"I had no idea that marriage in a blended family would be so different than my first marriage. It's just so much more complex. I wish someone would have told me this before we married." -- Janie, Mother of two; stepmother of three
"So many couples in blended families divorce. How can I make sure this marriage is my last?" -- Stepfamily seminar participant, Nebraska
Everyone wants "this marriage" to be their last. They want it to last and to be healthy and strong. But many couples in blended families (also called stepfamilies) know that the odds are against them – very much against them. While the U.S. divorce rate sits around 45 percent, the blended marriage divorce rate is approximately 67 percent (73 percent for third marriages.1
Apparently, "happily ever after" is a little more difficult to achieve in a blended family.
But the good news is that most remarried couples can beat the odds of divorce and build a successful blended family if they know how to overcome the unique barriers to marital intimacy in a blended family and if they understand stepfamily dynamics. In other words, they can beat the odds of divorce if they "get smart."
I'm convinced many blended marriages fall prey to divorce because they get blindsided by the pressures and unforeseen dynamics of stepfamily living. Dating couples, for example, naively assume that their first-marriage taught them everything they need to know to have a happy remarriage, and parents who raised their own children assume they know how to be a stepparent. Generally speaking, neither is the case.
Another common "blindside" occurs when blended marriage couples, who believe that stepfamilies are just like first-families, discover their stepfamily is very different from anything they've ever experienced and realize they don't have the tools to successfully manage their home. Smart blended family couples, however, don't get blindsided. They see it coming. They study the qualities of successful blended families, and they work at their marriage. They overcome well-intended but misguided assumptions with "street smarts," and they – and their children – do just fine.
Did you ever stop to realize that most of the families of the Old Testament were blended families – albeit blended families of a different color (i.e., they resulted from multiple marriages instead of death or divorce)? Blended families were very common in biblical times and are even more so now. Today in America, approximately 33 percent of all weddings form blended families. Blended families are very common, but being a smart blended family is not.
Take the time to invest in your marriage and family. It's our prayer that this series of articles will help you become a smart blended family so you, too, can beat the odds of divorce for His glory.
There is a honeymoon for blended family couples, it just comes at the end of the journey, not at the beginning.
Falling in love produces a hope for the future. Couples with children from previous relationships who fall in love and plan a wedding also hope for a blended family filled with love and honor. They wish for a honeymoon – and a "familymoon!" But if their hope is not realized in the manner desired, disillusionment sets in. And disillusionment without perspective can erode love.
Marriage and the stepfamily experience are complicated endeavors. It is vital that you understand something of the process of becoming a family so you don't assume terrible things when you experience discouragement or disillusionment. One stepmother said, "I didn't realize that a second marriage would cause me to give up the dream of a perfect or whole family. Everyone's illusions change after marriage, but it's particularly difficult when children and a former spouse are involved." Much of the discouragement people experience in stepfamilies is normal and simply part of learning to be family for one another. Sometimes, misguided expectations of the "perfect or whole family" set you up for even greater disillusionment. It's very important that your expectations are realistic. Adjusting them now can help you aim for the right target and encourage you to relax in your family and enjoy the journey.
Stew left in a crock-pot for only 30 minutes will not taste good. But the same ingredients allowed to cook for six hours – softening and sharing themselves at their own pace – produces a well-cooked meal. Stepfamilies take time to cook well. Patience and persistence are key culinary attitudes. So, too, is remembering that there is a honeymoon for blended family couples, it just comes at the end of the journey, not at the beginning.
A cat that sits on a hot stove won't ever sit on a hot stove again; neither will it sit on a cold stove. --Mark Twain
Gary once sat on a hot stove. His wife, Shirley, complained that he wouldn't let her take any parental initiative with his children. Upon reflection, Gary was aware that he struggled to release control of his kids, but he didn't know why. After exploring his relational history with a counselor, he realized that his first wife's abandonment left him afraid to "get back up on the stove."
Gary knew he had been holding on to his children to protect them from further pain, but he didn't realize he was also protecting himself. Holding on to them meant he didn't have to give as much of himself to Shirley. He feared making himself vulnerable to hurt and worried that she might not be fully committed to the marriage. He discovered that he had been intentionally making his wife jealous of his children so he could be assured of her desire for him. Ironically, this inadvertently built resentment in Shirley's heart toward both him and his children over time.
