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Communication and Boundaries In A Blended Family

Updated on March 1, 2013
Sign from a Step-daughter
Sign from a Step-daughter | Source

Blended Families

Blending a family can either be a wonder and beneficial situation for everyone involved or, it can be a nightmare.

There are many hurdles to overcome when two families come together. Each person brings their own expectations and different views of the situation.

A step-parent is not the same as a biological parent.

Although it is tempting to pretend that a new spouse is the biological parent and everyone can just act as though no change was ever made. This is a recipe for disaster.

Communication

Communication is one of the most important elements in any relationship and family.

It might be even more important when a family is blended.

Each member of the family has a role to play and when there are additions or subtractions those roles need to be reexamined and understood.

Sign from a step-son
Sign from a step-son | Source

A Period of Adjustment

Each person who is involved in the new union has their own personal expectations and insecurities.

It is very important that these are communicated in detail with the other members. Everyone in the home has their own ways of doing things and thinking about things. When someone new is added to the household, there is a big adjustment period for all.

The biological parent and the step-parent need to be very sensitive and attentive to the adjustment process and its effect on the children.

The adults need to let the children know that they aren’t going to be replaced or dismissed. Instead, their family is growing so there will be more love and support for them.

Boundaries

Boundaries will be an ongoing topic of discussion but the basic rules should be covered in the beginning.

The adults will undoubtedly expect the kids to respect certain boundaries when it comes to their step-parent and the new relationship the parent has. These expectations should be communicated very clearly and calmly.

There are two types of boundaries that need to be addressed.

  • The boundaries associated with the living together and respecting each other’s space and property
  • The boundaries of behavior and respecting each person’s role in the blended family

Sharing Space

The children and their biological parent understand each other’s quirks and idiosyncrasies because they have always lived together.

When someone new moves into the house and joins the family dynamic, there is a large margin for misunderstandings and hurt feelings if the boundaries aren’t clearly established.

Sign from a teen step-daughter
Sign from a teen step-daughter | Source

Things To Discuss

All families are unique in their make-up and personalities. These are just a few generic, sample situations that may generate stress in the home if they aren’t discussed openly.

  • The kids are expected to knock before entering the bedroom or bathroom now
  • Step-daughters may borrow the step-moms jackets and shoes but aren’t allowed to touch her make up
  • The step-son may borrow the step-father’s video games but has to ask first
  • The step-parent will not go into the child’s room without asking
  • The Step-father will not negatively comment on the step-daughters appearance or style choice

Respect

A new spouse or partner for the biological parent doesn’t mean a new mom or dad for the children. It is important the kids know that the new step-parent isn’t trying to replace their parent.

The step-parent is an adult authority figure in the home however and there has to be certain boundaries for behavior and respect.

The biological parent needs to make it clear that the step-parent is an adult and a member of the family. They deserve to be treated with courtesy and respect.

If the child is having a problem with their step-parent, they can always openly communicate with their biological parent. It doesn’t mean the child will always get their way, it just means that they will always be heard and their feeling are valued.

Power Struggles

In some unfortunate situations there may be a power struggle between the step-parent and step-children. Sometimes these struggles are loud and obvious and sometimes they are quiet and destructive.

This is most common when one or all of the family members had preconceived expectations that were unrealistic.

Unrealistic Expectations by The Step-Parent

The step-parent may come in to the situation thinking that they can assume the father or mother role simply because they are married to the child’s biological parent.

They will most likely be shocked and hurt when the kids rebel against that. This could result in the step-parent being angry with the kids and creating tension in the home.

Unrealistic Expectations by The Biological Parent

The biological parent may assume that they can be relived of some of their parenting responsibilities now that there are two adults in the house.

They will also be hurt and disappointed when the kids rebel against this and the step-parent gets frustrated.

Unrealistic Expectations by The Child

The children may expect to be indulged quite a bit and have an unrealistic amount of power.

This happens occasionally because when their biological parent and step-parent were just dating they were trying extra hard for the child to like the new boyfriend or girlfriend. Frequently they are excited that this nice person who gives them lots of attention and gifts is moving in.

They understandably feel mislead when things settle down into normal life.

Setting Up For Success

This discontent can be reduced dramatically if the roles and boundaries are communicated and discussed openly and honestly. When everyone knows where they stand and what to expect, they feel more secure. The home can the peaceful sanctuary everyone needs.

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    • roxanne459 profile image
      Author

      Roxanne Lewis 5 years ago from Washington

      Gloria, thank you so much for your wonderful and insightful comment on this situation which so many deal with on a daily basis. You obviously have spent a lot of time and energy on this subject to become so educated and knowledgeable. I fully appreciate and respect everything you offered here and I thank you again for sharing it! :)

    • profile image

      Gloria 5 years ago

      As a step and biological Mom, and the author of a book on stepfamilies which included not only my own experience but research with stepfamily authorities and other stepfamilies, I am aware, all to often, of the high rate of divorce among these families.

      One reason is that there are no understood guidelines for these families. Society tends to apply the rules of first marriages, while ignoring the complexities of stepfamilies.

      A little clarification: In a stepfamily the child(ren) is of one co-parent; in a blended family, there are children from both co-parents; and, virtually all family members have recently experienced a primary relationship loss.

      The Landmines

      Three potential problem areas are: Financial burdens, Role ambiguity, and the Children’s Negative Feelings when they don’t want the new family to “work.”

      Husbands sometimes feel caught between the often impossible demands of their former family and their present one. Some second wives also feel resentful about the amount of income that goes to the husband’s first wife and family.

