From Broken To Blended, and All The Steps In Between:
I see it all the time. Scrolling through face book, looking at all the family photos and comments to go along with them. I love looking at these. Everyone looks so happy, sometimes goofy, but in the end appear to be having a good time. Many status statements reflect thankfulness and feelings of being blessed by this “wonderful husband and great kids” that they have. They truly do “look” picture perfect.
Family… I love the idea of “family”. I love the idea of closeness, authenticity, acceptance, comfort, and belonging. When I think of “family” those are the attributes that come to mind. I like to believe that these attributes are being represented in all of these photos I browse through as I scroll through my face book news feed. Something I’ve come to realize though is that behind every picture is a story. Many times the picture is not reflecting the story that is taking place beyond the camera.
I reflect back on my own childhood and the pictures we have of smiling faces and looking genuinely happy. Truth is we were. Sure there were the typical sibling squabbles (I think I won most of those, sorry Melanie), the moments of discipline from our parents that ended with one of us crying or both, or the consequences handed down for disobedience. It’s not just 40-year-old nostalgia I am experiencing right now. I am not looking back and forgetting those rough spots or emotional times. They are as clear to me right now as they were back then (I have a really good memory). The attributes I feel define the concept of “family” comes from my own life experience in my own family. There was a depth present in those relationships. There was a true closeness, really knowing each other. There was true authenticity, acceptance, comfort and a complete sense of belonging. I give my parents a lot of credit for fostering that sense of “family”. They created an “aroma of our home” that was so inviting, even our friends wanted to be there. Sure we went to our friends homes too, and there was nothing wrong with their homes (for the majority of our friends). There was just something about the way our home operated that made not just my sister and I feel those attributes, but our friends as well. I knew when I grew up, I wanted my kids to feel the same way. I wanted the “aroma of my home” to be such a fragrance of warmth and love that not only my kids would want to be embraced and captured by it but their friends would as well.
My Story, My Reality:
Now enter in the Blended Family. Obviously to have a blended family we acknowledge that a divorce took place. A home was split; belongings divided up; loyalties at times fluctuating from one home to another. This was one of my biggest fears as I walked the path of divorce. I held to the attributes I still felt defined family and my goals for how my kids would feel about my home remained the same. I then became faced with the dilemma of how do I create or “re-create” that in a home where instability rocked the foundation and major changes to the structure had to take place.
Relying on what I know, what I’ve learned:
I’m a counselor. I’ve had a private practice working with individuals, couples, teens, kids and families. I’ve worked with the nuclear family and I’ve worked with the blended family. I’ve witnessed first- hand the struggles they were facing that were very different than the struggles of the nuclear family. Yes many of the “issues” were the same such as the defiant teenager, the inferior middle-child or the attention seeking youngest child. I’ve worked with the parents of these children in the nuclear family helping them to identify their parenting plan, how they can work together as a team and not against each other. Just like the blended family parents, the nuclear parents also have their own families of origin that shaped the way they approached family and parenting. So many of the individual issues or situations were similar. Yet, I tell you the truth, though there are these similarities, the differences are just as significant, if not more.
Let me explain.
Rarely in my practice did I work with a nuclear family where one of the parents just really came across as though they did not like one of the children (or all of them for that matter). Now, ask the kids and they might have said differently. There-in-lies the work I had to do with the parents. How to communicate the deep love and affection they had for their children without shaming, blaming, or isolating. We discussed their families of origin; discussing how mom and dad treated them, what their home life was like both the good and bad parts. Then we discussed what they thought of when they were asked “what does family mean to you”. Sometimes this question took a bit for them to think about. Many times it was assimilated due to the wonderful home they grew up in and wanted the same for their own home. Other times it was something completely opposite of what they grew up with because what they had modeled for them in their childhood home brought about hurt, isolation, and insecurities. Interestingly enough these were the same feelings their own children were having.
The important thing to note here is that there was one key similarity to all of these nuclear families; true love and heart break that what they had tried so hard to not repeat from their childhood they were recreating with their own children. They loved their children, they wanted desperately to accept them where they were for who they were and most importantly, they wanted the kids to know that. More times than not, through on-going, deep family therapy along with individual therapy, these families were able to turn things around. They left being a team, the mom and dad, working toward the same goal of their combined definition of “family”.
Now, here is where the difference comes in between nuclear and blended families. The kids in a blended family may feel the same things as listed above for the nuclear family; not accepted, isolated, shamed, etc. The difference comes in to how the “parents” (keeping in mind one of them is the step-parent) truly viewed the child or children. Unlike the nuclear parents, there was not an unconditional or automatic “love” for these step-children. Again, exploring the origin of family for both the biological parent and the step-parent still took place. Understanding that did lend itself to greater understanding as to where the step-parent might be coming across to the children a certain way. Keep in mind, it is a tough conversation to have with the “parent”, whether biological or step, to hold them accountable for their actions and the feelings the children are having because of how or what they are doing or sometimes NOT doing. Though it can be quite intense and take several sessions, the nuclear parent seems to come to the realization quicker and owning the behavior that can lead to authentic change happens at a faster pace. The step-parent, however, can really dig their heels in and still want to focus on the kids and their behaviors and really struggle to take responsibility for their own actions or words being conveyed to the kids in the home.
This happens a lot for those couples who are blending their families and they have the expectations that kids from either side are going to be respectful, mindful of their actions and feelings of the step-parent, and that this will happen from the beginning. Especially if during the dating period, the kids seemed to be very happy with the situation and appeared to really like their mom or dad’s significant other. Big difference: he/she is no longer just the “significant other” but the “other parent” in the home. Never leaving, never going back to their own place leaving the kids with their biological parent to be back in charge. The expectation that things will remain the same after marriage for all involved can be overwhelmingly disheartening to one or both of the parents in the blended family home (and to the kids as well). This is where the therapeutic process takes a drastic turn and difference from working with the nuclear family. You cannot draw upon the undying love they have for their child and the deep desire for connection when you are talking and working with someone who does not have that same level of love for this child/children because it isn’t something that happens naturally or right away. So the nature and approach of counseling with this couple and/or family has to take an entirely different approach. It often takes longer to see results with these families and requires a lot of compromise, selflessness and “strong back-bone” for the step parent that is involved. Why? Because not only is it hard to work with someone who has not developed deep affection for one that is not their own, it is equally hard to get children, much less teens, to be willing to do the same thing. Everyone wants to blame the other. Everyone wants to say “when he/she starts respecting me, I’ll respect them”. People separate and go to their corners and they dig their heels in. The sad part is, often times, the biological parent is the one in the middle. The biological parent is the corner stone in which all anger, disdain, frustration, and irritation gets directed to as each side wants the biological parent to take their side and “make it right”.
The biological parent typically presents in counseling as worn out, feeling great hopelessness and not really knowing where to start, asking “can this be salvaged or even worked out to a healthy level?”. I believe it can. It comes down to one word that sums up everything: Perseverance.
Tune in to the next blog as we address the different areas of perseverance in the blended family.
Shari Linger, LMHC
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