The Blended Family
Tips for Creating a Successful Stepfamily
by Ronica O’Hara
The Brady Bunch aside, blended families seldom look like TV sitcoms. They often come with a cast of characters—freshly remarried parents, a number of kids and step-kids, up to four sets of relatives and exes in the wings—all with their own needs, hopes and issues. One in six children today lives in a blended family, so the stakes are high for their well-being, and yet, understandably, two out of three blended marriages fail.
They don’t have to, says Kimberly King, a children’s book author in Fairfield, Connecticut, who was raised in blended families and as a parent, now has her own blended batch of kids. “Blended families work when parents plan for challenges, have space for disagreements and have an incredible amount of patience and love. But they are not for the faint of heart!” she says.
Therapists and blended-family veterans offer advice for those on this important journey:
Go slow and steady. It can take two to four years for a blended family to adjust to living together, counsels the American Psychological Association. The process can be particularly hard for youngsters from 10 to 14. “Don’t pressure the children. If they don’t want to call you Mom or Dad, don’t take it personally. They have their own biological parent whom they love, and they didn’t ask for their parents to get divorced. Stay positive and realize that time itself is an important factor,” counsels Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a licensed clinical professional counselor, in Baltimore, and founder, with his wife, Rivka, of TheMarriageRestorationProject.com.
Determine discipline roles. “My husband and I thought we were total failures because we couldn’t agree on how to parent his son. To save our marriage, we agreed that I would ‘resign’ as the boy’s mother and allow my husband free rein to parent as he saw fit,” recalls Nancy Landrum, a relationship coach in Murrieta, California, and author of Stepping TwoGether: Building a Strong Stepfamily. Studies show that blended families work best when each parent disciplines his or her own child, while the stepparent works to develop affectionate bonds with their stepchild and serves as the child’s sounding board, particularly in the beginning. “One of the worst things you can do as a stepparent is talk negatively about your stepchild to the bio-parent. Nothing will strain a relationship more quickly,” says King.
Keep an eye out for turning points. In a classic 1999 study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, University of Iowa researchers reported on factors they called “turning points” that can knit a blended family together. These include celebrating holidays and special events together, perhaps by creating new rituals; spending quality time together, even doing such ordinary things as shopping or watching a football game, either as a family or as a parent-stepchild activity; and pulling together over a family crisis. On the other hand, unresolved conflict among parents and children drives families apart.
“The best thing my dad did to blend our post-divorce, new family was take us on a four-day hike to Mount Washington,” recalls King. “We hiked, talked, helped each other, suffered, whined, got wet, struggled, laughed, slipped, learned campfire songs, slept in bunks and found a new respect for teamwork, nature, overcoming adversity, and our stepmother!”
Give talking a chance. Over shared meals, board games, nature hikes and everyday activities, stepfamilies can build bonds with each other. Having regular meetings to hash out problems also strengthens a new family unit. King’s family uses the summer camp strategy of the talking stick. “When you have the talking stick, it is your turn to talk and everyone else has to pay attention and listen. No interruptions,” she says. They also keep a family journal in which kids can write out their problems, enabling parents to respond in writing or conversation.
Don’t give up. “For me, the time I knew it was going to work forever was actually directly after one of our lowest points,” says Brooke Carlock Lobaugh, of Lititz, Pennsylvania, a teacher and creator of TheBlendedMess.com, an online resource for stepfamilies. “We had separated, and we just both really missed each other and missed the family, and we realized that the kids would eventually get older and our problems would lessen, and that we needed to choose each other, over and over again. I realized that if our separation led to another divorce, I would either be alone or find someone new with a new set of problems, and I wanted to fix the problems with the person I loved. We haven’t looked back since.”
Health and wellness writer Ronica O’Hara can be contacted at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.
Deep Talking Deepening the Dialogue
When the going gets tough in a blended family, an Oprah Winfrey-endorsed dialogue technique known as Imago Therapy can help transform animosity into harmony. As laid out by relationship therapist Harville Hendrix in his New York Times bestseller Getting the Love You Want, it involves specific conversational steps that ensure each side is heard and responded to with empathy.
“Imago is effective for parents of blended families because it teaches them to listen and validate the feelings of the children, as well as to better communicate with each other about the challenges,” says Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, of Baltimore, whose own marriage was saved by the process and who, with his wife Rivka, teaches it to couples. “If your children are not adjusting well, it is important to be able to give them a voice. The Imago dialogue process does just that, without judgment.”
The three basic steps include:
Mirroring. Person number one describes the problem in a few sentences, using “I” and feeling words. For example, “I feel shut out when you pick up your phone when I’m talking.”
Person number two repeats it back as closely as possible. “You feel shut out when I pick up my phone when you’re talking.” It may take a few attempts to get it right. Person number two then asks if there’s more to that feeling, and again repeats the phrases back.
Validating. Person number two responds showing respect for the problem, with words like, “I can see why …”
Showing Empathy. Person number two searches for the place inside himself or herself that connects with person number one’s concerns. “I get upset, too, when it feels like someone cuts off a conversation.”
Then, they reverse positions and go through it again. Demonstrations can be found on YouTube and worksheets can be viewed at PositivePsychology.com/imago-therapy.