Blended families have become quite common in the Western world. What challenges do they face compared to traditional families? How can they thrive?
Michael and Jennifer were just married. Both were divorced from previous mates, and they each have two adolescent children from their previous marriage. They are now stepparents, with both biological and stepchildren. Michael and Jennifer have good careers and are looking forward to having a happy marriage and a supportive family environment for their children.
Their blended family is in sync with one of today’s major trends for marriage and family in advanced industrial nations—the growing number of stepfamilies.
According to SmartStepfamilies.com, “40% of married couples with children (i.e., families) in the US are stepcouples” and “approximately one-third of all weddings in America today form stepfamilies.”
Even though marriage itself is in decline in the United States, approximately three out of every four people who divorce will choose to remarry. What this means is that “100 million Americans have a step relationship”—which works out to almost one-third of the population (ibid.).
While blended families are formed all over the world, the United States seems to lead the way because “Americans get married, get divorced, and choose to cohabit more than any other Western society” (brandongaille.com, “20 Noteworthy Statistics of Blended Families”).
Now back to our hypothetical couple.
Michael has a boy and a girl from a previous marriage, and Jennifer also has a boy and a girl from her previous marriage. They each have joint custody of their children with their ex-mate. Jennifer’s children will primarily live with her, and her ex will pick up his children for weekend visits once a month. Michael’s children won’t live with him full-time, but they will come stay with him every other weekend, some holidays and for a week each summer.
It gets a bit complicated shuffling the children back and forth, especially since Michael and Jennifer live in Austin, Texas, and Michael’s ex lives several hours away in Houston. Driving back and forth between the two cities to exchange children will take time and money. Fortunately, Jennifer’s ex also lives in Austin. But Michael and Jennifer believe everyone will soon get used to the schedule.
Michael and Jennifer realized their new family would be different—especially with all the exchanges of children—but having another chance for love and happiness was an appealing proposition they couldn’t resist. Surely this marriage would be an improvement, they reasoned.
Unfortunately, the odds are against Michael and Jennifer having a successful marriage and family. Many in newly formed blended families are blindsided by unexpected challenges.
Added challenges for stepfamilies
Many marriage and family counselors extol the opportunities for greater cooperation and understanding that are found in blended families. This assessment is correct. There are indeed plenty of opportunities to develop these admirable character traits.
What isn’t as rosy is the statistical evidence that highlights the challenges blended families face.
For many years the common assumption was that the typical economic advantage of living in a blended family, rather than a single-parent family, would be healthy for children. Many are now questioning this presumed advantage.
According to David Popenoe, “Contrary to the view of some social scientists in recent years, who believed that the effects of family fragmentation on children were both modest and ephemeral, there is now substantial evidence to indicate that the child outcomes of these alternative family forms [single-parent families and stepfamilies] are significantly inferior to those of families consisting of two biological parents.”
And what are the problems? Popenoe continues, “Children in single-parent and stepfamilies are significantly more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems, to receive the professional help of psychologists, to have health problems, to perform poorly in school and drop out, and to leave home early” (Stepfamilies: Who Benefits? Who Does Not? edited by Alan Booth and Judy Dunn, p. 5).
In addition to the above, children in stepfamilies generally receive less warmth, communication and parenting from a stepparent than from a biological parent. These deficiencies make discipline of children and adherence to house rules more difficult and complicated. Biological parents will likely have to be the primary disciplinarians of their children, and couples often find it difficult to be consistent in the standards they set for all of their children.
In short, children are at greater risk in blended families, and the husband and wife in such a family are also at greater risk of divorce than the families led by both biological parents (ibid., p. 7).
Four keys to having a successful blended family
Of course, this is not to say all blended families end in catastrophe. There are proven principles that can reduce the risks. If you have a blended family, you can have a successful marriage and family, and here are some ideas that can help.
Key 1: Treat everyone with respect.
If you have a blended family, you can have a successful marriage and family, and here are some ideas that can help.Because blended families have more adults—possibly four—involved in making decisions regarding their children, competing interests and desires will have to be resolved. If possible, strive to avoid causing offense and strive to be flexible. Try to leave former disagreements with your ex in the past and focus on what the two of you can do to help your children.
Unnecessarily offending one of the parents will only bring tension and complications. As the proverb notes: “A brother offended is harder to win than a strong city, and contentions are like the bars of a castle” (Proverbs 18:19). Hurt feelings create walls of distrust and little interest in compromise. And sadly, tension between former mates can also be upsetting to the children.
One way to lessen the odds of causing offense is by treating everyone with respect. To this end, the apostle Peter wrote, “Honor all people” (1 Peter 2:17).
Key 2: Ask God for wisdom.
This key builds on the previous one. While being respectful is an important first step in working through the complications of shared children, there are also going to be situations that require wisdom.
For example, how much authority will a stepparent have in disciplining a stepchild? This can get complicated when an older child says, “You aren’t my dad [or mom]” and “My dad [or mom] doesn’t make me do this.”
In addition to parenting, it can also take wisdom to know when to be firm about your family plans and when to be flexible. These are often difficult decisions to make.
Fortunately, the Bible says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
Key 3: Hone your communication skills.
At times it can be difficult for even two biological parents to agree on family plans. Increasing the number of parents to four, as is often the case for blended families, increases the possibilities for disagreement exponentially. Under these circumstances, the need for good communication skills becomes paramount.
Addressing this subject, the apostle Paul wrote: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Colossians 4:6). Like using just the right amount of salt to season food, we need to carefully choose and limit our words so they are gracious and easily heard.
For more in-depth advice on this point, see the articles in “The Joys and Challenges of Communication” section of our website.
Key 4: Nurture your marriage and your children.
With all the busyness of blended families, it is easy for new spouses to neglect either each other or their children. The reality is that both need attention. Spouses in blended families will need to teach their biological children to respect and obey their stepparent. Children will also need encouragement to accept and get along with their new siblings. And the new couple will need a solid relationship themselves to manage the extra challenges of a blended family.
For practical, biblically based advice on how to have a successful marriage, see the articles in the marriage section of our website.
If you are in a blended family, we wish you success and are pleased to offer resources that can help your family survive and thrive. In addition to implementing the keys noted above, we recommend you read the article “Step Parenting” on the LifeHopeandTruth.com website and the other articles found there on parenting.