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Coach Kim: How to have a successful stepfamily

POSTED January 23, 2018 7:39 a.m.
In this edition of LIFEadvice, coaches Kim Giles and Nicole Cunningham share their tips to make second marriages and blended families work.

Question:

I am about to get married for the second time and my fiancé and I both have children from our first marriages. I heard the odds of these second marriages are dismal and I’m wondering what advice you have for us, that might make it more likely to work out.

Answer:

You are right, the odds are against you. The divorce rate for remarriage is 40 percent.

We believe in first marriages children are a more stabilizing factor, which can actually bind the couple together, where in second or third marriages, they can destabilize the relationship and in some cases purposefully undermine it. If the family has no education about the challenges of blending and enters these marriages unprepared for the difficulties, it is even more likely that children can disrupt the couple’s relationship.

Most people think they will automatically be more successful the second time around, because of what they learned from the failure of their previous marriages. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be true. Most people make the same mistakes again and again, especially if they don’t get some coaching, training, education, skills or tools that they didn’t have before to help them do their new relationships differently.

Diane Sollee, a family therapist and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education says, "It seems that people would be older and wiser, or learn from the mistakes of a failed first marriage. … But that's like saying if you lose a football game, you'll win the next one. You might, but only if you learn some new plays before you go back on the field."

Experts agree the one way to beat the odds is to get educated about step-parenting and blending families. Studies have shown that premarital education of some kind can substantially reduce divorce rates. Couples who seek out professional help and education about creating healthy relationships are more satisfied with their relationships and stay together longer.

Unfortunately, most couples don't seek help. So, we are glad you are seeking out information — that is increasing your odds of success already.

Here are our top tips for making blended families work:

1. Set realistic expectations.

A second or third marriage is much more complicated than a first, especially when children are involved. Everyone is coming into this new family with war wounds, baggage and issues from what went wrong the first time, so you are going to have to be even more patient, understanding and prepared for bumps and difficulties.

You must be realistic about the time it takes for children to bond with step-parents and step-siblings. Don’t expect them to feel like family right away. It takes a long time, and each person will get there at their own time. The older the child, the longer this takes, so don’t be surprised if older children take years or even a decade to get used to this new family arrangement.

2. Learn what the most common challenges are ahead of time, and make a plan to deal with them.

Here are some of the most common difficulties:

  • Differences in values: One family might be used to a really clean organized home, while the other was more laid back. You need to talk about all the things that are important to each of you and that bother each of you ahead of time, and work out some compromises. Both families will need to be willing to bend and be flexible on some level if you want this to work.
  • Differences in parenting styles: Family or house rules need to be determined and set together as a couple, or even with the children’s input, (they are more likely to respect the rules if they have some say in them). Make sure the expectations, rules and consequences are all decided on ahead of time and agreed on. You might consider having the natural parent of each child do the disciplining.
  • Unfairness issues: You will need to make sure that children as much as possible are treated the same. It is very common for step-siblings to feel jealous, and this triggers fear of loss that leads to angry or passive aggressive behavior.
  • Misunderstandings: We highly recommend that you gain some new communication skills, and make sure you both know the right, mutually validating way to approach family members to talk things through. This is gold, and will assure you can work through any issues that arise.
  • Stepkids not liking you: It is normal for children to go through at least a phase of rejecting a new stepparent in their life. Even if you had a good relationship with a child during the dating process, some form of rejection may still show up. If you see this coming, you will be better prepared to ride your way through it.
3. Honor the role of the natural parent.

As a stepparent, you will never be the same as a natural parent. You must respect the natural parent’s role and adjust to a new kind of role yourself. Your stepparent role is more like that of a caring uncle or aunt who can be there to provide support, encouragement and even guidance, but always honor the natural parent's right to be the decision maker and the one to discipline their children.

4. Don’t expect or demand anyone to bond, but expect and demand everyone be respected.

It is not realistic to expect everyone in a blended family to like each other, but you should expect mutual respect. If your stepfamily is going to work, children and parents must respect everyone else in the home. This means listening to their thoughts and feelings and respecting their right to feel the way they do. Respect must happen in every interaction.

5. Understand blending takes time.

It will take longer than you think, probably years longer, and this blending process cannot be rushed. Everyone involved needs time to process their pain, guilt and confusion around this divorce and remarriage. Couples will often pressure children to love their new stepparent right away. This kind of pressure will hinder the process. Give each child the time and space to accept their new stepparent and adjust to the new arrangement on their own time. If you let them set the pace, they will have a more positive experience.

6. Work on yourself.

Don’t focus on finding a better spouse the second time; focus on being a better spouse this time, and things will go better. Work on being less selfish and more giving than you used to be. Get some personal coaching or counseling and work to repair self-esteem issues, trust issues or emotional issues you are still carrying from your first relationship. Because conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship, better communication skills are critical. Learn how to set your opinions aside up front and ask about how the other person feels first. Listen and validate his or her feelings by honoring their right to think and feel the way they do, even when you don’t agree. Then ask if they would be open to hearing your thoughts, and speak your truth with love while looking for ways to create win-wins.

7. Face all problems as a team.

Try to step back from every conflict and look at it from a united perspective as a couple against a problem or challenge, not against each other. Even if a conflict is about one partner’s behavior, still work it through together as a team trying to make your marriage better. If you commit now to not let any challenge come between you, and communicate with love, you can work through anything.

8. Give your spouse room to learn and grow.

Your spouse has never been a stepparent before, or at least not with your kids. You both need some time to figure the whole thing out. Love is about letting someone be imperfect and in process. It’s about being patient and not expecting them to do everything right and right away.

You can expect children to try to sabotage the relationship, ex-spouses to be difficult and stepsiblings to not get along. These are all par for course, but committed couples can make it work. Just seek out professional help before and throughout the relationship to increase your odds of success.

You can do this.

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