People often think they can resolve difficult “blending” issues by spending a lot of time with the entire new family together, but this is when differences are heightened, says Patricia Papernow, one of America’s foremost experts on stepfamily dynamics. Instead, try her effective solution, even if it may seem counterintuitive at first. From The Remarriage Blueprint: How Remarried Couples and Their Families Succeed or Fail.
The most helpful way of dealing with these structural problems is, in Papernow’s words, to “compartmentalize, compartmentalize, compartmentalize.” That is, carve out space and time for one-to-one relationships across the family spectrum.
The biological parent-child duo should have time alone, because the kids do need that ongoing, consistent connection with the parent. The stepparent/child pair should also have time alone, because while this new family member is viewed as a big plus by the spouse, he or she is often experienced as a minus by the children: he or she is an outlander, whom they didn’t have a voice in choosing. Moreover, this new arrival undoubtedly involves some lessening of the parent’s attentiveness (he or she is in love) and some changes in the rhythm of daily life. Such changes are hard to deal with for these youngsters, who have dealt with many losses and upheavals already. The new family member’s appearance on the domestic scene is also highly likely to stir up some feelings of competition and resentment.
The stepparent and the spouse’s children need to get to know one another much better, so perhaps she or he and a stepdaughter might go to a movie or go shopping together. Perhaps the stepparent can take the partner’s son to a sporting event (without the boy’s parent coming along) or ask the youngster to teach him or her a skill. For instance, the stepson might show the family newcomer how to Tweet or establish a presence on Facebook. The stepparent could spend some time playing a board game or helping a younger child with homework. In short, the lately arrived “parent” and the child or children need to get connected with one another on a one-to-one basis, which they can do best when the biological parent isn’t present or at least is not overseeing the activity.
Last, but certainly far from least, the remarried spouses should carve out “insider” time to spend together—time that will be uninterrupted by the youngsters’ issues, difficulties, and demands. They might take a regular evening out, especially before noncustodial children are to appear on the scene. “You do have to put energy into the stepcouple,” says Papernow. “But what the research shows very clearly is that what works best is arranging for one-to-one time throughout the entire family. Compartmentalize,” she reiterates, “and use that one-to-one time to establish good connections.”
Sign up to receive the latest tips on Relationships: