How to Achieve Harmony While Embracing Differences
When two families are brought together, there are lots of new variables in each family that will cause imbalance in the other family’s system.— Nathan Gehlert, Ph.D., Washington, D.C., psychotherapist
When Cherie and Steve Miller married 10 years ago, they knew it would be a challenge merging their existing families. Cherie had three sons, ages 12, 18 and 20, and Steve had four — 6-year old twins, a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old. The idea of managing a nine-person household seemed a little daunting. The Atlanta-based family had to set up a plan and work through the day-to-day challenges unique to blended families. How would they handle the emotional adjustment, living arrangements, discipline and even laundry with seven boys? “While there’s always plenty going wrong, we choose to focus on the things going right and compliment one another for what each of us do right,” Steve Miller said. “That way, when we need to talk about things that are going wrong, they don’t overwhelm us.” Finding a healthy balance while adjusting to a new way of life is something all blended families face while embarking on this new journey. While this change to the family structure requires some adjustment, it is possible to work out the growing pains by laying the foundation with a family plan and building bonds as you go along.
Laying the Foundation
To preserve the stepfamily unit, first and foremost, couples must plan, said a stepparent and family therapist Christina Roach, who is also president of Success for Steps, a go-to stepfamily resource.
“From informing one’s own children of his or her intention to remarry to aspects of daily living in the new family unit, tensions between stepfamily members can be eased by a well-thought-out plan as it provides much needed structure,” Roach said.
The Millers’ first priority was to find a place for seven sons to sleep. This entailed building walls to make more rooms so that each child had privacy, Steve Miller said.
Household chores also were a factor in the Miller household. Each child was responsible for washing his own clothes and keeping rooms clean. Steve Miller and his wife quickly learnt that they needed to lower their standards.
“If we tried to do everything right, the way we all think every family should, we’d have had nervous breakdowns,” he said. “We couldn’t make a living, keep the house perfectly clean, and keep all the wrinkles out of their clothes. So, we chose our battles.”
If one son wanted to wear clothes with wrinkles, it was his choice. If the carpet had a stain that wouldn’t come out, the Millers put a throw rug over it. “We didn’t go crazy and strain relationships trying to keep the house in perfect order,” Miller said.
Like the Millers, many blended families find that they have to let go of time-consuming household tasks to work on the emotional issues that arise.
“It is important to remember that for most children, the forming of a stepfamily indicates the death of the first family,” Roach said. “The remarrying of a parent to another adult also dashes children’s hopes that their biological parents will get back together, leaving children with a sense of loss. Therefore, many are confused about their new role in the blended family.”
Couples can ease the transition by establishing and discussing the three R's –rules, roles and responsibilities – with the entire family.
“Roles and responsibilities in stepfamilies do not evolve along the natural trajectory as they do in the biological family,” Roach said. “Given this, it is important for each stepfamily member’s role and associated responsibilities to be understood.”
Cherie and Steve Miller decided early on that they would each discipline only their own children. “Since my sons were already adults, it would have been very uncomfortable to have him step into their lives as a disciplinarian,” Cherie Miller said. “This has worked well for our family.”
Honouring familiar traditions and creating new ones may also help a child adjust to his role in a stepfamily. The Millers established new traditions as a blended family, including an annual family vacation week in Panama City Beach, Florida.
“We spent the week enjoying different activities depending on what each boy wanted to do,” Cherie Miller said. “This helped to give each of our boys a place and a space to get to know each other.”
As soon as a couple says "I do," the misconception is that the blended family has an "instant" bond. In reality, these relationships need time to develop.
“Stepfamilies are often experienced as an ‘instant family’ rather than a biological or first family, which goes through the traditional motions to assemble and build the family unit,” Roach said. “Given this, attention needs to be placed on developing these relationships and then maintaining them.”
Nathan Gehlert, a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., recommends families have multiple conversations about concerns before the change actually happens.
“Often unknowingly, families strive for a sense of balance in the family system,” Gehlert said. “When two families are brought together, there are lots of new variables in each family that will cause imbalance in the other family’s system.”
The imbalance may stem from a child’s need to hang onto a certain mealtime or holiday tradition. It’s important for parents to notice differences as they arise and discuss them openly with the entire family, Gehlert said.
“Parenting styles are one area where the parents need to try their best to be on the same page and present a united stance to their children,” Gehlert said. “Then, listen to the children’s reactions, express empathy for their feelings, and try to validate their perspective. While they may not agree or like the change, they will at least appreciate the compassion.”
Relationships in a blended family take time, especially when there is resistance to the new family situation.
“Conflict and disagreement can be expected when two households come together: Each one comes with its own unique history,” Roach said. “Although this has the potential to cause unexpected hurt feelings, it also provides a great opportunity for a new history to be established.”
Roach suggests establishing one-on-one activities between stepfamily members to lessen the overwhelming nature of “all-together” activities.
“A mentality of ‘less is more’ will help ease the transition into stepfamily life,” Roach said. “Gradually, over time ‘all together’ activities will come more naturally and can be extended with greater acceptance from the stepchildren.”
Achieving acceptance for one another depends on the stepfamily’s willingness to compromise and honour other points of view. Roach recommends that each family member prioritise what is most important and least important and discuss compromises based on the list. The list is designed to open communication and encourage teamwork when making decisions that affect the entire family, such as vacation destinations, curfew times, use of siblings’ personal belongings and needs for privacy.
“It allows for each family member to have influence on the new family dynamic,” Roach said. “This communicates the message that everyone in the stepfamily is important.”
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