Thought your divorce was hard on you and the children? I’m certain it was, although there are new research studies coming out that it’s better on your children than having them remain with you in a high-conflict marriage. But the divorce and its consequences may be nothing compared to how hard the situation becomes when you remarry.
There are two major topics to deal with for the blended family, how to deal with your former spouse, and how to parent your own children.
The first issue that really must be addressed is how to deal with your former spouse as you’re going ahead and building your own separate (but quite equal!) life. It is crucial that you set proper step-family boundaries. Realize that if you have not separated psychologically from your ex-spouse, you must find a friend or counselor to help you work through that issue. On your own, set limits on the number of phone calls, letters, and e-mails you and your former spouse exchange, even if s/he has not separated emotionally from you. And now is the time, even if you never accomplished it before, to give up the wish to receive approval and appreciation from your ex.
That does not mean you should cut your ex off completely. It’s important to remember that studies have consistently shown that children who have contact with both parents on a regular basis adjust better than those who don’t. So you might be playing the role of making sure that contact happens. Keep these thoughts in mind as you facilitate a relationship between your child and your ex-spouse:
The parent with whom the child lives most of the time is responsible for ensuring that the other parent has a fair opportunity to be with the children.
You should include the children’s other parent in decisions involving them, including trips to Hawaii that impinge on previously agreed-upon visitation times, signing your child up for lessons that involve the other parent as a personal chauffeur, holiday vacations where your child is home all day with unstructured time, and working parents need a back-up plan.
In terms of coordination, if all the adults can talk together about the arrangements, that’s the best scenario. If not, have the adults who can relate the most easily make the plans–and that might not be the biological parents.
Also, do not involve young children in conversations regarding plans with the other biological parent, or any decisions about visitation, but do encourage older children to have input about arrangements affecting them before you go ahead and make contact with the other household. Just allowing your (older) children to have a voice can make all the difference in the success of the blended family.
As you work out a system of sharing your child, recognize that no two households operate on the same rules. Set the ones you want for your home–but realize that you must allow your ex to set the rules for his/her own home.
Make it clear that families do things differently, not right or wrong, although occasionally adults may need to get together to discuss some rather unusual situation. One step-father and mother in my practice, for example, were able to convince the wife’s ex-husband that their eight-year-old child should not, in fact, be going with them to X-rated movies, and I’d have to call that a victory. But how the children dress, what they eat, or what time they go to bed–within reason–must just be accepted as different between the households. “Daddy lets me stay up until 10:00” should hold no sway with you, and a simple, “9:00 is the bedtime we have in this household” is the only response necessary.