Are you a member of a ‘blended family’?
By this I mean a family that has been created by at least two other family systems coming together, and which usually has a mixture of ages and genders. I prefer ‘blended’ family, rather than ‘step-family’ as sometimes it conjures up unhelpful images (just think of Cinderella!).
One thing is certain however, regardless of how the new family is set up:
A blended family has a foundation of both hope and loss.
Loss, because the previous adult relationships for a variety of reasons, could not remain together.
Hope, because there are dreams of a fresh start.
And because the family has a blend of hope and loss, there is going to be a heap of assumptions made about how it will work.
The problem is, many of these assumptions, hopes and dreams are not shared initially, but rather, are discovered later on!
I want to start first with a couple of myths about blended families which I have come across over the years:
- Blended families can function the same way as biological families.
- Given enough love and time, the blended family will love each other and be like a biological family.
- Relating to the children in a blended family is the same as relating to one’s biological children.
I can assure you that the above are indeed myths, and there are many more!
What is also tricky are the beliefs that each member brings to the new family system. Some of these are clearly explained before the new family starts; others are discovered along the way. For example:
What is spoken:
- “When we get married, we can share the household jobs”;
- “I want another child, this time with you”.
What is unspoken:
- “You are going to have to parent the same way I do”;
- “All pet dogs are outside dogs!”
Sometimes the unspoken beliefs go very deep and have their origins in our childhood. For example:
- “I will make sure I do a better job than my mother/father did”;
- “While I love you, I still won’t trust you with the money”.
The children too, will have unspoken beliefs about a new family:
- “You’ll never take the place of my real mother/father”;
- “Don’t think I have to respect you or do what you say; you’re just temporary anyway”.
Tips for Blended Families
What are we to do with such complicated family relationships? Here’s a start to get you thinking:
- Remember that a blended family is built on both loss and hope. Both are valid and both can be a bit scary sometimes – especially for the kids.
- While the spoken beliefs are a bit easier, the unspoken can be tricky – to the point of pulling the new family apart. They need to be drawn out and explored in a safe way.
- The Brady Bunch (for those of you who know who they were!) is another myth. Family life is damn hard. I would argue that sometimes blended families are more work than biological families. Be particularly mindful of your words.
- It takes long-term investment to make a blended family work. Any family system will not work if it’s just left to itself. Just like the evening dinner will not cook itself, so too does a healthy family system not get that way by sitting in front of the TV, working long hours or ignoring each other. It takes much investment, but the hard work will pay off later.
Because the relationships in blended families can be messy and stressful, it is sometimes helpful to speak to a therapist who is trained and experienced in the area. As a trained and qualified family therapist with many years’ experience, I am able to help you explore the loss and hope of blended family life and help guide you in your family investment.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward is a psychotherapist with over 20 years’ experience, providing therapy to adults, adolescents, children, couples, and families. His areas of professional interest include the use of EMDR therapy to help with recovery from domestic violence, child abuse, PTSD, depression and anxiety; family therapy; and working with victims of spiritual and ritual abuse.
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