happy to have you around,” she says.
You might say or do hurtful things. “It’s okay and normal,” says Bobby.
“When kids are in pain, that’s always reflected in behavior, so change your expectations about behavior and assume that kids are going to be in pain, that they’re going to be scared, and that they really need a lot of compassion and understanding from them become parents,” she says.
Don’t expect these kids to like you, let alone be happy to have you around.
Over time you might find a groove and find a role for yourself.
“The fantasy is that it will be a family of its own,” says Bobby. “After a decade, maybe something beautiful can come of this if everyone does a good job, but I think people overdo it when they’re trying to make that happen.”
Be present but not intrusive.
“Treat [your step kids] “Like a cat,” says Bobby. “Be kind and available and let her come to you.”
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