Welcome to Blended, part of the Excelsior Law Blog. Blended provides resources for blended families. These resources include a discussion of estate planning and blended families, as well as discussions of issues facing blended families. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman, Ph.D. talks about how it is only when a divorce is finalized that couples realize how much they have lost. Nowhere is this more true than in a blended family.
Statistics show that the percentage of couples divorcing in the United States is roughly 50 percent. Statistics also show that approximately 60 percent of second marriages fail. And in a study set forth in the book Dating the Divorced Man by Christie Hartman, 75 percent of women report that it was not worth it to marry a man with children. This blog is dedicated to helping blended families deal with the issues they are bound to face in coming together and spending their lives together forever.
One of the first pieces of advice a person will receive when saying he/she is dating a man/woman with children is the following: “the children always come first.” But the dire truth is that this piece of advice, acting by itself, makes it difficult to form a lasting relationship and a solid foundation with the parent of the children. This blog is dedicated to helping couples find a way of navigating the difficult world of blended families in a way that will bring couples closer together rather than tear them apart. For after all, what better gift to give children than the gift of seeing a healthy, loving relationship between their parent and their stepparent? Showing children how to treat one another lovingly, how to support one another during difficult times, and how to show up for one another again and again is a gift so precious it is priceless.
The difficulty is in knowing how to give our children this gift. When we date a man/woman with children and when we attempt to blend our lives with theirs, we quickly realize that blended families do not always follow the same rules as traditional families do. (I use the word “traditional” realizing that one day, a blended family will be the norm, not a family that includes a couple on their first marriage with children they share with one another.)
So the question inevitably becomes, “what is normal?” Is normal the way a majority of people behave? Is normal the way in which people usually behave in certain situations? Is normal the way people should behave? Is normal an idea that causes people to wish they could behave in a certain way?
In a blended family, so often it’s easy to ask the question, “what is normal?” Is what I’m feeling normal? How exactly am I feeling? Is what we’re going through normal? Is it normal for me to feel this way? If not, should I ignore this feeling? If so, what should I do about this feeling?
The key is to understand that, fundamentally, you are in control of what your normal is. You are in control of what is okay with you and what is not. And when you not only reach that realization but are able to live by that mantra, normal will no longer be a concept you try to grasp or a question you ask yourself. Socrates once implored humanity to “know thyself.” Thus, set out to know who you are and what you want. Seek to know what makes you happy and comfortable. If we don’t know what makes us happy and comfortable, we will never know whether we are in the right relationship or not.
That said, once we find ourselves in a relationship with a man or woman with children, we inevitably deal with the fact that what makes us happy and comfortable is not always going to be the main goal. In fact, we’re told over and over again by well meaning friends and family members that “the kids always come first.” That may be a noble endeavor, but it bodes poorly for creating a lasting relationship. If the kids always come first, then the new spouse invariably comes last. This fundamental breeds all forms of neglect and, in extreme cases, can lead to isolation, alienation, anxiety, depression, stress, and other mental and physical health issues.
Humans are social creatures. We need to feel a sense of belonging. We need one another. In a March 19, 2015 article posted on http://www.today.com entitled “10 Basic Rules for a Happier Life,” author A. Pawlowski quotes Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project” and the book “Better Than Before.” Rubin stated that “We need to be able to confide. We need to feel like we belong. We need to be able to get support and just as important for happiness, we need to be able to give support.”
This is a powerful concept for blended families to understand. In a traditional family, a couple meet, they fall in love, they date, they marry, and then they have children. This process can take years. During that time, the couple learns about one another in a patient, romantic, and loving way. They delicately learn to build trust in one another. They confide in one another. They spend hours, days, months, years fondly learning what the other likes, what motivates the other person, how they respond to conflict, etc. Real conflict may not arise for years after they have been together. By the time the children arrive, the couple has developed a strong foundation. If the couple has not developed that strong foundation, divorce looms. Because nothing will test a relationship more than children. Marriage counselors report that most couples begin experiencing issues once children arrive. Children test boundaries and cause parents to default to parenting techniques that the other may not share.
In a blended family, the relationship between the couple starts once the children have already arrived. The relationship is tested from the beginning. The process of building a foundation between the couple takes a very different path. Real conflict is experienced almost immediately, and the couple is forced to learn how to deal with it. Once again, if the solid foundation cannot be created between the couple, the marriage will suffer and divorce will loom.
Only this time, the pain tends to be greater and the losses seem to be more significant than ever. For now a person with children has experienced two divorces. Not many people would say that a divorce is not an extremely painful process. To suffer more than one in a lifetime can be life-changing. And now the children have seen not one, but two, relationships crumble. They have witnessed their parent experience something truly depressing twice. They may wonder what a good relationship looks like or feels like. A good relationship may seem unattainable. And for social beings like humans, this can be a devastating realization for children.
When a relationship is coming to an end, it can be traumatic for the individuals involved. The relationship slowly devolves to a point where the couple see only the bad in one another. Their hurt and rejection has amassed to a blinding level. The parent with children may retreat into his/her relationship with the children, further isolating the other spouse. The negativity spirals into a vicious cycle. The children sense it. A sense of hopelessness pervades the household and everyone in it. Everyone copes with the process differently. This can can cause further isolation of the family members.
The marriage ends. And it is only then, as Dr. Gottman writes, that the couple realizes how much has been lost. They have lost the companionship of one another. They have lost the hopeful feeling they had at the beginning of the relationship. They suddenly see the fragility of life and relationships. They have lost their confidence and, in some cases, their sense of identity. The stepparent usually loses their relationship with their stepchildren. And the stepchildren lose the hope that a healthy relationship can be sustained, nurtured, and grown.
This does not need to happen. These relationships can be saved. And saving the relationship is as simple as creating a business plan. In his brilliant book The EMyth Revisited, Michael E. Gerber discusses how the key to creating a plan is to organize it around your feelings.
As illustration, Gerber retells his experience at a barber shop. He visited a barbershop and had a wonderful experience. The barber used scissors instead of an electric razor, Gerber was offered coffee the moment he sat down, and the barber washed his hair for him. The haircut was wonderful, and Gerber decided to return. The second visit to the barber, the barber did not wash Gerber’s hair, Gerber was offered coffee, but not until later, and the barber moved to the electric razor earlier in the process. Regardless, the haircut was wonderful, and Gerber again decided to return.
The third visit to the barber, Gerber was not offered coffee, but a glass of wine later in his visit, and the barber washed his hair again but did not use scissors at all. Gerber admitted that the haircut was still wonderful, but he was disappointed. Gerber was disappointed because there was no consistency between these experiences. He wrote that he opted not to return to the barber. He wrote that he did not talk to the barber about this experience or his needs because he felt silly saying how he really felt.
Apply Gerber’s brilliant assessment of the need for consistency in a business’ operations to a relationship and, especially, to a blended family’s experience. Consistency is required. Without consistency, no one wants to return. This is not to say that everyone must constantly strive to please one member of the family. This would ruinous to the family unit and to the situation. Instead, all family members must participate in creating a consistent experience for everyone else so that everyone feels respected and part of the family.
My next blog post will focus on how to create that consistency. Thanks for reading!