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Dating Advice #160 - The Blended Family Challenge

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

They're headed for marriage, but her children and his children are not cooperating.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I am a 40-year-old professional female, divorced, with two sons ages 9 and 12. Three years ago I met a man (Steve), early 40s, whose wife had recently died of cancer. Steve had been with his wife for 22 years, and they have three children, ages 9, 13 and 15.

When I met Steve, I was still bitter from a very bad divorce. I never wanted to get married again after what I had been through. Steve convinced me, though his loving and caring ways, that he is a good person, and he restored my faith in men. We enjoy many activities together, and we enjoy just being together. We live 30 miles apart, but we see each other at least once or twice a week.

Now for the problem: Our five children. Steve's daughters "guilt" him into letting them do whatever they want. He waits on them hand-and-foot and caters to their every whim. He constantly has to work around their social schedules, dropping them off and picking them up.

Both his daughters have a "love-hate" relationship with me. Sometimes they give me hugs and treat me with respect. Other times they get angry and blame me for whatever they come up with. They are extremely jealous of their father's relationship with me. Also, Steve's son gets jealous and aggressive toward my children if Steve pays them any attention.

My question is: After three years of dating, is it reasonable to continue in this courtship? I have told Steve numerous times that I am ready to get engaged, even if it is a long engagement. We actually even went and looked at rings a few months back. Then I get "cold feet" about taking on the responsibility of his children. He seems less committal than me. He talks about us getting married in 7-8 years after our children get out of the nest.

Is this realistic? Are we just putting each other off? Should we continue to live apart for the children's sake, and be lonely without each other by our side? I'm very confused. Please offer any insight that you may have regarding second marriages with children.


Dear Stefanie,

It seems that if you remain in this sort of limbo for much longer, the relationship is going to suffer. Both of you are ready to move it to a higher level, and you will become increasing frustrated, and possibly resentful, when that doesn't happen.

With all the difficulties people have finding the right person and getting to the point of engagement, children definitely compound the issue. In this case, you aren't dealing with a hopeless situation. It sounds as if you and Steve are both doing good jobs raising your children, and they don't have deep, troubling issues. However, it is only natural that there is a certain amount of conflict between the children and ambivalence about your involvement with each other.

Part is due to the fact that these are budding teenagers, trying to deal with their own unresolved issues from the loss of a parent or the breakup of a marriage, experiencing the same uncertainties about themselves that all kids go through, and dealing with personality conflicts between themselves and the new kids that will possibly become part of their family.

It is no wonder that blending a family is a tremendous challenge. Most children want their parents to be happy, but they often do not know how to deal with the changes that accompany their parent's new romantic involvement. They want to know that when someone else comes into the family, the child's place in their parent's heart is secure, and that they can rely on their parent to meet their emotional needs. They are puzzled by the role the step-parent will now play in their lives. They have to adjust to another adult's personality and quirks, and the changes a blended family will make on their routine and their existing relationship with their parent.

Further, children may experience resentment because they see their parent's new spouse as trying to "replace" their biological parent. They may react against this by trying to defend the honor of their beloved, deceased parent and may seek to "keep her memory alive" by not allowing anyone else to step in. Or, as may be happening with Steve's children, they may struggle with ambivalence, getting along with you but simultaneously feeling guilt that they may be betraying their mother's memory because they do so.

The way you can counteract this is to go to all lengths to show respect for their biological mother, and assure them that you will work to ensure that she will never be forgotten.

This will not solve the problem overnight, but it gives the children the emotional security they need. They will slowly begin to trust you more, and it gives you a good chance of success.

With more than 20 years of experience as a family lawyer behind her, Sherry has seen that despite the challenges of marrying when one or both parties already have children, when both a man and a woman are flexible, growing, and well-adjusted people, they can marry and successfully blend their families. However, particularly where adolescents are involved, where there seems to be personality conflict, or where a child has not worked through residual issues stemming from the loss of a parent or a divorce, the couple should work with a therapist to help them make the transition.

Sherry recommends that you and Steve agree in principle to marry at the time that your inter-family relationship considerably improves, and then begin now to address the issues with a therapist (or possibly a separate one for each family), before the engagement takes place. And you should expect that therapy will be ongoing during your engagement, and for at least the initial phase of your marriage.

We hope that you find our suggestions helpful, and that you and your children are soon able to have a harmonious family life -- for the most part, that is; life with kids is never uneventful and is always challenging!

Rosie & Sherry

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