When two people decide to become a family, it’s tricky blending lifestyles, finances and personalities.
But when you add in unrelated children to create a blended family, chances are high that there will be a few issues before the family gels.
Still, more and more families are trying to make stepfamilies work today.
In 1960, only 13 percent of married adults were in a second marriage, but by 2013, about 40 percent of new marriages included a partner who had been married before, according to the Pew Research Center. And 63 percent of women who remarry come into blended families, with half of those involving stepchildren who live with the new couple, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research.
Jessica Schwartz, an infant massage educator in Chicago, formed her own stepfamily five years ago when she remarried, bringing her two children together with her husband’s singleton.
Today, their three children are between the ages of 11 and 17, and two of the children live with them full-time, while the middle child lives in a different state for most of the year.
For the two families to blend well, Schwartz, said, the key is communication.
“We have a lot of communication, and we never treat any of the kids differently,” she said. “There’s no his and no yours.”
A challenge for them was helping the middle child (her stepdaughter) feel like she belongs, as she only lives with them over the summer and during some major holidays, so they make sure to FaceTime frequently.
“We moved recently, but she wasn’t with us for the move, so we did FaceTime with her when we were packing to see what she wanted donated, and we did FaceTime with her to ask her where she wanted her things put,” Schwartz said.
Communication is key, especially among the adults, who need a unified front for the children, said Deborah Gilboa, author of “Get the Behavior you Want without Being the Parent you Hate.”
She said that while all the children should be treated equally, they shouldn’t be treated equally by both parents.
“Your biological parent is the parent, and while you should be respectful of the other parent, they can’t punish you,” Gilboa said.
If an older child moves into a home with a new adult, you can’t just add water and become an instant family, she said, explaining that stepfamilies simply work differently than traditional families, and these blended families take time to function.
If your goal is a complete blend, you may be setting yourself up for failure, however, said Patricia Papernow, a Massachusetts-based author of “Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships.”
In a traditional family, a couple will get to know each other before they have children, so everything happens very gradually.
But in a stepfamily, the longer, more established system is the parent-child relationship, while the couple is much newer, which makes the relationships very different.
“The first thing to know is that the adult couple will be stuck insiders: They are more connected to their kids and partners and ex-partners, and they have to connect to them all,” Papernow said.
The stepparents are on the outside. At the same time, the kids need much more time to adjust than the grown-ups do, and typically, this adjustment takes more time for them after separation or divorce.
“Change piles up for kids,” Papernow said.
Children also feel loyalty bonds: If I care about my stepmother, I’m being disloyal to my mother, Papernow said.
In order to combat these blended family issues, Papernow suggested giving the children time to adjust, in addition to spending plenty of one-on-one time with each child, honoring every relationship that’s being formed.
Blended families could also create new holidays to celebrate together.
Papernow also suggests celebrating a virgin holiday: A regular holiday that your family didn’t already celebrate together, such as Memorial Day or Valentine’s Day.
Go all-out for this big blended family celebration, and make this a new annual tradition, Papernow said.
But don’t create new traditions too quickly, warns Ron Deal, director of Little Rock, Ark.-based FamilyLife Blended, and author of “The Smart Stepfamily.”
“When first moving in together, try not to make a lot of changes in daily routines, traditions or rules,” he said. “The family merger is a huge change; don’t add more unnecessary ones on top of it.”
Keep the same chores, visitation schedules, decor, bedtimes and even birthday traditions, advocates Deal.
“Every change says, ‘Your family is gone,’ ” Deal said. “This creates insecurity in a child, and makes accepting the new family more difficult.”
The key throughout the entire process should be to take everything slowly, and not to get frazzled if everything doesn’t go the way you expect it to go, said Christina Roach, a Tampa, Fla.-based stepfamily coach and psychotherapist.
“Think of it as bringing together two separate corporations,” Roach said. “Each has their own protocols and ways of doing things.”
Both families coming into the blended family need to compromise, be flexible and have a lot of patience to facilitate an environment where everyone feels heard and is open to trying new things, Roach said.
“Loyalty bonds plus outside variables that are out of your control, create a very complex dynamic that each person involved is trying to figure out simultaneously,” Roach said. “If that doesn’t sound difficult, I don’t know what does.”
But Schwartz, who is five years into her blended family, said that it can work.
“Overall, it was really smooth for us,” she said.
Schwartz said they had more problems as the kids got older, especially because they had to figure out how to make her stepdaughter feel like she was getting enough attention, despite living in another state — but not too much attention that the other two would get jealous.
They’ve been working on solving that issue by doing one-on-one time with every child.
Schwartz said they have also been talking about the family rules, making sure everyone has clear expectations and appropriate consequences, even if they don’t live in the home full-time.
“My biggest thing was that I never wanted anyone to feel like they didn’t belong, or that they weren’t getting the full treatment,” she said.
It’s a balancing act, but when they get it right, the blend is perfect.