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SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LifeAdvice, Coach Kim has some great advice for making a second marriage with children work, since she has a blended family herself.
I read your articles every week and I love the advice, but here goes my question? I've been with my husband for 10 years and we have one child together. I also have three from a previous marriage and he has four. My problem would be that all our fighting is about each other's kids. We don’t agree with the way the other one handles their children. He doesn’t discipline his well and I resent him for that. I’m practically raising our youngest alone, too, while he is overly focused on his daughter. We are always defending our kids and this is pulling us apart. If you could offer help on this, that would be great.
I would love to give some advice on blending families, especially because 46 percent of marriages today create a step-family and these second or third marriages are much more challenging than we think.
The divorce rate for second marriages, when both partners have children, is over 70 percent. These statistics are especially disturbing because most of these couples are unaware of the difficult challenge facing them when they wed. Studies have shown that 80 percent of couples entering a second marriage do nothing up front to prepare themselves for the complexities of the challenge. They think their love should be enough to get them through. But it isn’t.
You must get educated about step-families if you are going to make it. I highly recommend getting some books about step-families, attending seminars and classes, or getting some professional help from a coach or counsellor. Things go much smoother when you know what you are doing and have a plan to deal with the inevitable challenges. I also recommend getting professional help at the first sign of trouble, don’t wait until everyone is deeply hurt.
Here are some important realities regarding step-families and some tips for making yours work:
- Understand that a step-family is very different from a traditional family. The same rules just don’t apply. Jeannette Lofas, founder of The Stepfamily Foundation, says, “It’s like playing a game of chess with the rules of checkers! It just won’t work.” You are going to have to learn some new skills if you want this relationship to thrive.
- Understand that you are both still single parents at some level, because you are your children's only parent in that home. This means you both will be torn between loyalty to your children and loyalty to your spouse. Every choice you make will disappoint someone you love. Both partners must have compassion and understand when the other chooses their kids. It just has to be this way.
- Get used to the fact that things are not going to be fair much of the time. Don’t expect anything else. Disappointment and frustration are inevitable, but resentment is optional. You get to decide how much you are going to suffer and resent your spouse. Resentment is a choice not a feeling. There are other ways to look at any situation, which will make you feel better about it. You could choose to see each situation as today’s lesson (in the classroom of life) on choosing love and being patience. You will be much happier if you learn to see unfairness in this way. Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt that he wants to make everyone happy, but he’s battling a complicated situation. If you choose to resent him, you will be the one who destroys this marriage. If you choose understanding, compassion and love (even when disappointed), your spouse will adore you and your marriage will thrive.
- If you struggle with unfairness and often feel taken from or mistreated (and are prone to create drama and conflict at these times), you need to get some professional counseling to help you become more flexible. Some work on your self-esteem would make a big difference.
- You must respect the natural parent’s role. You must let the natural parent decide how to discipline their child and honor and respect their right to do it their way. You can ask permission to offer a suggestion (after you have asked questions and listened to your spouse’s feelings about an issue), but only if you can do so without judgement. This means never assuming you know better than they do. Do this because you want the same respect back.
- Improve your communication skills. This is the most important thing you must do. Learn how to have mutually validating conversations with your spouse and have them often. You can find a worksheet to assist you on my website. Couples who know how to communicate with respect and in a loving way, can solve almost any problem.
- As a couple, make house rules ahead of time. You must be a united front and decide on rules, consequences, job sharing, conflict resolution and responsibilities ahead of time. Successful step-parents are always united on decisions and discuss their disagreements in private.
- The natural parent should be the one to dish out the discipline to their child. If the natural parent isn’t present, the step-parent can remind the child of the house rules and the consequences in a very loving and calm manner. If you can't speak to your step-children with kindness and respect, you need to get some help to change this. Children deserve respect, understanding and kindness even when they mis-behave. If you treat children this way, they will respect you back. If you behave immaturely, lose control, yell and berate children, they will lose respect for you. If you have lost their respect or have created a space where they fear you - it is really hard to repair this.
- Give your spouse some slack as he learns how to handle this complex situation. Your spouse has never been a step-parent before and neither have you, so you both need some time to figure this out. You must be patient and not expect your spouse to do everything perfectly right away.
- Most problems and resentments in blended families happen because of fear of failure and fear of loss. This means someone feels insulted, cheated or short-changed. It sounds like you are having fear of loss issues and resent your spouse because he is treating his daughter better than you and yours. To fix this resentment, two things must happen. First, you must do some work on your fears and insecurities and let go of the score keeping. When you have a blended family things are often not fair. Get over it. Stop comparing, make the best of what you get, trust that your spouse loves you. Choose to be mature, easy-going and flexible. This behavior will be appreciated by your spouse and he will love you for it. Second, you both need to work on making everything as fair as possible. Be aware that your spouse and stepchildren have fear of loss issues and be as careful as you can not to trigger them.
- Insist on mutual respect for everyone. They don't have to like each other, but they do have to respect each other. If you are going to make your stepfamily work, children must respect the adults in the home, and the adults must respect the children. This means listening to their thoughts and feelings and respecting their right to feel the way they do. Respect must happen in every interaction. This will not be an easy road. It will test your love and patience on a daily basis, but you can do it, especially if you are both committed choosing love over resentment and fear, forgiving each other daily, and getting some professional help
You can do this.