The typical family unit today is not always comprised of the parents and biological children but often represents a mix of divorced parents with their own children, living some time in each home with their birth parents. One of the toughest challenges these families face is blending the family unit successfully.
Typically, a couple meet, fall in love and expect that their children will move into that relationship with good feelings and adapt to the new family unit quite quickly. What is often forgotten, is that while the adults have strong feelings for each other, to the children, this can not only be tough but also mean the end of their secret hopes that their parents may get back together.
I work with many couples who are trying to fix problems in their relationship that have come about because of the problems they have faced trying to integrate this new family unit. It can place enormous pressure on the romantic relationship and in some cases can lead to differences that are insurmountable.
Guidelines for Help Blending a Family Successfully
There are some guidelines for helping blend a family successfully and if these are followed from the start, the couple have a much greater chance of holding onto their own healthy relationship as well as creating a safe, accepting place for their children.
1. Don’t introduce your new partner to your children until you are fairly certain it is has the potential to be a long relationship. This saves your children from starting to bond with one person, only to have them removed from their lives and another introduced.
This is disruptive to children and also places a burden on your relationship with your new partner as you are trying to create a healthy relationship between the two of you. They may also start to compare your new partners and you probably don’t want dating advice from your kids!!
2. When you first introduce your new partner to your children, allow them to meet as friends rather than as your new romantic partner. You don’t need to lie if the children ask, but keep it low level at first. Avoid romantically touching your partner in front of them at the start and keep a good focus on interacting with your children.
This is important as it allows your partner and your children to start to develop a friendship without the pressure of worrying about competing with the new partner for their parent’s attention. It can be very confronting for children to see their parent holding hands or kissing someone who is not their other parent and is essentially a stranger to them.
3. As much as you may want to start dating immediately after a divorce or separation, it is not a good time for you to introduce a new partner into your children’s lives. They need some time to settle into the idea that their parents are not together anymore and accept the situation before it gets even more complicated for them.
Often children will still hold onto a dream that their parents may get back together or they may still be angry about the separation. Allow them to deal with these feelings first before you attempt to bring another person into their lives.
4. Once you have introduced your new partner and your children, be clear that they do not have to love this new person too. They may be wonderful and you can see the potential but allow the relationship to develop slowly and at the children’s pace.
Plan some fun activities that you can all be involved in and also have ‘normal’ time together so they can adjust. Remember, you are the one in love, not them, so give them opportunities to be around each other but don’t force too much interaction at the start.
5. Make sure you spend time with your own children alone. This is particularly important if there are children involved from both partners. You want a happy family unit with all children interacting well with each other, and this stands more of a chance if you make sure your own kids feels secure in their love with you.
They may not like the other children at first and this will be made worse if they feel that they are competing for your attention with them. There is often a tendency to try and favour your partner’s children to get them to like you, but this will backfire and cause problems with your own kids.
Again, be aware of how your children are feeling and work at their pace. If you previously did activities alone with them, then keep some of these initially as your alone time. Don’t plan family holidays together with the new family unit until everyone seems comfortable with it. The more secure your kids feel with you, the more accepting they will be of other people entering their lives.
6. Try and keep some family traditions from both sides. The more ‘normal’ it is for your kids, the more comfortable they will be. Also be respectful of each families beliefs and talk about them with your children alone if they are different. Let them know that it is ok if they have different beliefs and that they are safe to hold onto theirs.
7. Talk to your new partner about the roles you will each take in your children’s lives. At the start, it is best to leave the discipline of the children to the biological parent. Let the children know the ‘house rules’ but each of you enforce it with your own children. If discipline is required, it is best to do it without the other children looking on as they can feel embarrassed and it can cause problems.
Also try and keep the discipline the same as it was previously in your original household so they don’t feel they are being punished for being in a new place or feel that they can get away with anything either. Again, the more normal it is for them, the easier it will be to adjust.
It is also important to speak to your partner about how you will divide your time and who has what responsibility. Allow each parent to determine what is best for their children and try to come to agreement as much as possible without the children around.
8. Don’t expect your new partner to love your children as you do. Try to aim for a friendship at first and encourage things that will help with that. They may come to love your kids but as long as they can get along and everyone is respectful and comfortable with each other, the new family unit can work well.
9. If possible, try and keep the other parent aware of your new relationship. If they are on board with the family dynamic you are creating, then they can support it from their end too. Your ex and new partner don’t need to be best friends, but taking the time to try and introduce them so that they can have a good working relationship will help the kids adjust more quickly and ultimately benefit you.
Of course this is not always possible and if you can’t have that kind of relationship then at least be very aware of never saying anything negative about your ex to your children or to your new partner when they are around. It is important that your new partner not talk about their other parent in a bad way also. If your children want to talk about their other parent to your new partner, allow it, but don’t offer opinions as they may be held against you.
10. If the children are only staying with you part of the time, make sure they have their own space that they can go to in order to have down time. They need to have a sense of belonging and ownership. This is particularly important if there are other children that live there full time.
11. If you both have kids then don’t try and force them to be friends or continually throw them together. Allow this to occur naturally over time and make sure your kids feel safe and comfortable. It is also important that they feel comfortable talking to you about the other children, and even your new partner, if they have concerns.
If they do talk to you about problems, listen to them and take them seriously. You may not have to act on anything, but they need to know they are safe to voice concerns and that you will protect them. Even if their concerns seem silly or minor, listen to them and acknowledge that it is important to them. If need be, try and find a solution together.
12. As the non-biological parent, be very aware of allowing the children to set the pace with you. They may in fact dislike you at the start simply because you are there. Don’t take offense to this and try and just be an adult friend at the start. Allow them to come to you and don’t try and force affection on them or tell them you love them initially.
Respect that they may be clingy to their parent at the start and they may be competing for the attention. Usually this resolves itself as they get comfortable and don’t view you as a threat. Promote them having time alone together with their parent.
Blending a family successfully is hard work and presents many different challenges to both partners and the children involved. Taking the time to do it slowly, allowing the children to set the pace as much as possible and being respectful of everyone’s feelings at the start, will pay off in the future. It is hard to take things slowly when you are in love and just want the new family unit to work well. Remember though that if you rush it then you may cause more problems for yourself in the longer term. Patience is really important through this process.
Remember it is important to keep some focus on your new relationship too so that it remains healthy. Talk to each other about the problems presented and work as a team to come up with solutions. The more you work together, the healthier your relationship will remain into the future.