Confidence in marriage is important. It nurtures a positive attitude toward your spouse and a high motivation to find positive ways of relating. Fear and concern, however, erode how we receive our mate's words and actions. In my book The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family, I refer to these fears as the "ghosts of marriage past." These ghosts can lead you to live as if negative things are happening when they're not and to interpret benign behaviors, attitudes or words as if they are malignant. Couples who are intent on developing a long-lasting relationship must manage their inner concerns and fears. You must become a ghost buster!
Learning to manage your fears and how they affect you is an important task to protecting your marriage from erosion. Consider these ghost busting strategies:
Confronting your ghosts is never easy. Strive to love as Jesus would have you — without fear. Then, and only then, will your confidence and sense of security in this marriage grow. Remember, "perfect love casts out all fear" (1 John 4:18b, NIV).
Luisa's husband pursued her sexually with great passion during their first year of marriage, but that changed. Ramon began getting up at night and sleeping on the couch. He explained that his back was giving him problems and that sleeping on the couch was more comfortable. Luisa, however, feared that it meant his sexual interest in her was diminishing. "It's like he's leaving me on purpose," she shared. "He's been initiating sex less often, and I think it's because he is not happy with our sex life."
Luisa's first and second husband both left her for other women; her fear ghost believed Ramon would as well. Even though Ramon explained that his behavior was related to back pain, Luisa's fears caused her to judge his motives in a negative way; she believed that his sleeping on the couch was a sign that his desire for her was waning.
When asked about their partner's previous sexual relationships, 90 percent of healthy couples in a large national study of blended family couples agreed that there was nothing to be worried about. However, in 42 percent of less healthy couples, at least one partner showed concern about their partner's previous sexual experiences.1
In addition, unhappy couples were twice as likely as moderately satisfied couples, and four times as likely as strong couples, to report feeling concerned about the previous sexual experiences of their partner. Luisa's fears are one example of what seems to cause couples difficulty; how previous sexual experiences compare to the current sexual relationship is another.
It's very important you move beyond these concerns so they don't hide below the surface of your relationship. Discuss any concerns you might have with your mate; be careful not to compare the current sexual relationship with the past, but express your desire for how you would like to see your relationship improve.
With intentional effort, Luisa and Ramon were able to overcome their sexual frustrations. First, they worked together to create opportunities for lovemaking to occur. Given Ramon's back problems, the couple had to be more intentional and rely less on night-time spontaneity to present them with opportunities to engage in sex. They began periodically meeting at home for lunch while the kids were at school, and they planned other opportune times to connect sexually.
Second, Luisa began to work on how her fear ghost was influencing her to misjudge her husband's heart. She made a list of triggers (behaviors, words and feelings) that activated her fear and what actions she took when upset. She and Ramon then worked together over time to help her reduce the ghost's influence on their marriage. Eventually, her fears decreased significantly. As their relational and sexual communication increased over time, a strong sexual intimacy developed.
Before marriage, most couples spend regular time engaging in fun, entertaining activity together. In fact, that's one way they fall in love with each other. Blended family couples tend to date each other without the children and to engage in leisurely activities that facilitate emotional bonding. But, after the wedding, half of couples struggle to find enough leisure time together. They are missing the fun-factor.
Ty and Andrea met on the tennis court. Every Saturday for a couple months, they secretly watched each other practice and play in an intramural country club league. Finally, Ty asked Andrea to play a match, and the rest was history. Eventually, they discovered a shared passion sports, which became a central hub of their time together. Once they married, however, the struggle for Ty and Andrea – and lots of other couples – became maintaining their couple fun in the midst of their complex blended family.
Sometimes a spouse's ideas of the definition of a good time is a barrier to shared fun. Nearly 33 percent of couples just don't agree as to what is recreational.1
Another block to shared leisure time relates to personality differences of partners. Some people are more outgoing and seek social connections while their partner has less of a need for socializing.
One possible resolution for couples whose ideas of fun or personality preferences vary is to find the balance between allowing for individual recreation and making sacrifices which seek a common pleasure.
