“My Blended Family Won’t Blend—Help!”: How You and Your Spouse Can Get on the Same Page

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“I don’t know what to do anymore,” said Jill, stepmother to two teen girls and mom to one biological son, aged 10. “My stepdaughters don’t respect me—I’m the ‘evil stepmother’ to them—and pretty much ignore whatever I say. And my son is constantly telling me that my husband isn’t fair, and that he treats him differently than he treats his two girls. Sometimes I get so exhausted by the whole thing I just want to get up and leave.”

The kids may never blend the way you want them to, or they may blend wonderfully. But know this: the people who really have to blend are the parents.

We often jokingly say, “You don’t get a manual on how to parent kids.” But each adult in a blended family brings a set of ideas about parenting with them, in addition to their own prior experiences. This often makes for a very complex situation, and it’s one of the reasons why parents in a blended family can get stuck in some disappointing and frustrating cycles of behavior. Look at it this way: there are so many different points of view and aspects to this relationship that it can naturally be very confusing for everyone. The children also have different experiences and perceptions of the parent-child relationship—and because of the very fact that they are children, they will not surrender those ideas easily. Remember, the secret to having a blended family is having blended adults. The kids just have a responsibility to live with each other respectfully and to respect the other parent.

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I think the first question that has to be asked is “What does ‘blended’ mean?” Does it mean everyone calls the woman “Mommy” and the man “Daddy?” Does blended mean each parent supports the other parent no matter what? Or does blended mean that a couple comes to a series of decisions together about their expectations and thoughts regarding the development of children—and then they operationalize those ideas in how they treat their kids and what they expect from them?

I believe that blending two families is the most perplexing and difficult job two adults can take on. There are no quick answers or easy solutions. But there are some guidelines and suggestions I can give you to help you think about the scope and nature of some of the common problems that surface within your family—and how to solve them.

How to Get on the Same Page with Your Spouse

Before You Get Married: Establish Roles and Resolve the Conflicts You Can Resolve

One type of conflict that occurs between parents in a blended family is having a difference of opinion about general parenting ideas.This might include when bedtime should be, how homework is done, and how much TV is allowed in the house. Many of these differences can be talked about and resolved before you get married.

If your spouse parents differently than you do, talk about that openly—hopefully before you get married. Often people fall in love and don’t face those kinds of issues. They think it will all work out on its own—but the truth is, things usually don’t work out unless the people working them out have the skills to make that happen. Even if you are already married, I suggest you sit down and start talking about the parenting issues that are important to you today.

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But don’t kid yourself, although you may agree to things and work them out ahead of time, as stressors and different situations happen, realize that it’s common for both you and your spouse to react in ways you didn’t anticipate. This is because family dynamics change, kids change, circumstances outside the family change. To put it plainly, it’s impossible to plan for everything.

The key is to be adult and understanding of each other. For example, it’s not uncommon for Democrats and Republicans to be happily married to one another. In the same way, if you’re in a blended family situation, you have to find a way to live with your partner by respecting the other person’s point of view when it comes to decisions about how to raise the kids in the family, too.

Recognize the Importance of the Birth Parent

It’s very important to establish the importance of the birth parent. This means that the birth parent is the primary parent. Think of it this way: marriages break up sometimes, but the birth parent-birth child relationship is never going to dissolve. Because of the birth parent-child connection, the birth parent should be the decision maker of last resort for their biological child, as long as the decision around that child protects the emotional and physical safety of everyone else in the family. What that means is that when we have conflicts, the birth parent will make the final decision, but that doesn’t mean the child should be abusive or hurtful.

That way when your stepchild is saying, “You’re not my father,” the answer is “You’re right, I’m not. But these are the expectations that your mother and I have, and if you don’t follow through you will be held accountable.” It allows you to avoid getting into those kinds of power struggles with your stepchild.

If your spouse isn’t parenting your child the way you think they should be, you need to be able to communicate with them about that and work things out. If there’s a disagreement, the birth parent’s decision takes primacy and the stepparent has to be mature enough and trusting enough in the relationship to go along with it, without a lot of pouting and self-pity.