      Legally, the stepparent has no prescribed rights or duties, which may result in tension, compromise, and role ambiguity.

      Another complication of role ambiguity is that society seems to expect acquired parents and children to instantly love each other. In reality, this is often just not the case.

      The third reason for a difficult stepparent-child relationship might be that a child does not want this marriage to work, and so, acts out with hostility, since children commonly harbor fantasies that their biological parents will reunite. Stepchildren can prove hostile adversaries, and this is especially true for adolescents.

      Stepmother Anxiety

      Clinicians say that the role of stepmother is more difficult than that of stepfather, because stepmother families may more often be born of difficult custody battles and/or particularly troubled family relations. Society is also contradictory in expecting loving relationships between stepmothers and children while, at the same time, portraying stepmothers as cruel and even abusive (Snow White, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel are just a few bedtimestories we are all familiar with).

      Stepfather Anxiety

      Men who marry women with children come to their new responsibilities with a mixed bag of emotions, far different from those that make a man assume responsibility for his biological children. A new husband might react to an “instant” family with feelings which range from admiration to fright to contempt.

      The hidden agenda is one of the first difficulties a stepfather runs into: The mother or her children, or both, may have expectations about what he will do, but may not give him a clear picture of what those expectations are. The husband may also have a hidden agenda.

      A part of the stepchildren’s hidden agenda is the extent to which they will let the husband play father.

      The key is for everyone to work together.

      The husband, wife, their stepchildren, and their non-custodial biological parent can all negotiate new ways of doing things by taking to heart and incorporating the information you are about to learn—the most positive alternative for everyone.

      One Day at a Time

      Now you have a pretty good feel for what everyone is going through. How do you start to make it better -- a process that can take years? First you must be very clear about what you want and expect from this marriage and the individuals involved, including yourself. What are you willing to do? In a loving and positive way, now is the time to articulate, negotiate, and come to an agreement on your expectations and about how you and your partner will behave.

      The best marriages are flexible marriages, but how can you be flexible if you do not know what everyone needs right now. And, this may change over time, so there must be room for that to happen as well.

      In flexible marriages partners are freer to reveal the parts of their changing selves that no longer fit into their old established patterns. You couldn’t possibly have known at the beginning of your new family what you know now and will learn later.

      Spouses may feel the “conflict taboo” even more than in a first marriage. It is understandable that you want to make this marriage work. You might feel too “battle-scarred” to open “a can of worms.” And so, you gloss over differences that need airing and resolution—differences over which you may not have hesitated to wage war in your first marriage. Avoiding airing your differences is a serious mistake. It is important for you to understand your own and your partner’s needs because society hasn’t a clue how stepfamilies should work. Unless you talk about your expectations, they are likely to be unrealistic.

      Living Well

      Since roughly one third of stepfamilies do survive—even thrive—we know that stepfamilies can grow the safety, support, and comfort that only healthy families provide. Consider the following for living your step/blended family life well:

      You must assess, as a couple, how well you accept and resolve conflicts with each other and key others. Learn and steadily work to develop verbal skills: listen with empathy, effectively show your needs, and problem-solve together. The emotional highs of new love can disguise deep disagreement on parenting, money, family priorities, and home management, i.e., values that will surface after the wedding.

      Together, accept your prospective identity as a normal, unique, multi-home stepfamily. You need to admit and resolve strong disagreements, well enough for positive results.

      You must balance and co-manage all of these tasks well enough on a daily basis to: build a solid, high-priority marriage; enjoy your kids; and, to keep growing emotionally and spiritually as individual people.

      Know and take comfort in the fact that confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security—and often (not always) the love—that adults and kids long for.

      Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect.

    • roxanne459 profile image
      Author

      Roxanne Lewis 5 years ago from Washington

      Thank you Margie! :)

    • Mmargie1966 profile image

      Mmargie1966 5 years ago from Gainesville, GA

      Wow! This is such a great hub so I shared it! Every blended family needs to read this for assistance. Blended families can be extremely difficult, and this hub would help for sure!

      Great Job, Roxanne!!

    • roxanne459 profile image
      Author

      Roxanne Lewis 5 years ago from Washington

      Thank you teaches12345. As always your comments are deeply appreciated and respected! I am a step-mom now and I was a step-daughter years ago. I try to make myself remember how I felt and how I reacted when the shoe was on the other foot. It's really easy to just get caught up on the grown-up side of things and lose sight of how all of our decisions (good and bad) affect our innocent kids. It really can work beautifully if we want it to! :)

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Good advice and view of blended family relationships. I have seen the parents disagree over petty issues and cause more harm to the children than good. Hope this reaches the heart of those who need to learn this.

    • roxanne459 profile image
      Author

      Roxanne Lewis 5 years ago from Washington

      Thank you Heidi! The sadest part of the situation your husband's ex is creating is that the kids will see it and resent her for it. It's really not fair to them and ultimately she will pay the price.

    • heidimedina profile image

      Heidi Dawn Medina 5 years ago from Denver, CO

      Roxanne, you have some very good points in your article. Most of them applied to my relationship and marriage to my husband. While the children have handled the new relationship, it is his ex who continues even after four years to cause problems and stir up trouble. It is sad to see so much hate and insecurity in one person that she will do anything to keep things in an uproar.

    • roxanne459 profile image
      Author

      Roxanne Lewis 5 years ago from Washington

      Thank you so much Robie! :)

    • Robie Benve profile image

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      Roxanne, I love how you covered so many aspects of how challenging it can be to establish and carry on balanced relationships in blended families. A lot of your advice applies to biological families too, especially when it comes to teenagers. Voted up and useful. :)