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3 Ways to Totally Mess Up Your Blended Family
The Sinkholes of Blended Family Situations
There are so many ways you can fail at your second marriage. The very fact that it is a second marriage indicates a loss, either through divorce or death, and that means there will be extra baggage that first marriages just don’t have to deal with. Marriage is hard anytime, but second marriages are extra hard. Any time you have two people sharing space there will be occasional conflict. Second marriages usually include children, which adds to the conflict possibilities by a huge factor.
When we married, my husband had two children from a previous marriage and I had two children from a previous marriage. That’s conflict by a factor of 4, and believe me, we felt it nearly every day. However we also had the joy of watching all them grow and become a loving family together. We had good times and bad. All the laughing and all crying happened there.
Because my husband and I fell into the sinkholes along the way, we know where some of them are located and have dedicated our lives to helping other blended families avoid as many as possible. Here are a few of the common sinkholes you may want to avoid.
1. Fighting and quarreling with your new spouse in front of the children.
As a teen in the 70’s, I embraced the whole, “honesty is the best policy” philosophy with my children. What a huge mistake! You see, children are just that: children. There are some things they cannot understand and should not know about. Conflict in marriage is one of those things.
For one thing conflict, fighting and quarreling is probably what ended the last marriage (or at the very least, what the children heard at the end of the last marriage) and it is highly possible the children still remember that time with a mixture of dread and guilt. Children often think that the first divorce was their fault somehow. You can’t really dissuade them from thinking that even by telling them it wasn’t their fault. Quarrels often happen in and around parenting issues and styles and when the kids hear their names mentioned in a loud exchange, they couldn’t help but think they caused it. This is only one of the many reasons that you should keep conflict concerning the parenting issues to a minimum if at all possible. At least you should keep it out of the children’s earshot.
Also, voices raise and sound carries much better than you would think, so having an exchange, heated or not, should happen as far from the children as you can make humanly possible. My husband and I would often take walks to discuss an issue like how to deal with one or more of the children’s behavior problems, whenever the weather permitted. But more often than not, we would have an exchange right there in front of the kids without knowing it was going to blow up into a full-fledged argument. We failed so often I don’t want to think about it. What it did to the kids was to put them on edge. They were confused and angry. They would usually take sides and have fights with the stepsiblings, and it became and “your dad, my mom” kind of thing.
One way my husband addressed these issues was to have a weekly family forum. We got together in the living room and everyone was allowed to air problems and conflicts, questions and curiosities without any repercussions. This was the time we got a lot of misconceptions answered and out in the open. As the kids got older (teenagers) they didn’t want the weekly forums anymore. I guess they were too cool to talk about their feelings but we still had the family forums at least once a month just in case there was something we could address as a family.
Fathers, do not exasperate your children. But bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.— Ephesians 6: 4
2. Allowing in-laws or extended family to criticize you to the children.
This one was one of the hardest issues to address. You see you want the children to visit with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., and you usually cannot control what those people feel or say about you and your new marriage. So how can you possibly not allow the in-laws or extended family to criticize and berate you or your decisions to your children? Easy. You let them know that these children are yours and that you are doing your best to raise them the way you deem appropriate. Then you let them know that they are a vital part of the family and that you want your children to continue to see them but if they feel that you are all wrong or that they just feel it is impossible not to tell your children how badly you have messed up their lives…. Then you will have to keep the children from any further visitations with them.
Tough Love Solution
In my case it was my own mother and sister who felt I had messed up my children’s lives by remarrying and they didn’t mind telling my children so. It was infuriating and for a while I was suffering from enough guilt from the initial divorce to let them get away with it. But my children’s attitude toward me began to get worse and worse until I had to make a decision that my mother was not happy with. I wouldn’t let them go over there anymore. What this did was force a confrontation with me and my mother backed down. We agreed to disagree but she swore she would keep her feelings to herself for the kid’s sake.
This was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I hate conflict and would rather eat dirt than confront anyone, let alone my own mother. In the end, I felt like I demanded respect and for once, I received it.
“Having children is like living in a frat house – nobody sleeps, everything’s broken, and there’s a lot of throwing up.”— Ray Romano
Have you ever criticized your ex to your children?
