Working Successfully Across Households

A common outcome of divorce involving children is some form of shared custody that allows children contact and co-residence with their biological parents at alternating times. Current research suggests that regardless of residence, children benefit when they have stable, loving relationships with both parents. This is the ideal for children and should be pursued, unless one parent has problems that place the child in danger. Shared custody arrangements are best for children when all parties agree and parents are willing to work hard, sacrifice, and cooperate.

Eventually, however, one or both of the former spouses will likely marry. One of the trickiest challenges for many stepfamilies is learning to work together with another household and share the parenting of children with another parent and possibly another stepparent as well. This article provides some ideas that can help.

Create a Parent Coalition

If you were divorced prior to remarriage, you may have had a co-parenting plan with your former spouse. Now that you have remarried, or if your partner remarries, there will be additional parental figures in the picture, even if these additional persons play only a minor parenting role. An important task of successful stepfamily development, according to Emily and John Visher, is the creation of a parent coalition.

According to the Vishers, having civil relationships among the adults surrounding the children benefits children and adults alike, even in cases where there is little contact among the adults. Having a “neutral, businesslike relationship” reduces adults’ worries about children’s acceptance of both parents and stepparents. Try seeing your new relationship as a cooperative business partnership with the best interests of your children as the top priority.

Continued contact with both parents is important for a child’s self-worth and sense of feeling loved, even if such contacts don’t occur very often. This kind of contact also reduces the loyalty conflicts children may feel. Instead of competing for attention, contribute your own specialness to children. All parents need to attempt to get along so children feel comfortable in both families. The Vishers recommend several strategies for fostering this kind of cooperation:

Accept Continual Shifts in Household Composition

One of the challenges stepfamilies face is getting used to all the comings and goings of family members. For example, a child may face similar amounts of time in two households, with different extended family members to relate to. Confusion can arise as everyone learns how to relate one to another. Over time, these situations can feel “normal.” According to the Vishers, it’s important that you don’t save special events only for when nonresident children are in the household. The resident children may begin to feel that they are less loved than the others. Make sure you plan special times for various household arrangements.

Here are some other strategies for getting used to changing household composition:

Build Relationships With Extended Family Members

A remarriage with children creates a different and more complicated family arrangement than a first marriage. For example, the size of the extended kin network grows substantially. John and Mary, who had two children together, divorced. Mary remarried Bill, who had three children by his first marriage. Combining these households and extended family members totaled a possible 136 kin relationships!

These new kin should be seen as additions to, and not as replacements for, previous family relationships. Younger children, it seems, have the most optimistic outlook on more relationships. One youngster remarked, “You get to love more people, you know!” Another five-year-old girl told her kindergarten class, with pride, that she had four grandmas and three grandpas. In my situation, I gained several new step-aunts and uncles, some of whom became very dear friends.

Tensions can arise, however, when parents (grandparents of the children) are not pleased with the divorce nor the remarriage that follows. They may react this way out of a sense of guilt, somehow blaming themselves for the divorce and the sadness it caused. They may have difficulty accepting the new stepparent of their grandchildren or a new in-law bringing children from a former marriage into the new family.

The Vishers suggest the following steps if your parents are having difficulties accepting the new circumstances.

First, let them know that you love them and understand that it’s hard for them to feel comfortable about all the changes in the family. Acknowledge that it is challenging for you, as well. Give them time to adjust to the new family configuration. Parents of earlier generations may not have had the experience of relating to extended stepfamilies. Finally, let them know it means a great deal to you for them to accept the changes. You want them to care about your new partner as well as any stepchildren you have. At the same time, you realize that they have known their grandchildren since those children’s births and you do not expect them to feel the same about their stepchildren. If your parents aren’t able to become inclusive, let them know this makes you very unhappy, and ask them to be fair to your stepchildren and also your partner.

In rare occurrences, it may be necessary to break off ties for a while until your parents get used to the idea. Eventually, they may decide that they really do want to continue to see their son or daughter, grandchildren and stepgrandchildren, and that it is best to be inclusive and fair in all relationships. Many of the new steprelationships can be very strong. As one young adult remarked about his stepgrandmother, “Grandma B was great. She had plenty of love to go around.”

Conclusion

Many changes and challenges occur as households and extended families work together to build a cohesive stepfamily. Be patient with yourself and others as you adjust to the changes. As stepfamily relations grow over time, it becomes easier to work together.

For Further Reading:

Becoming a Stepfamily
by Patricia L. Papernow

Stepping Together: Creating Strong Stepfamilies
by John and Emily Visher

Additional Websites

The National Stepfamily Resource Center (www.stepfamilies.info)