I live in a blended family and it is one wild ride. At first, of course, everyone was excited about living together and then reality set in. When life in a blended family is challenging, what makes it so?
My wife, Hope, and I are fully invested in our family of seven, so we talk often about how things are going. We’ve discovered something profound – blended family members threaten family myths.
Family myths are beliefs that aren’t based on reality or at least a fuller understanding of reality. All families engage in myth making, which is used to project a picture of family goodness or perfection. Probably the most common one is for family members to say, We’re very close as a family. When therapists ask people about their family of origin, they inevitably start and end with that statement, while in between, they describe a family that is anything but close. The myth is maintained to protect the family image.
Other myths involve specific blended family members. Little Joanie is so sweet. She is so obedient and helpful to her sisters, mother might say. If you observe little Joanie, you may find that she can indeed be sweet. You may also watch her steal from her sisters, agree to do her homework right away, but promptly go outside to play, and even swear like a little sailor among her friends. Confront mother with this information and you may find that she becomes very defensive of her sweet little girl.
We go to great lengths to protect our myths. Troubled actress Lindsay Lohan’s little sister, Ali, has recently created a reality television show in order to protect the family image. Ali explained, “I want everyone to know that my mum is not a crazy freak who’s just trying to be famous and be in the spotlight. She’s not. She’s just helping her kids follow their dreams in life, just like any other mum would.”
Under the spell of a myth, we don’t realize how silly we appear to outsiders. This is where blended families can get into big trouble quickly. If you are Sweet Little Joanie’s stepparent and not susceptible to the myth, you’re likely to catch on to how Joanie really behaves. You are not likely to be so impressed with little Joanie as her mother is. Proceed to point out the obvious need for improvement to her mother and you’ve just gotten in line at the Tower.
This phenomenon is complicated by the fact that your partner may simultaneously point toward an aspect of your family myth that you are not prepared to see, and so on. Pretty soon everything but the kitchen sink is enlisted in defending the imaginary tales we tell ourselves while justifying our family story. Amazing.
We organize our lives and identities around these myths, treating people who challenge them as if they are evil incarnate. What can we do? Tobi and I have come up with seven ideas that, in our experience, have helped us navigate the theme park of our blended family. We hope they are helpful to you.
Blended Family Tip #1. Give it time. People need time to adjust to a new family. Expecting step relationships to mature quickly creates unnecessary stress. It can take months and years for kinship and trust to develop in a blended family. Take some pressure off yourself and your family by expanding your time frame.
Blended Family Tip #2. Give credit to your partner. You committed to your partner because you believe he or she is worth spending your life with, give this person some credit when you receive feedback. If you find yourself getting defensive, it probably means that your partner has a point. A little humility here may open your eyes to see what you’ve never noticed before in your family. This may be the most productive and healthy step you can take.
Blended Family Tip #3. Know your limits. If your partner is not open to your ideas about his or her children, then consider that there is a limit to how much power you have. This limit is a good thing. A step parent’s role is tricky. If you’re insistent on too much authority for yourself, you’ll find many obstacles ahead. Always ask yourself, “What is my role in this situation? How much power should I have?”
Blended Family Tip #4. See greatness. People making sincere efforts at blending families should be considered heroes. Everyone in a blended family has experienced the pain and loss of a family falling apart; they should be treated with dignity for any positive efforts and starting over. See the greatness in each family member and acknowledge their positive contributions to family life.
Blended Family Tip #5. Get real. Expectations are everything. If you expect your stepchildren to give you the appreciation you deserve, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Do your best for your family, but don’t expect to get all the credit you deserve. This is a tough one. Asking your stepchildren to appreciate you more than they do their natural parents is even tougher.
Blended Family Tip #6. Know your purpose. A sense of purpose sustains us through the tough times. Do you discuss mutual goals with your partner? Do you know what kind of life that you are aiming for? What are your shared values, hopes, dreams and vision for your future? Commonality on these fronts is the solid foundation that you can always fall back on.
Blended Family Tip #7. Work on yourself. At the end of the day, it all comes down to you. Foolish people blame others in the midst of their own self-blindness. With regard to the difficult areas in your family, look at yourself first. Where can you make changes? How can you grow and mature as a person? How does your behavior affect those whom you love? Answering these questions first is always a wise move.