Ed and Virginia have very different interests. He enjoys golf and restoring his vintage sports car. Virginia, on the other hand, would prefer to window shop every chance she gets. For two years, the couple went their separate ways, but, eventually, they decided that if they were going to find time together sacrifices would have to be made. For example, last weekend when Virginia's kids were at their father's house, Ed decided to go shopping with Virginia – something that was much appreciated by his wife. Ed's willingness to occasionally join his wife while shopping results in a positive marital exchange. Ed doesn't shop because he enjoys it; he does it because it pleases his wife and strengthens their bond. His sacrificial heart brings about a shared smile.
Strong blended marriages have an active, shared leisure life. When definitions of fun differ, partners, like Ed, seek a balance between giving one another the freedom to pursue individual interests and making sacrifices so they can spend time together. Other couples just naturally share the same idea of what's fun, and they pursue it on a regular basis.
Todd and Jennifer have similar ideas of what is fun or relaxing. Because Todd and Jennifer enjoy gardening together, they talk about frequently and look forward to the next time they can get in the garden. Jennifer says getting in her garden with Todd is like taking a mini-vacation away from the stresses of daily living. And, the anticipation of spending a few hours together extends the shared positive feelings beyond actually being in the garden.
Another strength of healthy couples is not letting individual interests interfere with couples experiences. For a vast majority of strong couples, leisure time together takes precedence over individual interests. This is not to say that healthy couples don't ever have individual interests; 79 percent of them respect each other's unique interests and find a balance between leisure time spent separately and together.2
But, they work to ensure that individual time doesn't come at the expense of the marriage. However, 44 percent of unhealthy couples feel that one or both of the partners indulge themselves to the detriment of the relationship.
All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but that's only the beginning. It makes Jack and Jill's marriage pretty dull, too. Fun, friendship and romance is likely how your relationship got started. Be sure to intentionally keep it an active part of your relationship forever.
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Dear Dr. Bill: My ex-husband and I were divorced several years ago because he was not committed to spending time with our son. Also, he was not a Christian at the time. But since then, he found the Lord and has changed dramatically. As a result, we are thinking about getting remarried. We both feel like our past issues have been sorted out, but we're a little unsure of how long we should wait before making this new commitment. What do you suggest?
First of all, let me tell you how encouraged I was to read your e-mail. In a day when divorce is so rampant and reconciliation is so rare, it was truly a blessing to hear your story.
Regarding your question, it's hard to give you a specific timeline for remarriage. You say that your "past issues have been sorted out," but you don't mention what those issues were.
You also mention that your husband has dramatically changed since his conversion, but you're a bit unsure about remarriage. That leads mea to believe you may still have some lingering concerns.
Jesus tells us that a "good tree produces good fruit." Given your past concerns, you should make sure you've seen the "good fruit" of your husband's conversion manifested over time before you jump back into marriage. Your son has already been impacted by your divorce, and you certainly don't want to make matters worse by remarrying and then splitting up again if things don't work out.
My advice would be to meet with an experienced marriage counselor who can help you determine the best course of action. He or she can help you fully explore whether you are ready for remarriage. You might seek out a counselor who is familiar with a relationship assessment tool called "Prepare and Enrich." The test will help you and your husband to see what lingering issues you may need to address before moving ahead.
Ed. Note: Life Innovations and Focus on the Family have created a customized version of the Prepare and Enrich relationship assessment tool called the Couple Checkup.
Dear Dr. Bill: My husband and I got married this last November, but we dated for three and a half years prior to the wedding. We both had 3-year-olds who are now 6 and 7 years old. Recently, my step-daughter started calling me "Mom." She also wrote things in her diary about "mommy and daddy are making dinner, mommy is reading," and so on. We know about this because she showed the diary to my husband. A few days later, she took the diary to her mother's house and let her read it as well.
Well, that led to BIG problems! My husband's ex-wife called us, crying and mad because we hadn't told her anything about it. We explained we were as shocked as she was, especially since this little girl had struggled with the new family arrangements. My husband's ex wants her daughter to use my first name only, but I'd prefer she call me "step-mom" or by some other name. What complicates matters is that my son has started referring to my husband as "Dad" and now we're expecting a new baby ourselves! I guess we're all uncertain about what's best for the children. Do you have any advice?
