Marriage is hard, y’all. Like, real work. Add in stepchildren, an ex-spouse, and all of the obstacles of today’s modern blended family, and you might feel like you are putting in overtime at this job, with no additional pay. You will vastly increase your chances of getting that merit bonus if you follow these 10 dos & don’ts of marriage in a blended family:
1. Do prioritize your marriage like everyone else’s.
Just because this isn’t your first rodeo with marriage (or your spouse’s) and there are stepchildren in the mix, does not mean your marriage gets pushed towards the bottom of the totem pole. In our home, we put God first, spouse second, and children third. These are very traditional values, and just because I don’t have a traditional family doesn’t mean I don’t get to apply these values to my household. Don’t let divorce guilt rule the roost. Put your marriage first. If your daily decisions are centered around the kids’ wants or demands, chaos will ensue. Added bonus: Kids thrive on the security of knowing there is a pecking order and that parents are in charge.
2. Do set boundaries—early and often.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T. This applies to your spouse, all children (bio and step), ex-spouses, and in-laws. There may be a period of time at first when you feel like an interloper or an outsider to the happenings in your own home. Respect goes both ways. Respectfully make known what your boundaries are: what is and isn’t OK with you. This goes for issues big and small. A big thing for me is making financial decisions related to my stepkids’ activities, as this directly affects me and our household. For some, that may not be a big deal. Small issues for me are late-night texts or phone calls regarding scheduling or parenting emails that could be easily handled during earlier hours or without interrupting our family dinnertime. Regardless of what your “die on the hill” issues or pet peeves are, set your boundaries and stick to them. Every member of every relationship deserves respect, and it’s even more vital to a successful blended family marriage.
But be careful not to take it too far (see Tip #3)…
3. Don’t take it personally.
In other words, you need to have thick skin while maintaining sensitivity to the kids’ emotions in a blended family marriage. Put your insecurities aside and pull up your big girl panties. No one promised a picnic in a blended family. That goes for dealing with the ex as well. If you are put out each time the kids compare you to their “real” mom or each time your spouse talks to or texts his ex, you need to check yourself. Keeping this unnecessary stress out of your marriage is key. Now, if the kids are disrespectful or your husband texts his ex more than you (or vice versa), go back to Tip #2.
Bonus tip for not taking it personally: Every child of divorce wants their parents to get remarried. Know this, and accept it. My stepdaughter and I openly talk about the fact that divorce “sucks” for her (the only time she’s allowed to say that word!). She wishes her parents were still married but that she could somehow still know me and love me this way. I get it. I acknowledge and validate her feelings. We laugh about imaginary scenarios where I would still be a part of her life but without being married to her dad. I have to be the mature one and secure in my marriage for this to work. While it’s critical to put your marriage first, it’s not all about you. Everyone has his/her cross to bear in a blended family. Don’t let jealousy, insecurity, or resentments chip away at your marriage.
4. Do seek professional guidance.
There is no shame in my game. My husband and I, both individually and jointly, sought the advice of a licensed professional counselor (who happened to be on her second marriage and was raising both kids and stepkids in a Brady Bunch-style scenario). We knew this transition for the kids was critical to their well-being, and well, we didn’t want to screw it up. What I wasn’t expecting was the goldmine of advice and guidance on how to preserve our marriage in the thick of the blending process. Priceless. Having a neutral third party as a sounding board (no, your own mother doesn’t count!) is invaluable, especially in those moments when you say stuff out loud and hear your own crazy. It’s going to happen. Blended families are all about adjustments, and the more resources you have to avoid the inherent landmines, the better.
Caveat: Be careful of reading every divorce, step-parenting, and blended family book out there. Many are written from a negative angle and try to convince you it’s the hardest uphill battle you will ever climb. Hey, you know what? This is the hardest uphill battle I’ve ever climbed, but it’s worth it, and I don’t need scare tactics. I literally threw one book away after the first two chapters. Instead, try reading some great co-parenting books or articles. This is a refreshing view on blended families and healthiest for all involved.
5. Don’t be a doormat.
Similar to setting your boundaries, stepparents are often hesitant to speak up about discipline, behavior, or other key issues going on with their stepchildren. However, if you say nothing when the wheels are coming off, unhealthy resentment will build. If you are able to get on the same page as your spouse regarding discipline and behavior, even better. No one ever accused me of being a wallflower, but in our house we, as parents, set the rules and Dad (bio parent) enforces them. This keeps me out of the fray—and from being an easy “evil stepparent” target—but allows my feelings on certain subjects to be known. I just love being able to sound like my mother: “You just wait until your father gets home!”
6. Do date nights.
Show kids what a strong, loving marriage looks like. This was an evolutionary process for us. In the beginning of our marriage, we hesitated to go on date nights when we had my stepkids because we felt we could do so on the nights we didn’t have them (aka: “divorce guilt”). Over time, we realized we were doing the kids a disservice by not showing them that date nights are part of a healthy, thriving marriage (see Tip #1). Just like any other family, we need to put our marriage first to keep it healthy so that the family unit can ultimately remain intact for these children. Now the kids very much look forward to the occasional night with their favorite babysitter, and it’s a win-win for everyone. However, they do still make faces and “grossed out” noises if we hug too much. Some things never change!
7. Don’t hog your spouse.
Notice how many of these tips involve the children and not just the husband and wife in a blended family? That’s the reality of making a blended marriage work! With your spouse, sometimes less is more. Make sure your spouse has plenty of quality of time with his/her kids that doesn’t involve you. This can include simple things like trips to the grocery store, pick-up from activities, or bedtime chats. Most Friday nights I conveniently slip off into our bedroom to read a book or catch up on Facebook while my husband and stepkids watch a movie together. They often bug me to come join them, but this is my gift to all of them (OK, and to myself as well!).
8. Do know what you are signing up for before walking down the aisle.
Becoming a blended family must be an eyes-wide-open approach, and you can’t complain halfway into it. If you haven’t tied the knot, talk to as many blended family veterans as you can. Everyone has a different tale, but all will tell you it is not easy. Don’t be discouraged or scared off by horror stories, because those happen in first marriages too! Blended family life is hard, but if you are know what you are signing up for it can be a rewarding experience. I promise.
9. Don’t put your spouse in the position of choosing sides.
Never argue with your spouse in front of the kids about a discussion they are having or a decision that is being made. Employ a code word or have a prior agreement that “we will talk about it later” and then have a separate, private discussion. Putting your spouse in the middle of you and his children, where he feels like he must choose, is terrible for both him and the kids.
10. Do buckle up and enjoy the ride!
It’s not all roses, and it will be a bumpy ride, but life is all about challenges and how you rise to meet them.