The Successful Blended Family

Three (or Four) questions for Anne Brennan Malec about Remarriage

Okay, I am not anywhere near the stage of remarriage, let alone re-falling madly in love. Nor are most of us, at least in the immediate aftermath of divorce. But it hovers out there—the aspiration to meet someone new, recommit, perhaps remarry. We’ve all heard the statistics; second and third marriages have higher divorce rates than first ones. How can we be optimistic about our own romantic future?

Start by having realistic expectations, particularly if you have children, says Anne Brennan Malec, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist, step-mother of six, and author of Marriage in Modern Life: Why It Works, When It Works.

Wendy Paris: So what should people expect when remarrying, with kids?

Anne Brennan Malec: The couple is in love and want to spend their lives together, and they can be under the false impression that their children will feel the same way. In reality, children are often confused and have contradictory emotions about the new family setup.  Forming a blended family is a long-term process, and it is reasonable to expect some pushback from children, who had no voice in your choice to marry.  If you imagine that your children will find the transition to be more difficult than you will, you’re off to a good start.

WP: What can a parent do to foster a good relationship between a child and a new love—a.k.a. the child’s stepparent?

ABM: Normalize their struggle.  The kid might not like sharing a room, having to be polite or engage with stepsiblings. Recognize that.  You can say, ‘Yeah you’re right. I’m sure that’s no fun.’  Hear the complaint.  Hear the concern, maybe a sense of unfairness.  Be patient and try to see it through their eyes. 

Recognize that your partner is also having a transition and may need empathy, support and conversation.  It’s a real challenge for a stepparent to come in. Sometimes they feel like an outsider.  Try not to be defensive when listening to your spouse.

WP: What can a stepparent do to improve her relationship with a stepchild?

ABM: A parent can’t tell a kid to like a stepparent. A stepparent has to work on it, like any other relationship. It comes from being kind, generous, attentive, respectful, interested in this other person and fun to be around. When stepfamily relationships work, it’s because the people are working on them.

WP: What are some concrete steps a couple can take to create a happy home life that includes children from first marriages?

ABM: House rules are very important, establishing how things work here. Do we have family meetings? Do we have suggestion boxes? How frequently are we all going out together? You could establish things like no disrespectful communication, no bashing on social media of step siblings or stepparents, no sharing of step siblings’ stuff when they’re not there, unless you ask and they agree.  Write down the house rules and expectations.

Each parent should be responsible for managing his or her children’s schedules, providing discipline and communicating with the ex-partner about any parenting issues.

Also, carve out time and space in this new relationship for romance. Try to schedule your child-free time so it overlaps, if at all possible. Making time for just the two of you is critical. The date night is a cliché and people think it’s corny, but it’s so, so necessary. It’s the check-ins, sending loving and supportive text messages during the day, meeting for lunch, meeting after work, taking trips out of town, showing empathy and understanding. Talk about what you need from each other, how much attention and how much time. Are you feeling nurtured? If not, what would the other one need to do to create that? If that emotional commitment, romance, daily attention, affection and appreciation are missing, then the foundation crumbles. If the couple relationship isn’t working well, then the family will fall apart. The couple relationship is vital.

WP: Thank you. That’s all really helpful and sound.