Step families: happy ending or heartache?

Joe Adamson*  shares his own experiences, in order to reach others who feel that they have failed or haven’t lived up to the “Walt Disney” version of such blended relationships.

There has been much discussion in recent times regarding the increasingly growing phenomenon of stepfamilies or blended families. Over the past decade, or two, it has become part of mainstream discourse as nearly half of all weddings today create a step-family.

If you are thinking of taking this pathway, from my experience it’s worth considering a number of critical factors.

My new partner and I had a child each, almost the same age. We met, fell in love, wanted to be together. All we thought we then needed to do was to blend our children (and ourselves) into the one abode and the end credits would come up with wide closing-shot, blissful music track, leading to happy ever after. Not the case.

What we really brought to the table were our own external influences fused by our backgrounds, experiences, education, parents, family life, values, beliefs and expectations. We were strangers sharing a strange, new landscape.

It becomes about cause and blame.

Different parenting styles can be a real relationship stopper if you don’t discuss this from the outset. The kids can be affected, as they don’t understand what is going on or why there are all these new rules and regulations. Why are they even living under the same roof? And we, as new partners, then question each other on how to parent. It sounds simple and obvious. But it isn’t.

When you make it up on the run, there isn’t time for reflection; rather it becomes a series of collisions that have far-reaching consequences for the relationship and the children. It becomes about cause and blame. The relationship takes a hit no matter how much in love you are with your other half. As a close friend of mine told me, “managing your own children in a relationship is hard enough, let alone managing someone else’s children!” Very true words indeed.

Recent US and Australian studies reveal that around about 60 to 70 percent of marriages involving children from a previous marriage do in fact fail. This is a telling statistic in itself. There are many other pressures and influences that can lead to this. It would be foolish to blame it all on a lack of communication and poor foresight.

My suggestion is to discuss all these issues long before you enter the shared space. It takes time to know someone and their children, how they parent, what they can live with and what they will not tolerate.

In summary:

  • Do not rush into moving in together.
  • Acknowledge the statistics; have honest discussions with your partner and test the waters through shared occasions.
  • Do not judge your partner. Discuss your differences and search for common ground.
  • Do not compare your child’s behaviour with your partner’s child. They are individuals with different needs.

Invest time in this process so that you don’t end up causing unnecessary upheaval in the lives of all involved.  Seek counsel and do your research. Many do make it work. You have a good chance of ending up in the 30 to 40 percent of stepfamilies that succeed. The reward for your efforts can be a wonderful life together — for everyone concerned.

• name withheld by request