By Dr. George Glass
We live in an era in which almost 50 percent of first marriages fail, and one half of all children do not grow up with both biological parents in the same household. The statistics for failure in second marriages are even higher, yet many of us continue to take the plunge again and again, often hoping that our children will be just as excited about the prospect of a new start as we are.
In reality, no matter what they tell you, they aren’t. It is a change, even for kids with an absent or abusive parent—and no one likes change.
Starting over is scary for everyone, no matter how wonderful your new spouse and stepchildren may be. Your children see it as the end of their special relationship with you, as you bring an outsider into the household. There’s a good chance they may also have little faith in your new relationship, having already seen their world fall apart by divorce once before. What assurance do they have that it will not happen again this time around?
I’ve witnessed this not only in my 40 years of practicing psychiatry, but also as a parent who’s been in a second marriage for three decades.
Together, my wife and I have come up with some guidelines that I hope will help couples going through this process. No matter what you do, problems will arise–and if you do not deal with them, the same ones will continue to come up, even 30 years later.
1. Listen to your children. Even if you don’t agree, or don’t want to hear what they say. It’s important for them to feel that they have not been lost in the shuffle.
2. The blending process should be measured in months and years, not days and weeks. Don’t expect that just because you are happy or want it to work, kids will always buy in when you want them to.
3. Look for little signs of change and improvement, not big leaps. Don’t expect that everyone will immediately fall into line, or call each other Dad, Mom, son, or daughter.
4. Be inclusive when at all possible. Just because you don’t like your ex or your ex in-laws doesn’t mean your kids don’t—or shouldn’t. Also, if a child doesn’t want to be involved—or is negative about your new situation— at least try to include them, even if they say they don’t want to be.
5. Let the biological parent discipline or say the critical things to their own children. If you don’t like something your new spouse’s child is doing, tell the spouse, and let your spouse tell the child. Otherwise, the child will give you the “You’re not my parent” routine, and your new spouse may end up having to take the child’s side.
6. Never forget that you are supposed to be the adult, even when kids try to pull you out of role. This means don’t say hurtful things that will be remembered long after you forgot them.
7. Try to learn from your mistakes and your overreactions to situations. If you don’t, the same situation will just keep coming up until you figure out how to manage things differently.
Blending a family is not an easy process, but when it works—and it takes a lot of work on everyone’s part—it can be well worth the effort.
Dr. George S. Glass is a psychiatrist with almost 30 years of experience helping families deal with the consequences of divorce. He is the co-author of Successfully Blending Families: Helping Parents and Kids Navigate the Challenges so Everyone Ends up Happy.