You are all in this together!
Blending families after divorce requires patience. No truer words have ever been spoken. Our families are all built differently, with varied personalities and needs, along with the passing of time, creating an infinite number of combinations and complications in the way we relate to one another. Add divorce and remarriage to the mix—and, well, things can get a little sticky.
How grief affects us
It would be hard to start a conversation about blending families without discussing grief. When we think of grief, we think of death. And it’s hard sometimes for people to understand how divorce is like death, but it really is. Divorce is the end of a life imagined. When children are involved, it is a complicated process of cohabitation and coparenting. And all those involved, whether they wanted the divorce or not, are going to grieve in some way. The stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, ultimately, acceptance. Everyone goes through the stages of grief at his or her own pace. It is a journey. For some people, “moving on” seems easy; for others, divorce derails them for years.
And then, remarriage. Telling your kids you’re remarrying is its own anxiety-inducing task. The work of blending families is a long-term and arduous project, one that involves consideration of each person’s journey through grief. I’ve been remarried for almost a year now, and my son tells me from time to time, “It just doesn’t seem right.”
So, the first rule of blending families: everyone gets to have his or her own feelings, and everyone else has to respect them. It doesn’t mean we have to agree, and it doesn’t mean that voicing those feelings doesn’t hurt or frighten us. But without the freedom to feel and to express those feelings, blending families becomes an even bigger struggle.
The role of cooperation in blending families
How cooperative we are with our ex plays a big role in the blending process. Some people may have an amicable relationship with their ex and their new families, and things just seem to work. But for most of us, it takes patience and practice.
Let’s take a quick look at cooperation. What is cooperation? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, cooperation is “the act or process of working together to get something done” toward a joint end goal. Oh, boy. What happens when you can’t agree on what that end goal should be? In blended families, defining goals and learning to work together takes place on a lot of different planes. We have to work with our exes, but sometimes working with our new partners and all the children involved can be even more exasperating.
Second rule of blending families: if we must all agree on what we’re trying to accomplish, we must all have a voice and a role in the process. Successful blending of families doesn’t happen in a communication-free zone. And believe me, I know how hard it can be to keep the lines of communication open, especially with our exes. But if the “end” is a happy, healthy family, it’s definitely worth doing.
Defining roles as a means of success
When we’re married, we often operate on a set of assumptions. You will do your thing, I will do mine. Those are your responsibilities, these are mine. When the relationship breaks down, we often find out that our assumptions were wrong. Divorce and remarriage require a much more clearly defined set of rules. So, the third rule of blending of families: everyone has a part to play and that part must be well defined.
There are a lot of moving parts, and when we leave it up to chance, to assumptions, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.
Here are a few things to think about:
Parenting plans exist for a reason. Sure, there are some instances in which you and your ex have the whole thing worked out, and you can fudge those parenting plans to fit the needs of your changing families. But parenting plans are great tools for laying out visitation and vacation time, and defining the boundaries for coparenting. Rather than seeing the parenting plan as a limiting document, use it as a tool to prevent confusion and conflict.
New partners become step-parents. And the role of step-parent can be daunting. My new husband has never had children before, and slipping into the role of stepfather has been a challenge. Part of the problem lies with me. I’m the mama, so I know what’s best, right? Blending families is also about communicating with our new partner to make it all work. Again, we can’t assume our new partner knows what he or she is doing and we can’t assume that he or she doesn’t.
Our ex is not the enemy. This is a hard one for many people to grasp. After all, our relationship with this person failed, so something probably wasn’t working, but divorce doesn’t make that conflict magically go away. What it does do is free us up to deal with our ex and his or her new family on a level playing field. If we don’t see our ex as the enemy, he or she won’t be.
Last but not least, you cannot shelter your kids from the blending process. They are in it neck-deep, and they need to be part of your efforts. We need to give our kids a platform so they can express their feelings, and we need to try hard not to tell them to feel something else or tell them that what they are feeling is wrong. Kids also need to be respectful, even when they seem to hate their new stepfamilies. On the same note, we adults need to get a thick skin and really listen to our kids, even if what our kids are saying is something we don’t want to hear.
When it comes to blending families, we’re all in this together. Literally. The decision to coparent with our exes and add new partners and their families is very real and can be complicated. Be patient, and talk openly. As with any relationship, blended families take time to get right. Celebrate progress, and put setbacks in perspective.
Amy Rivers is a writer and mother of two. She has a master’s degree with concentrations in psychology and political science, and enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction pieces about women and women’s issues. Her debut novel, Wallflower Blooming, was released in August 2016. You can follow her on Twitter at @WritingRivers and learn more about her work at her website, www.amyrivers.com.
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