Should marriage be the TOP priority in a blended family?
"The marriage comes first...no matter what!"
These are well-meaning words — usually from those who love us most. But is this advice really the best way to move your blended family forward to the future you're hoping for?
Finding Middle Ground
A while back, we worked with Fred and Wilma (clearly not their real names). They were really stuck. All five of their kids were either acting out or isolating and the older ones had moved out to live at their other home.
As we learned a little more about Fred and Wilma's story, we discovered that they launched into their marriage 'joined at the hip'. Everything was about the two of them — and I mean everything. Basically they had poured so much of their time, focus and energy into their new marriage that they left their kids relationally starving.
Always putting their marriage first was sabotaging the good relationships they previously had with each of their sets of kids. And ultimately it was leaving them heartbroken.
Since that didn't work, then the opposite must be true — right?
Let's contrast that story with Barney and Betty's predicament (again…not real names). This couple was stuck too — but it wasn't the kid's behavior that had them trapped. It was their own.
Betty made it very clear that her kids were first and always would be first. She consistently focused on reacting to every request made by her kids — even when it meant breaking her commitments to Barney. Her words and actions continually reinforced to Barney that he was not a priority causing him to shut down and isolate from her.
Both of these couples were stuck in some 'stone age' thinking. Locked into a belief that a blended family won't succeed without hardline boundaries around either the marriage or being a parent.
The truth is that the healthiest stepfamilies find the middle ground by understanding two big realities and implementing good team building skills.
Two Big Realities:
Your re-marriage most often feels like a loss to the kids
Have you had the feeling that your kids or step-kids tend to be manipulative? That could be a misunderstanding.
Kids in stepfamilies can tend to act out because they have a significant sense of loss or fear. This is very common even though the intensity varies depending on the age, personality and previous family experience for each child.
Our job as parents and step-parents is to identify the level of insecurity they're struggling with and then make it a priority to create an environment that increases their security. This requires sacrifice as you discover how to balance your time and energy between a focus on your marriage/partnership and the parent/child relationships in your home. Here's a few tips for each of you:
Step-parents: give your partner and step-children a gift by honoring their need for 1 on 1 time. Find something enjoyable to do and encourage them to have some fun together without you. This will help build security and stability and ultimately help your marriage.
Parents: You can balance this sacrifice made by your partner by intentionally reserving time and energy to focus on them. Express your gratitude and affirm their investment in your family. This will help your marriage remain stable and show your kids a good example of a healthy relationship.
Your relationships need re-balancing
Every stepfamily starts out with their relationships "out of balance".
The natural progression of family relationships starts with a couple who then become parents — together. The couple relationship comes first. The parental relationship is second.
In a stepfamily, that's reversed. The parent/child relationship has more history and a deeper connection. To complicate matters, one member of each parent/child relationship is immature, lacks coping skills and has very limited life experience (rest assured, I'm talking about the child here).
The goal is to re-balance your relationships so that the marriage is elevated — while at the same time preserving stability in the parent/child relationship(s). This is most often a complicated process that takes patience and intentionality.
Couples who are not careful here will experience struggles with Parent-Child Allegiances, feelings of being a Stuck Insider or Stuck Outsider and many other challenges that will threaten their relationship.
It's going to take time for you to work this out. In fact, the research shows that it takes an average of 7 years for stepfamilies to fully integrate. So do your research and be intentional about the re-balancing that needs to take place in your home.
Build Your Team
The most effective way to create stability for your kids and be intentional about re-balancing relationships is unity.
You and your partner MUST learn how to work together as a team for the good of your marriage and your long-term success as a stepfamily. There will be challenges, disagreements, unexpected circumstances and exhaustion that will all threaten to pull the two of you apart.
When Kim and I were first married, I was blindsided by these realities. I didn't have any kids and it was my first marriage — so, my unrealistic expectation was that our focus would be primarily on our marriage and my step-daughter, Annika would come second. That old advice — "The marriage comes first…no matter what!" — made sense to me.
But it was only a matter of months before I realized it wasn't that simple. And it never would be. I had to let go of my hopes for a fairytale future with Kim and start learning how to be strategic and intentional.
We had to become a good team. You need to do the same.
Here's a few tips for good teamwork:
Don't avoid. Avoidance simply creates more problems. You'll have enough to deal with. You've got to communicate and work toward common goals.
Handle your conflict well. You will have conflict. But here's the thing, conflict doesn't mean your relationship is unstable. In fact, most couples report feeling closer when their conflict is resolved in a healthy way.
Make decisions together. All of your kids need the two of you to be united. They need consistency and stability in their home. Establish your code of conduct — as a team. When necessary, decide on consequences — as a team. Work on re-balancing your relationships — as a team.
Work behind closed doors. Essentially, don't talk about the kids in front of the kids. They need to see you building unity as a team. Negotiating a decision about them, in front of them does not help. The kids will typically side with their bio-parent and may insert themselves into the conversation and this will drive a wedge between them and their step-parent. Make your decisions behind closed doors — then communicate with the kids.
Make time for romance. Step-couples have a lot to manage. The 'business' of running a stepfamily can suck the romance right out of your relationship. Be intentional about building your romance and keep that time just for you. Don’t talk about parenting, chores, finances, etc. Just enjoy each other!
The Bottom Line
So, here's the bottom line: Your marriage is a major priority — and so is the rest of your stepfamily.
Your job is to balance priorities so that all your relationships thrive in the long run. If you take the "marriage always comes first" advice too literally like Fred and Wilma, the result will most likely not be what you are hoping for. And remember that Barney and Betty showed us that the opposite approach is no better.
Keep your focus on creating stability for all the kids, effectively re-balancing your relationships and staying united as a team. Someday when you're playing with your grandkids (and step-grandkids), you'll look back and be so glad you did!
QUESTION: Which of the 5 tips for teamwork do you need to work on this week? Leave a comment below…