Ask Dr. V: Blending Families
Venus Nicolino, Ph.D. of clinical psychology, answers your questions in this section. This week: blending families
Dear Dr. V,
I have started dating someone I knew twenty years ago in high school. We were friendly but not the best of friends. He is more in love with me right now than I am with him. We share many of the same ideals and background. He has never married and has no children, while I am divorced with two. Is this possible that this relationship could work out?
Signed, Wondering About Love
I wonder if you being less in love with your partner has more to do with lack of knowledge about blended families than lack of love. Meaning perhaps, your hesitation regarding the situation is causing you to hold back? If this is the case, I’m hoping I can help by arming you with knowledge to help you disarm your heart: Blended families are very common.
For example, one of three Americans is now a stepparent, a stepchild, a stepsibling, or some other member of a stepfamily. To a child who does not belong to one, stepfamily may suggest Cinderella’s family or the Brady Bunch. Actually, neither situation tells the whole story. In a blended or stepfamily, one or both partners have been married before. Each has lost a spouse through divorce or death. One or both of them have children from their previous marriage. They have fallen in love and decided to remarry. They form a new stepfamily that includes children from one or both of their first households.
Today, at least one-third of all children in the U.S. are expected to live in a stepfamily before they reach age 18. The blended family is becoming more of a norm than an aberration. Born of conflict and loss, newfound commitment, and often heart-wrenching transition, stepfamilies face many lifestyle adjustments and changes. Fortunately, most of them are able to work out their problems and live together successfully. But it takes careful planning, open discussions of feelings, positive attitudes, mutual respect and patience.
What if it does work out? Here are a few suggestions: Once you have decided to remarry, you should agree on where you will live; his place or yours? Many couples find moving into a new home altogether rather than one of their prior residences is a good idea. It reinforces the idea of a new beginning for them, as well as the children.
You’ll also need to decide if you will share the finances or if each of you will keep the finances separate. Partners who have used the shared method generally report high family satisfaction, but this is up to the individuals involved.
It is a good idea for you and your partner to determine how you will handle medical care in case the other biological parent isn’t available to sign a release for one of your children. Stepparents do not have the legal authority to sign a release, unless permission is given to them (preferably in writing).
A second marriage may resurrect old, unresolved anger and hurts from the first one, both for adults and children. For example, a child can no longer hope for his biological parents to reconcile. Or an ex-wife may stir up trouble with her ex-husband when she hears he is about to remarry. The new couple must negotiate a final emotional divorce to clear the way for a fresh start.
Couples should discuss the role each stepparent will play in raising their respective children as well as changes in household rules that may be in order. Even if you live together before marriage, the children are likely to respond to the stepparent differently after remarriage because he now has assumed an official parental role.
The stepparent has the hardest role in a stepfamily. He may feel as though he is always walking on eggshells. Relationships between stepparents and stepchildren tend to involve more conflict than those of biological families. Although a new stepparent often wants to jump right in and establish a close bond with his stepchildren, he would do well to consider each child’s age, gender and emotional status at first.
Forming a stepfamily with young children seems to be easier than forming one with adolescents mostly because of children’s different developmental stages. Both biological and stepparents will find it helpful to read and understand basic child development so they don’t mistake developmentally normal behaviors as inappropriate, uncooperative or hostile towards them.
* Young children under the age of 10 may find the adjustment easier because they thrive on close, cohesive family relationships. The forces that draw a stepfamily together coincide with the need of young children for emotional involvement and structure. Youngsters are usually more accepting of a new adult in the family, especially when the adult is a positive influence. These children, however, are quick to feel a sense of abandonment or competition if they think their parent is devoting more time and energy to the new spouse than to them.
* Adolescents aged 10-14 may have the most difficult time adjusting to a stepfamily. They tend to be oppositional. Because of their sensitivity, stepparents need to be especially aware of having time to bond with them before stepping in as a disciplinarian or authority figure.
* Teens aged 15 or older need less parenting and may have less involvement in stepfamily life. Older adolescents prefer to separate from the family as they form their own identities. They are less interested in closeness and bonding. Furthermore, since they are more sensitive to expressions of affection and sexuality, they may be disturbed by an active romance in their family.
Both boys and girls in stepfamilies have reported they prefer verbal affection, such as praises or compliments, rather than physical closeness, like hugs and kisses. Girls are likely to say they are uncomfortable with physical shows of affection from their stepfather. In general, boys seem to accept a stepfather more quickly than girls. Verbal affection can be an important first stage of all stepparent relationships. Kindness and love communicated verbally will facilitate the bonding process and allow trust between stepparent and child to grow.
By devoting the necessary time to develop their own traditions and form caring relationships, stepfamilies can create emotionally rich and lasting bonds for each member. In the process, the children acquire the self-esteem and strength to enjoy the challenges that lie ahead. I wish you all the best and hope this was helpful to you.
Note: All information in the Ask Dr. V column is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnosis and treatment, please feel free to call or email Dr. V, or consult your doctor.
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