Related content: Blended Family? The 5 Secrets of Effective Stepparenting

Communicate Constantly and Present a United Front

I can’t stress this enough: the foundation for blended families rests on the principles of communication and cooperation between both adults. Compromise is the name of the game. And adults have to communicate, communicate, communicate. In a blended family, there is an absolute necessity for both adults to be on the same page. These two adults, when they decide to get together and marry, have to make a decision that they’re going to communicate about things in private, away from the kids.

The rule has to be, “Whatever agreement we come up with, we have to present a united front on it. And if we disagree, the birth parent should have the right to say, "This is my choice, this is my decision.” And in fact, the common theme in the family should be that Mom and Dad talk things out, that they look into things and work things out together.

Don’t Throw Labels Around

Labels are one of the biggest roadblocks to communication, because once you start labeling somebody, communication is over—you’ve effectively cut it off. If one parent labels the other as being too soft, or too hardline, those labels interfere with solving the problem. And by the way, that’s why people do label. Genuine communication is very difficult emotionally, and if both people aren’t on the same page, they often avoid it. How do they avoid it? By arguing, fighting, blaming, and labeling.

Let’s say there’s a dispute over the amount of time the kids in the family are spending on video games. You want to limit their game time, but your spouse thinks the kids should be allowed to play as much as they want. It doesn’t help when one adult says to the other, “You’re too soft on them,” or “You’re too rigid.” Again, that’s just labeling the other person. Instead, you need to sit down and ask investigative questions like, “What are you trying to accomplish by letting the kids play video games without putting a time limit on them?” So the question becomes, “What is your goal here?” And your spouse might respond, “I want them to feel like home is a place where they can relax and do the things they enjoy as much as they want, as long as they take care of their responsibilities.” And they should be asking you, “What are you trying to accomplish by limiting the video game time?” You might say, “I want them to have some structure in their lives. I think video games have their place, but they should not be our kids’ main source of entertainment. I’m worried that if we let them play as much as they want, it’ll become a cop-out and they’ll play video games instead of doing other things.”

Now both of these people have a legitimate perspective. The challenge is for them to come up with some kind of compromise. You do this by figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish or avoid. Once you do that—and can come up with a compromise instead of arguing or labeling the other person—you’re really communicating. Remember, basing decisions on what you’re trying to accomplish is often much more effective than basing them on “the way things were on when you were a kid.”

Remember, the key to finding harmony in a blended family is communication and maturity on the part of the parents. One important thing to realize is that the kids may never blend the way you want them to, or they may blend wonderfully. Again, the people who really have to blend are the parents. And blending as adults means seeing your spouse as a partner, not as an obstacle.

Believe me, I know that this advice is easy to read but difficult to do. Know that although a lot of emotional labor has to take place, the fruits of your efforts will translate into much more peace in your home.

Related content:
“My Blended Family Won’t Blend!” What to Do When Your Stepkids Disrespect You
Stepchildren Making You Crazy? 5 Ways to Manage Conflict in Blended Families

About

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (8)
  • Jen
    My husband and I have been married for over 10 years, everything is wonderful until it comes down to the kids. He is tougher and expects more from my son who is 18, worked through high school and is a full time student at MSU. His kids whoMore have primarily lived with their mother and are 22 and 20 are still treated like children. They get away with whatever they want. Act and treat me however they want. And because I have distanced myself from them because I am tired of trying and being ignored... I am the bad guy. They moved across country with their mother, with no plans, no place to live and no job prospects. I want to teach them that that is not how adults function. That they need to learn to do for themselves. My husband on the other hand feels sorry for them and wants to baby them because their mother never taught them better. But isn't that just enabling them more? I'm at my wits end....
  • SMM

