The Brady Bunch is television; unfortunately, real life doesn’t work like TV. Any parent who is about to remarry and has children should spend ample time preparing all involved for the challenges ahead. Approximately a third of all marriages in the United States form step families. Research shows that 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce, and most of these divorces happen in the first two years. One reason for the high failure rate is the difficulties that often arise when there are children from a previous marriage or relationship.
Patience now may pay dividends later
The preparation you’ll need leading up to a new marriage is not something you’ll accomplish in a day or a week. It is a gradual process requiring patience, and while you may be excited about your new love relationship, take a deep breath and think before you jump into a marriage or cohabiting arrangement. How much time has passed since your separation from your children’s other parent? Many family therapists believe that timing is a crucial factor in determining whether the new family will be able to make it. Ideally, the divorce or separation should be two years or more in the past, when emotions are no longer raw. That means children have had time to adjust to not living with the non-custodial parent, or to living alternately in two homes. By the two year mark, most kids will have given up the hope that their parents will someday be getting back together.
Get to know each other gradually
Learning to accept a new adult as a stand-in parent is not an overnight event for children. They are used to the way they’ve always done things and are probably going to be reluctant to change, at least all at once. Again, a little patience now will pay off later. Introduce your new partner and his or her children gradually.
Give everyone time to get to know each other in unpressured situations, such as outings that everyone can enjoy. But special events and outings are not the nitty-gritty of life, so also include a taste of home-based activities while the two families are getting acquainted. Let them get to know each other’s rules, tastes, expectations, likes, and dislikes gradually to avoid what might end up feeling like culture shock if you attempt sudden full emersion. This pre-blending period will be more effective if you allow it to take place over several months.
Present a united front
You and your new partner should establish some policies so when you do take the plunge you are prepared to present a united front. Experts are not entirely in agreement about how discipline should be handled. When the non-biological parent completely opts out and leaves the discipline entirely to the biological one, this can come across to children as a sign of non-involvement or a weak commitment to the new family, and is one reason cited for the high rate of failure of blended families. On the other hand, the stepparent who attempts to take over that function from the biological parent is likely to face serious resistance and a defiant “you’re not my parent” attitude, which can be even more destructive. When both partners establish rules and procedures together and function as a team, the children will learn that cooperation is the best policy for all concern and will have an easier time adjusting.
Make criticizing the other parent off-limits
You and your new partner should make it an absolute rock-solid rule that no one complains about the former spouse in the presence of the children. Kids still feel loyalty toward their other parent and will likely react strongly against any criticism, whether stated or implied. You may have to bite your tongue, but it will probably be less painful than the grief you’ll get if the children see you as the enemy of their other parent.
Focus on fairness
When you both have children from a previous relationship, avoid the common mistake of appearing to favor your stepchildren in order not to seem to be favoring your own. This can only cause conflict. You will not love your stepchildren as you do your own right away. Give it time, and aim for fairness and even-handedness.
Second marriages and blended families can and do work. When preparation, patience, reasonable expectations, and love all combine, family members—both children and adults—are able to adapt in time to a new living situation with new personalities and new rules.
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Tara Yelman is a San Diego divorce lawyer originally from New York. She graduated from California Western School of Law and has been practicing family law since 1995. Tara became a San Diego County family law settlement judge in 2005 and is currently the managing partner at Yelman & Associates.