The Reverse is True too.
The same goes for the reverse. Don’t criticize your ex in-laws to your children. They can’t help but feel loyalty to their parent’s parents even if you don’t.
One time soon after the divorce, my ex took my girls and his mother to the lake. It seemed an unusual place for him to take them seeing that neither he nor his mother could swim and my girls were 2 and 3 years old at the time. What is more, they didn’t feel it was enough to walk along the water’s edge; they went out on the semi-circular pier. It was there in the deepest point, of course, that the 2 year old walked to the edge and fell off the boardwalk. If it had not been for a stranger who happened to see my ex and his mother waving their arms about in a panicked way, she would have drown. The stranger dove into the February cold water to save her. I had the worst time keeping my opinion of my ex and my ex mother-in-law to myself on that occasion. Neither of them used their heads about childcare that day. Still, my children loved their grandmother and I couldn’t really express how stupid I thought she had been without making them feel bad.
I guess the rule of thumb is not to think about how you feel or think about a situation, but how will the children feel about it.
"Spend time with your kids and have your own ideas about what they need. It won’t take away your manhood; it will give it to you. I did that. I spent more time with my kids. And I found out that I’m a pretty bad father. I make a lot of mistakes and I don’t know what I’m doing. But my kids love me. Go figure.”— Louis C.K.
3. Assuming that your child is okay with the relationship, even when they are not openly emotional or verbal about it.
This one is one of the many landmines I have seen in our blended family groups that is so surprising. It didn’t happen with my own children. They were openly accepting or openly hostile when things weren’t going their way. But one family we knew and mentored had a son who was seemingly fine with his mother’s new fiancé and it wasn’t until after the marriage that he became withdrawn and depressed. He hadn’t expressed any problems with the new father figure before and had even told his mom that he was okay with her remarrying.
Later in therapy, he told the counselor that the marriage made him realize that his mom was never getting back with his dad. He hadn’t really thought about consciously before that moment and so he couldn’t put it into words before. After the marriage he knew he would never have his dad in his home again and it made him very sad and his grades began to suffer. It took a lot of work to help him pull his life back together. In the meantime the marriage suffered because the new husband felt this was entirely his fault and the new wife spent every waking moment worrying about her unresponsive son. It wasn’t long before the marriage failed and there was a separation.
My husband and I felt this could have been avoided in the dating period by seeing a therapist up front with the children. They need to have it spelled out that the mom and dad will not be getting back together. It is the old Parent Trap syndrome. Do you remember Parent Trap with Haley Mills? The twin girls work together to get the mother and dad back together again and it ends happily ever after. It’s unfortunate that that rarely happens but the kids will still secretly hope for it. Again, they are children. They really can’t be expected to understand that the divorce of their mom and dad is probably the end of that marriage. Sometimes, they don’t even really understand that is what they are thinking subconsciously. In these cases you have to have therapy that gently brings it all to the surface so the children can see it and accept it.
“My father was often angry when I was most like him.”— Lillian Hellman
Sweet but deadly to your marriage.
The Angry Child Sabotage
In the meantime, I have seen an angry child do things that will wreck a second marriage. They can make up stories about the new stepparent and set up situations that sabotage the whole relationship if you aren’t aware of what’s happening. And the children aren’t evil or really overly mean. They just haven’t subconsciously accepted this new relationship and don’t want to see that it can be for the best.
Often I remember my oldest daughter would have a really great day with us all at some outing (herself, her sister, me and my new husband, and two step siblings) and the next day she was an absolute terror. Moody, bitter, vindictive, spouting hateful words to everyone. Later we realized that she had had such a wonderful time that she forgot her biological father wasn’t even there, and later that night punished herself for having a good time without him. The next day she punished us as well. This is more typical than I care to say.
If you see some blended family today, say a prayer for them. They are going through things you can only imagine. Every blended family is different with different dynamics and ex’s and in-laws, siblings and stepsiblings to deal with. Each one has its own set of happy times and terror times. Yet each one is just trying to make the best life possible for the children and the new marriage. Good luck with yours.
A happy marriage is a long conversation which always seems too short.— Andre Maurois