    I have a 12 yr old son and remarried when he was 9 to a man that has never been married nor has children. My son lives primarily with me so my husband was around him a lot prior to our marriage. Things were great the 1st year of marriage but shortly after the "honeymoon" was over. Prior to marriage my husband never once negatively commented on my parenting. Now after having been married it seems like this is a constant issue. I have taken into consideration and enforced many of the suggestions my husband has had in regards to punishment and responsibilities my son should have. However, my husband constantly nags how my son doesn't do a good job on his chores or doesn't do them the way he thinks they should be done. I have responded by asking my husband what he thinks the punishment should be. Sometimes I agree other times I don't. So I have resorted to telling my son that his punishment for a chore poorly done or not completed is to do it or do it again and then no electronics or TV because he needs to earn that privilege. My husband thinks I should not let him go to Tae Kwon Do either. I didn't agree at first but I got tired of arguing my point so I agreed to that as well. Now my husband says my son needs to see a psychologist because he continues to do the same things wrong over and over again (referring to the chores) and he has also made the condition that he will not see a marriage counselor with me unless my son sees a psychologist. I have told him my son is acting no different than any other 12 yr old. He just doesn't care about chores right now and is behaving that way out of defiance and trying to see what he can control and get away with.

    My son really is a good kid. Everyone ALWAYS comments on how helpful and considerate he is whenever he is somewhere. I'm at my wits end with this battle. Am I wrong for thinking my son does not need to see a psychiatrist? Am I wrong to think his condition on counseling is irrelevant? I do definitely think we need marriage counseling.

    • K
      I hear ya on that one...I was in my late twenties and my daughter was 1 year old when I brought her into my new marriage and just as you said when the honeymoon was over with my wife that’s when things just started to change and be different andMore don’t get me wrong my wife has all the best intentions but now it’s really becoming overbearing. My daughter is now 14 and we have a 7 year old together...but just as you said my eldest is a teenager and has some stubbornness in her but is a really good kid. It’s to a point where I am so hurt and my daughter has been living with us since she was 3 because bio mom could
  • TNkghk

    Our Blended family has all the struggles you describe. I brought 2 boys (age 5&7) into our married and he brought a 12 daughter. We also have an 8mth old together.

    The difference is that it's only an issue 15% of the time when my 12 year old step daughter stays with us (every school holiday she lives 2 provinces away). I came into her life whe she was 9.

    Her dad doesn't want any of our existing house rules to apply to her while she is here...I completely disagree and every time she has come in the last 2 years it almost ends us....

    I hate that our life feels great 90% percent of the time. Sigh

    • K
      I am sorry to hear and it is so challenging and hurtful...I don’t know what to do myself and wish that things were great 100%
  • Amy E.
    Great article that explained our situation. I think it will help
  • Gmamma J
    My grand-daughter who is 9 1/2 has a little brother who is 1 1/2 and now a "step-sister" the same age. Their parents, my daughter and her boyfriend, the other girls father, have the 1 1/2 year old boy together, for almost the first year, it was pretty rocky andMore his daughter lived with his ex 4 hours away, she came to visit periodically. Now for the last4 months, he has full custody and she lives there full time. At first it was fun for our grand daughter to have built in playmate, the same age, but now the newness has worn off and my grand daughter is becoming resentful, because she has to share everything, she can't have friends over and her step sister always has to come too and be included. She went from staying at our house all the time alone,or having sleep overs at our house with her friends, to having a little brother stay too(which she has never minded) to having to have her step sister stay too. My husband and I practically raised her and refers to our house as hers. I told her that this is what happens when you have a blended family and she says she wishes she didn't have one. How can we help her adjust? BTW these 2 girls are as different as night and day, our grand daughter is a girlie girl and the other girl is a tom boy. She has family that lives close by but they never want to help out with her, so we are the only help they have.
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I hear your concern for your granddaughter, and how much you want to help her to adjust to her new family configuration. You make a good point that these changes are common in blended families, and it sounds like she is having a hard time making this transition. More I’m wondering if you have talked with your daughter about your concerns? If not, you might find some tips on how to bring this up, and make a plan for how you can be helpful in Grandparents and Parents Disagreeing? 11 Tips for Both of You. I recognize how challenging this must be for all of you, and I wish all of you the best as you move forward. Take care.
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