Your e-mail demonstrates just how difficult and complicated stepfamily relationships can be. No matter how our culture tries to sugarcoat it, divorce and remarriage is very tough on kids.
I asked stepfamily expert Ron Deal about your situation. Ron believes that the labels children use often indicate the level of emotional attachment they feel with stepfamily members. A stepparent who started off being referred to as "Sara, my dad's wife" may become "mom" in a few years. Ron says that the labels children use aren't crucial to family success. What is important is that children are given the freedom to choose the labels with which they are most comfortable. In other words, don't force them to call a stepparent "mommy” but don't scold them for doing it either. A more affectionate label like "mommy" generally indicates that the child is growing more comfortable and trusting of the stepparent.
He goes on to explain that it's important to remember that labels can change with circumstances and as children grow. A child who just returned from a weekend visitation with dad may refrain from calling his stepfather "dad" for a few days because he is missing his biological father. Once the sadness wanes, the usual label typically returns. Another example is a child calling a stepparent "mom" unless their biological mom is physically in the room. A child may pull back in this situation and refer to the stepparent by their first name so they don't hurt the biological mom's feelings. Very young children often use loving terms like "daddy" and "mommy" very quickly, but may refrain that once they reach adolescence. The change in label demonstrates the challenge the child feels in deciding just how close to hold the stepparent and how to balance loyalties to biological parents.
Ron says that in an ideal situation, the children would be given permission to use whatever term they are comfortable with for their stepparent. Ultimately this permission must come from the biological parents. Since your step-daughter's biological mom fells threatened by her calling you "mommy," she needs to be reassured that she can never be replaced in her daughter's heart, no matter what label she uses. Biological parents have an incomparable God-given bond with their children that cannot be replaced.
If your step-daughter's biological mom is unable or unwilling to give her permission to call you "mommy," your husband needs to make sure that your daughter doesn't feel guilty about this. He should say something like, "Look, I know this puts you in a tight spot between your mom and your stepmother. Apparently your mom isn't comfortable with you calling Donna "mommy." I know this is tough for you. Whatever you want to do is okay with Donna and me. The most important thing is that we love you, not what you call us."
Dear Dr. Bill: I remarried about four years ago and at first, everything seemed to be going well in our new family. But recently, my 15-year-old son has not been getting along with his step-dad, and I feel caught in the middle. My husband and son used to get along, but once my son became interested in girls and other things they drifted apart. This has quickly turned into hostility and a few shouting matches back and forth. I don't know what to do at this point. How do I choose between these two men in my life? Please help.
What you're describing is fairly common in step-families. Conflict will often erupt between a child and a step-parent when the child enters adolescence. It's normal for kids to begin to assert more independence when they reach the teen years, and sometimes this will result in a period of rebellion. The process is much more complicated in step-families, due to divided loyalties and confused roles.
I asked my friend Ron Deal, founder of SmartStepfamilies.com, about your situation, and here's what he recommends. First, it's a mistake to think you need to "choose" between your husband and your son. Rather than framing this as an "either or" situation, you need to see this in terms of "both and." Instead of taking sides, try to rise above the conflict and help each of them to see the other's perspective.
In every stepfamily situation, Ron believes the husband and wife need to make their marriage a priority. Allowing parenting conflicts to tear your relationship apart is the worst thing you can do for your kids.
As parents, you need to act as a unified team — clarify your expectations for your son, discuss the rules he'll be expected to follow, and agree on the consequences if he breaks those rules. Also, as the biological parent, you should take the lead when it comes to discipline. If you're always taking the "good cop" role with your son, you force your husband to always play the "bad cop." That arrangement is sure to drive a permanent wedge between your son and your husband.
I'd highly recommend you pick up Ron' Deal's book, The Smart Stepfamily. You and your husband should make a commitment to read it together and then implement Ron's advice. It also might be wise to seek the help of a therapist who specializes in step-family relationships. Our Focus on the Family counseling department can provide you with a referral in your local area.