The Challenges of Blended Families

Hopefully, single adults with children will talk about the issues of co-parenting and blending a family before they try it. Raising children together involves values, parenting and discipline styles, religion and ethnic traditions, which must be understood and agreed upon by the parents. Blended families can be a challenge, but I also have many adults in my practice who say a caring, helpful step-parent was the best thing that happened to them. Your step children will challenge your authority, but don’t forget, they do this with their birth parents, too. The most important thing is to give the various relationships time. Single parents should never rush into marriage before they’ve worked out their parenting, discipline, household rules, finances, etc. If you’re not of one accord, your children will use it to “divide and conquer”—to the detriment of everyone, including themselves. The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again contains many guidelines for dating as a single parent which can help you begin this process on the right foot.

Once you’ve done the deed, however, you’ll have to work through anything that didn’t get handled. I highly recommend family meetings (which include everyone) on a weekly basis. These meetings can be used to discuss issues before they become big problems, and to plan family time. Children should also be involved in making decisions. When the children feel they’ve been heard, they’ll be less resistant to family rules. If the children have a say in devising reasonable punishments for infractions, they’ll feel the rules are fairer. Consistency is important, and so is setting boundaries.

Change is difficult for everyone, so understand that it will take a while for things to settle down. If you’re consistent about enforcing the rules, loving and available as much as possible, and each child has some special recognition for his or her activities, talents and needs, your new blended family will work smoothly. Blended families also often have to deal with shared custody, with various children leaving at different times to spend time with the other birth parent. These changes require “re-entry” discussions and rituals, so everyone can adjust each time they reconnect.

Blended families and ethnic groups mean that couples must learn to honor different traditions, lifestyles and preferences when they marry. The process begins with the wedding, when often more than one religious tradition and cultural style are incorporated. Blending and fusing goes on for years, as your relationship develops and your family grows. New couples must learn to accept and appreciate each other’s holiday celebrations, foods, and also the more subtle emotional style of each others’ family. One family may think being loving is exactly what the other family sees as terribly intrusive. One partner may value sharing and intimacy, the other may value respect and privacy. Blending these styles is not easy, but the rewards are great. Couples may find they’re experiencing the Disaster Equation:

I love you the way I want to be loved + you love me the way you want to be loved = Neither feels loved, or appreciated for being loving.

Learning to understand, respect and value each other’s styles leads to a solution:

(I love you the way I want to be loved + the way I’ve learned that you want to be loved) + (You love me the way you want to be loved + the way you’ve learned I want to be loved) = both of us feel loved and appreciated for being loving + [bonus] each feels that the other cared enough to learn to understand.

This bonus is the great reward we’re all seeking in marriage.

Clash of Faith

Very often, couples take their religious beliefs and background lightly until they have children. As adults, many couples can give each other the space to have different beliefs, even to go to different services or practice different rituals and holidays. But, when children come into the picture, things change abruptly. Suddenly, parents feel that they are fighting for the souls of their children. Some religions mandate how children must be raised in a mixed family. Families can get involved in the struggle, too

Religion More Important for Parents

When you’re in love, happy and excited, issues like differences in religion don’t seem to be a big problem. For some couples, the issue does arise when they get married, especially if they have a big wedding involving family and friends. Even so, it’s not too difficult to find a compromise such as a secular, mixed religious or nondenominational ceremony. But adults who can be rational about their own personal faith, or can ignore faith for themselves, often find they cannot feel the same detachment when it comes to questions of how (or even whether) to bring their children up in a faith. This problem is intensified when there is a component of criticism of each other’s religion. If one or both of you believes that your faith is the “one, true” belief, or if you believe that your partner’s beliefs are not valid or serious, that dismissive attitude can lead to explosive arguments.

Religion is a loaded subject, because it has such profound emotional, historical, ancestral and social meaning. Religion may lie dormant when everything is going smoothly, but as the saying goes “there are no atheists in foxholes” when we are under stress or pressure, in grief or extremis, most people turn to religion for support and meaning. We can keep our faith to ourselves when we’re just a couple—in fact most people believe faith should be a private matter. But, having children brings it all up to the surface. Because most people do have a foundation of faith in the back of their minds to draw on in times of need, they want their children to have the same support.

Also, many parents usually think that religious education is necessary to give children a moral foundation, with guidelines to follow about right and wrong. On the other hand, some people who are atheist or agnostic and regard religion as a negative influence are determined that their children be raised religion-free. Fights about these issues can be devastating and intractable, and religion can be a very touchy issue for couples. Not only is it a personal choice, it also has generations of tradition and family pressure behind it. Religion is an emotionally laden topic, heavy with family and cultural history. In fact, research shows that culture is the biggest determining factor in what religion people follow. So, differences in religion can be very difficult to sort out. Couples who have these differences need to consider all possibilities, including blending religious traditions, in order to reach a workable place.

