A marriage is the start of a new life with your partner, whether it’s your first trip down the aisle or you’ve gotten back in the game after a divorce. It’s an exciting time for all involved, but if this isn’t your first rodeo, you may not be the only one joining a new family. If you (and your partner!) have children from previous relationships, you’re not just tying the knot—you’re blending families. Of course, everyone hopes this process will be an easy one, but with so many players and emotions involved, it’s worth putting a little extra thought into the process. Not sure where to start? We’ve spoken with Linda Lipshutz, a marriage and family therapist and founder of Palm Beach Family Therapy, a private practice in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, to put together a list of the top eight things you need to know and consider as you go from “yours” and “mine” to “ours.”
1. Remember that this will be an adjustment for your children.
Your kids may have gone through a lot by the time you’re ready to marry again. “Your children have had to adjust to and deal with the impact of decisions they had no say in, from their parents’ decision to end the marriage to life with a single parent, and now accepting their parent’s new partner,” says Lipshutz. “Adults often expect children to embrace these changes, then are frustrated when they don’t jump on board with enthusiasm.” Many parents give their children extra undivided attention after a separation, which is reduced when a new partner enters the picture, and that can be jarring. “It’s important to let your children know that you are sensitive to their feelings and acknowledge that you are asking them to adjust to so much change. Communicate respect and care for their feelings, but be careful not to let them take charge of the situation,” Lipshutz continues. “To ease the difficulties of all this change, remain confident and in charge. Maintain routines and traditions to provide support and continuity, demonstrating that not everything will change.”
2. Encourage your partner and children to bond one on one.
“You can’t assume that your partner and children will bond immediately, if at all,” says Lipshutz. “Don’t rush them to become fast friends, but provide opportunities where they can get to know one another and form bonds of their own, without you there to play referee.” While bonding may not come easy, the value is undeniable. Suggests Lipshutz, “Invite your new partner to join in family activities and routines, such as attending sporting events or helping with homework. This will create a defined environment in which they can start to get to know one another. It can be helpful if your partner talks to your child about the new relationship, acknowledging that they will never try to undermine the children’s relationship with their biological parent, but that they are looking forward to building their own, new relationship.”
3. Give it time.
“Trying to fast-track the process rarely works,” says Lipshutz. “Our children need time to adjust first to the breakup of their original family, next to meeting their parent’s new love interest, and ultimately to recognizing that all the parties will now be living under one roof. Children are more likely to adjust to new personalities and arrangements if they don’t feel they’re being pushed into a bond at a fast pace. If we show consideration, give them a sense that we are open to them taking their time, and allow things to progress more organically, there’s a more likely chance that they’ll begin to get on board.”
4. Give your children personal attention.
It’s important to maintain your own relationship with each child in this context as well. “Many children are, understandably, worried that they are at risk of losing the love and attention of their biological parent. They fear their parent may love their new spouse (and the spouse’s children) so much that they will not have an important place in the mix,” Lipshutz explains. “As you begin to bring two families together, it is helpful to offer your children plenty of one-on-one time with you, reassuring them of how important they are.” Also, make an effort to maintain previously enjoyed traditions and experiences. “Children fare best when they know they have ample private access to their own parent for shared quality activities, as well as to have the opportunity for personal discussions without reprisals. Schedule regular quiet time together too, whether it’s near bedtime or when out running errands together,” Lipshutz suggests.
5. Help your children connect with one another.
If you are both bringing children to the relationship, it’s also important to find ways to help them form bonds of their own. “The best way to introduce two sets of children will vary, depending on their personalities and ages,” says Lipshutz. “Go slowly, starting with shorter visits at the beginning so as not to overwhelm anyone.” It is always important to emphasize the need for mutual respect and consideration, but beyond that it is key to give each child the leeway to be his or her own person. “For example, if one child is shyer and prefers video games to sports, it could be stressful to insist he or she join a game of basketball with an athletic step-sibling. Make suggestions of activities that are common ground for both children, and then over time you can assess how to step up expectations and encourage them to participate in one another’s interests.”
6. Collaborate with your partner.
“Parents face a real challenge as they blend both families. It is important to recognize that you bring different backgrounds and parenting styles to the relationship and that it will take time for the two of you to compromise and form a new set of skills together,” says Lipshutz. Work together to determine a united approach that you will both follow with your own and your partner’s children. “Both parents need to collaborate to send a united message about family culture and values,” Lipshutz continues. “The newly married couple must anticipate that there will be challenges and should take the time to agree upon how these things will be either avoided or dealt with.” For example, you might agree that certain decisions are only ever made after consulting with each other, or that neither will discipline the other’s child without consulting with their partner for input first. “These conversations will help you both become more aware of what you bring to the relationship, as well as any personality concerns you might have about how your children will react, giving your partner a peek into your child’s personality.”
7. Create a safe space.
Understanding that your children will be dealing with a number of changes means it is crucial to create a space where they can express their feelings and voice their opinions. “Ultimately the parents are in charge, but they should be sensitive and allow children to respectfully speak up,” Lipshutz says. Of course, encouraging your children to express themselves does not mean every request will be met. “Reassure your children that there will be structure and continuity. Bring the family together to create a dialogue around the dinner table or at a designated family time, when everyone is encouraged to collaborate and talk together.” Send a message that everyone will take turns discussing and expressing their feelings and that in the spirit of the new family, you will all use flexibility and reason to come to a solution. “It is important to make sure your children understand that the final decision-making will still lie with the adults,” Lipshutz says.
8. Make your marriage a priority.
While so much of blending a family is about the children involved, your relationship and your marriage are important too. “Carve out personal time to nourish your own relationship with your partner,” says Lipshutz. “There is so much value in children observing two people who genuinely care about and respect each other.” Refrain from overt and excessive shows of affection, understanding that your children will always feel loyalty to their other biological parent, your former spouse or partner.