Blending families isn’t for the faint of heart. Follow these guidelines from Sandi Patty to create a strong foundation for the future.
Starting a new marriage is tough. Trying to manage a new home, new rituals and new relationships between step-siblings and step-parents is even tougher. Sandi Patty, author of Life in the Blender: Blending Families, Lives, and Relationships With Grace, reveals the key lessons she learned when she married her husband, Don, creating a new family with their eight kids.
What are the biggest challenges for blended families?
Every blended family is born out of loss. That doesn’t mean it can’t become successful, but it’s a very important reality to understand and accept from the beginning. Either there is a loss of a spouse or parent through a death, or there is a loss of a family unit through divorce.
The most important relationship in the blended family is between the two people who actually chose the chaos—the husband and wife. The kids didn’t choose it, and often their bonding takes a lot of time. But the adults chose it, and that relationship must be nurtured. It is the foundation of the family.
How can you create a strong base and routine, especially if you think differently about discipline and rituals?
It is so important that the adult relationship be built on a firm foundation and continue to grow and be strong. Many, many conversations need to happen before you bring the kids into the mix. In our [mine and Don’s] opinion, each spouse needs to have properly grieved the former relationship. Whether divorce or death, grieving and assessing must be done so that the same mistakes aren’t made.
We believe strongly in good, healthy counseling. I had someone early on after my divorce tell me, “Don’t even think about another relationship for 12 months!” That was fantastic advice.
Nurturing that primary relationship becomes vital. Don and I had date night every single week. The kids knew that Thursday nights were date night. Don and I tried—we didn’t always succeed—to not talk about the kids, but to talk about each other and really invest in each other. We did spend time eventually talking about our kids because we’re so crazy about them. Even though we’re empty nesters, we still go on dates. I look forward to it every week. And, yes, we still talk about our kids.
What effect might a new baby have on a blended family?
Don and I had seven kids when we got married, 11 and younger. I had four, Don had three, and six months after we married, we adopted our youngest. We hadn’t really planned to adopt at that time, but there was a baby who needed a home and, though we didn’t know it, we needed him. Don was adopted as an infant, so the idea of adoption was very special to us.
When we found out that “our” baby was available, we called the kids to a family meeting. My youngest daughter didn’t really want me to “birth” another baby. But when we explained what adoption looked like, they were all in. As we look back, we realized that Sam—who is now 19—is the first thing that was “ours” in our family. Up until then, it was “yours” or “mine.” But Sam became ours, and it was truly one of the first steps in the blending for our kids.
How can couples help step-siblings get along?
Don and I said early on to the kids, “We know you didn’t choose this, and we get that you may not even like each other. That’s OK. But you do have to respect each other.” And let me just add, we didn’t come up with that on our own. That’s where our counseling came in very, very handy! We also initiated family meetings where we tried to put some structure around conflict and resolution. We would all gather together—usually Sunday night—to talk through the upcoming week. Then, we would give the kids an opportunity to discuss anything that they needed to discuss. We tried—although honestly it failed more than not—to at least put some structure around what it looked like to voice your feelings and to listen to other people’s feelings.
We also made a big point of eating dinners together. This was much easier when the kids were younger. During dinner, we would go around the table and share our highs and lows for the day. What was good? What was not so good? Again, we tried to facilitate opportunity and instruction for conversation. You have to practice those things when you are young—good, healthy conversation is a learned quality. For adults, too.
What happens when children simply don't get along with a step-parent?
We had to learn, the hard way, that a step-relationship is different. At first, we tried to treat every kid the same. But it’s hard for me as a stepmom to say things to my step-kids the way I say them to my own kids. I think the step relationship resembles more of a beloved teacher or coach.
For instance, I might say to my son, “Hey dude, I asked you five times to clean up your room, so now you go and clean up your room, this second!” I’d be more tactful with my stepson: “Hey, you know what? You and I had a conversation about cleaning your room and you had assured me and your dad you would get that done. So can you tell me your plan, cause we really need that to happen!”
A little more patience is involved in a step relationship, and that’s OK. I know that my step kids and I have really worked on developing our own relationship, and it’s beautiful and sweet. But you know what, they have a mom. They love their mom. And I’m so glad they do.
The most tension in a step relationship usually comes when the step parents give off the attitude that they’re jealous of the parental bond. You can never, ever be in competition with the other parent. You will lose. I promise. But you can come alongside and be another voice that speaks to that child’s life.
Don had to be the “heavy” with his kids and I had to be the “heavy” with my kids. Poor Sam got the “heavy” from us both.
Blended families and their dynamics take time. Be patient with the process and with everyone in the family. Grace should abound.
Who makes the rules? What happens if a step-parent tries to enforce a rule but a stepchild says “You’re not my parent!”?
You simply answer that question with the truth. “No, you’re right. I’m not your parent. But these are the rules that we have established here at this house, and we need you to follow them. You are welcome to bring it up at the family meeting if you like.” This is where the patience and grace come in. You have to remain adult. It means you learn to lead with calm confidence, and then go cry in your room if you need to.
What are some strategies for creating new traditions and a fresh sense of home and place?
The sooner you can make something “ours,” the better. There will be plenty of yours and mine going on. Some of our friends have gone to pick out a new pet together. They all go house shopping together. Anything that makes something “new” is what you’re after. Again, don’t try to compete with the other parent. It won’t go well for you. But maybe try a new holiday tradition of making ornaments, or some new recipe that everyone helped create.
What are the rewards of having a blended family?
The rewards probably don’t look like rewards in the beginning. For the kids especially, they realize early on that life is not perfect. Like I said, it doesn’t start out as a reward, but it becomes one. One time early on in our blending process, I did a radio interview. It was definitely one of my really frustrating days. The interviewer asked me what I thought the kids had learned in this process. Feeling rather flippant, I said, “Honestly, I think all they have learned is that life isn’t perfect, you are gonna make mistakes, but God is going to be there for through all of it.” And then I startled myself by saying, “Hey, you know what? That’s not so bad!” Sometimes there’s no other way to “get through” than to “get through!”
What hard-won lessons have you learned along the way?
That blended families are born out of loss. To be the champion in the step-child relationship. To nurture the primary relationship. And give everyone a voice and a choice.
Our thanks to Life Reimagined for this article. Life Reimagined provides personalized guidance to help you navigate life’s transitions and live your life to the fullest. The content on the Life Reimagined site encompasses a broad range of topics to help you live a purposeful life, explore what's next in your life and act on it.