Tara stood in the back of the room waiting to talk to me after a recent workshop.
"I am about ready to walk out of my second marriage," she said, explaining that she had been married for 9 months to a man with two children, ages 6 and 8.
"My stepchildren harass me whenever I try to discipline them and my husband won't take my complaints seriously," she said.
She was tired of how she was being treated. Her older daughter from her first marriage was pushing her to get divorced.
Entering into the middle of parent/child relationships can set the stage for potential conflict and misunderstandings. Children of divorce are often resistant to additional changes that a remarriage can bring.
It is not surprising that the rate of divorce among second marriages is estimated at 60 percent. But by some estimates, blended families improve their chances of success if the couple waits at least two years after their previous divorces to marry.
This makes sense. Divorced families require sufficient grieving time in order to create healthy environments that can nurture new relationships.
The more Tara and I talked, the more evident it became that she started her second marriage off with a number of unrealistic expectations.
The love and affection she had hoped to receive from her two new children quickly seemed out of reach. Disappointment put her on the defensive, creating feelings of resentment and anxiety. Oftentimes, children will express anger at both parents when they feel forced into new relationships that seem disloyal to the pre-divorce family.
Second marriages demand instant participation and involvement by all involved, not just the couple getting married.
Like most new stepparents, Tara had never considered learning more about blended families before attending this workshop. Less than 25 percent of those who remarry will attend parenting classes or read books on the subject. New stepparents often assume that the same parenting skills they used with their own children will work just as well in this new configuration. As the statistics show, that is not always the case.
Blended families thrive when spouses discuss and re-discuss expectations, acceptable forms of discipline and parameters for handling the inevitable conflicts. Ideally, these discussions should take place long before the wedding date is scheduled.
Each adult must realize that instant success and immediate gratification are not feasible. New families require time, patience, and commitment. Relationships with children who already have a mother and father are unique and should be treated as such. The role of a stepparent is to build supportive relationships based on trust, mutual respect and hopefully, love.
No parenting role demands more sacrifice or maturity as each of you maneuver your way through uncharted territory.
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The following suggestions can be helpful in this new role:
1. From now on, think of your partner's ex as a business associate. When they are also dedicated to helping the children adjust to this new state of affairs, the transition can go pretty smoothly. However, at times it can seem as if they are trying to sabotage the relationship between you and your stepchildren. By regarding the ex as a business associate, you can depersonalize their negative behavior, increasing your resiliency in a stressful situation. Just as with a business associate, you do not have to like the ex, but you do have common interests that must be respected.
2. Be honest with yourself and your partner. There will be times when you are going to feel alienated, unappreciated or even resentful. You may not like the child's behavior, or how your spouse is handling a situation. These newly formed relationships may never be what you idealized them to be. You may never feel exactly the way you hoped to feel. Ambivalence is normal as each of you adjusts to your new role. By being honest and sharing your feelings, it's far more likely that you'll handle challenges successfully.
3. Practice a lot of patience. Parenthood is a long-term commitment, no matter how you enter into it. Set aside time to learn about your new role by reaching out to families who have successfully blended and bonded, enrolling in a parenting class with your partner, or reading articles and books on the subject.
4. Try not to let frustration and resentment build so much you can't see your way clear. Tara ended our conversation with a long list of complaints about each family member, including her husband. She seemed resistant to any suggestions about techniques which could defuse the situation and improve her relationship with her husband and stepchildren. Only time will tell whether she can make peace with her situation.
It has been observed that stepparents sometimes have to be more patient and tolerant than anyone else in the family to make things work. It's not a role everyone can handle; those who can deserve all the support they can get.
Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. Petersburg and co-author of "Launching: Parenting To College & Beyond,'' available at amazon.com. She can be reached at (727) 418-7882.