Modern families are often blended, with children from parents’ former relationships becoming part of new step-families.
But such family blending is rarely easy, and parents need to think carefully about how they deal with their new situation to keep everyone happy.
Psychotherapist Karen Woodall is lead therapist at the Family Separation Clinic (familyseparationclinic.com) and specialises in working with high-conflict divorce and separation and its impact on children.
She says: “Blending a family isn’t as easy as moving in together on the wings of love and and hope – the psychological tasks of bringing together two different family systems are many and complex. With awareness and a realistic attitude, however, it can be achieved for the benefit of all.”
And Bec Jones, a divorce coach at the online divorce service amicable (amicable.io), adds: “Minimising the impact on children is often the number one source of angst for parents when they separate. Divorce changes a family’s dynamics forever.
“But it’s important to reframe the narrative away from negativity and away from blended families being ‘broken’, towards the concept of an extended and boosted family.”
Here, the two experts outline the best ways to blend families…
1. Put your feelings aside for the sake of the kids
No matter how old your children are, ensure they feel they never have to take sides or act as a messenger, says Jones.
“They’re as much a product of you as they are of your ex, and they love you both. Being put in the middle will likely be very uncomfortable for your child.”
2. Try to see things through your children’s eyes
Jones says stepping into your children’s shoes can be helpful when you’re trying to manage feelings of anger or jealousy, for example when your children are spending time with your ex and their new partner.
“When you aim to create a stable blended family, it’s primarily for the sake of your children,” she points out. “This set-up allows the children to have a relationship with both parents, while forming new bonds with extended and new family members, without having to navigate feelings of animosity which aren’t their own.”
3. Think about how you can combine family systems
Woodall says in the initial stages after parents get new partners it’s important to address the workings of the family system – the combined history, values, rituals, attitudes and behaviours of family members.
“Beginning with awareness of how family systems work and making the hidden pitfalls visible, families can move from two separate systems to a new, integrated working system which respects the histories of each and incorporates the best of both,” she says.
“When families separate they often fail to recognise there’s a need to pay attention to established rituals and ways of being, when moving into a new way of living is on the horizon.”
4. Help everyone understand how things will change
“Many new blended families set off with high hopes, only to crash on the rocks of resistance to change,” warns Woodall. “Individuals want things to be how they were, children don’t understand what the rules are now and adults become exhausted from the struggle to keep everyone happy.”
To avoid this, she says, parents need to make unconscious family systems conscious, through family meetings, group charts of family values, consulting children about the important things in their lives, and making sure everyone feels heard and can contribute to a new way of living.
5. Have a positive mindset
“Reframing your attitude towards the new family set-up is really important,” says Jones.
“It’s likely you’ll experience or witness strong feelings such as animosity, jealousy and protectiveness in the early stages of a blended family. Just try to remember that a child is very unlikely to replace their mum or dad with a step-parent.”
6. Encourage your children to develop a warm relationship with your ex’s new family
It will probably be hard, but try to make sure your kids have a good relationship with their new family. Although it might feel satisfying for you if they say they hate your ex’s new partner and children, that attitude won’t help them to be happy.
Jones says: “The goal should be to allow the child to develop a rich, loving and meaningful relationship with the new partner that sits comfortably alongside the biological parent.
“Realising your child will benefit from additional adult figures will help shift your mindset to become more accepting, creating a more comfortable environment for your child.”
7. Be fair & considerate with all the children
Jones advises separated parents not to force relationships between their kids and their new partner’s kids, and to remain consistent and fair with all the children in the new blended family.
8. Respect your new partner’s ex
Remember your new partner’s ex will understandably be worried about the time their children spend with you, and Jones stresses:
“You must be respectful of your new partner’s ex – they’re entitled to the final say on their children and are likely harbouring the same feelings of distrust and loneliness as you. Try to remain empathetic towards this new member of the family.”
9. Remember you must still have a relationship with your ex because of the children
Jones stresses that one of the most complex realisations when divorcing is that your relationship with your ex isn’t over, it’s just changed. “You may be feeling resentment and disappointment towards your ex, but being able to look past these emotions is important if you’re going to build a productive blended family arrangement,” she says.
10. Accept you can no longer control everything in your children’s lives
Jones says separated parents have to trust their ex won’t bring someone unsuitable into their children’s lives, and accept they can’t control what happens in that half of the family.
“Relinquishing control can be difficult, but it’s important to accept your personal choices are now separate,” she explains. “The sooner you realise you can only control what happens in your house, the better.”
11. Prioritise clear communication with your ex
Clear and concise communication with your ex is essential when agreeing boundaries and ground rules for your new blended family, stresses Jones. “Clear boundaries and setting out a plan before either of you introduce a new partner will ease the process of setting up your new family,” she says.
12. Introduce your ex to your new partner
If possible, introduce your new partner and ex to each other briefly, suggests Jones, explaining: “This is really helpful for the children to reduce the anxiety of any handovers, and normalise interactions between all members of the blended family.”