Most clergy are not as adamant about these issues as individuals can be: every sizable community has an ecumenical council, at which members of all faiths meet to promote tolerance and interfaith communication. Usually, a responsible spiritual counselor will focus on preserving the family, even if it means compromising some rules. Unfortunately, many of these fights come down to “my belief is better than your belief” which is a fight no one can win.

Creative Blending

Seeking understanding and unity, which are basic tenets of most religions, are the attitudes that will lead to solving problems of religion and how to give your children a religious background. “Interfaith families who take the religious development of their children seriously can model healthy and respectful pluralism. They can live out what should be the goal for society as a whole,” maintains religious scholar Darrel H. Jodock, whose research focuses on religious trends in America and Jewish-Christian relations. When you learn about each other’s faith (or non-religious beliefs) in a spirit of acceptance and tolerance you can then create a blend of your own.

Of course, it’s easiest if this is done before having children, because the stakes don’t seem as high, but couples don’t often think of this ahead of time. Your relationship and your family bonding will benefit when you learn to overcome your differences: “Trimming the Christmas tree or lighting menorah candles together may strengthen your marriage,” said Syracuse University psychology professor Barbara Fiese, who studied 120 couples’ religious holiday rituals. “We have found that couples who embrace their rituals reaffirm beliefs as well as a relationship."”

Guidelines for Resolving or Blending Religious Differences

When you and your partner disagree about faith, you may have great difficulty resolving the issue, because it has so much meaning for each of you, and also because your family pressures and obligations affect the decision. If one of you is disinterested, and the other deems faith important, you may wind up having a power struggle about the children and the extended family. Resolving this requires understanding exactly what is important to each partner. Is it what the family will think? Is it concern that the difference will separate you? The following guidelines will help you resolve your religious differences and the question of how to raise your children:

Agree to Resolve the Issue: Do what it takes to figure out how to work together on this, rather than fight about it. Understand that raising your children with good values can happen no matter which religion or belief you frame those values in, and that having a good, working partnership is more important to your own happiness and your children’s well-being than any particular set of beliefs, traditions or rituals. If you have to go for counseling to get to a point where you can talk calmly about the subject; then do so.

Do Research: You need to know enough about each other’s beliefs, religious background, and the options available to be able to reach a mutually satisfactory solution. Talk to each other, to your families, if possible, and to clergy to get as much information as you can. Find the most tolerant, knowledgeable and supportive people you can to talk to, and listen to their point of view about it. You don’t have to agree with your partner to understand what he or she is thinking.

Give Yourselves Time: Don’t insist that you have to make this decision right now. The more time you can spend understanding the issues and developing options, the more likely you’ll come up with a solution both of you can accept. No matter how long you waited to discuss this, or how long you’ve been struggling about it, you still don’t have to decide it in a rush.

Talk About It Repeatedly: Talk to other couples, to clergy, to friends and to family several times to create more understanding and brainstorm about options. If you can find other couples who have resolved religious differences, find out what they decided.

Explain Your Partner’s Point of View: When talking about it to each other, or to someone else who is supportive, explain each other’s point of view, which will help you understand.

Focus on Your Children: Keep your focus on what would be best for your children, and if they are old enough to understand, bring them into the discussion. Don’t try to persuade them to either side, but present the options as objectively as you can, and find out what your children think about it.

Experiment: Be willing to try some experiments. You could devote every other week to each religion, for example, devoting one week to each religion, reading books on each other’s faith or belief, etc. One couple tried living Jewish traditions the first and third weeks of the month and Catholic traditions on the second and fourth weeks.

Create a Blend of Your Own: Whether you realize it or not, within the doctrine, liturgy and beliefs of every religion, people are picking and choosing. You can belong to a neighborhood church that is Presbyterian, for example, and find another Presbyterian church down the street handling things in a different way. Of course, the differences between two different faiths or beliefs will probably be much greater, but you can still adapt the tenets of your different beliefs in a way that will work for both of you. If you could be flexible and tolerant enough to marry someone of a different faith, you can be flexible enough to develop a blend of both beliefs that will be workable.

Avoid Right/wrong Discussions: As I’ve mentioned before, arguing about who is right or wrong will not solve anything. Instead, work on understanding what is important to each of you, then finding a way to incorporate that and resolve your differences. Focus on the problem only long enough to understand what it is, then switch the focus of your discussion to what will work, and what will solve the problem that both of you can live with your mutual decision.

© 2014 Tina B. Tessina
Adapted from: Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Squabbling About the Three Things That Can Destroy Your Marriage (Adams Media) ISBN# 978-1-59869-325-6


Author Bio:
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 35 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again; Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, The Commuter Marriage, and her newest, The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty and Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She writes the “Dr. Romance” blog, and the “Happiness Tips from Tina” email newsletter.

Dr. Tessina is CRO (Chief Romance Officer) for LoveForever.com, a website designed to strengthen relationships and guide couples through the various stages of their relationship with personalized tips, courses, and online couples counseling. Online, she’s known as “Dr. Romance.” Dr. Tessina appears frequently on radio, and such TV shows as “Oprah”, “Larry King Live” and ABC News.

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