Navigating the challenges of merging families.
There’s no doubt that in South Africa the number of couples entering into marriage is declining year on year, with divorce rates increasing too. Statistics South Africa reports a 2.4% increase in the divorce rate between 2014 and 2015, and of the 25 260 divorce cases processed in 2015, 55.6% of them affected children under the age of 18. As a large percentage of families with children enter new relationships and marriages, blended families are on the rise.
If you’re remarrying, it doesn’t mean it’ll be easier just because you’ve done it before. In fact, there’s a higher rate of second marriages failing, with two out of three ending in divorce. This is often due to the pressures and challenges newly married couples face when bringing two families together, as it can require a lot of extra work and effort from both parties.
Stephanie Dawson-Cosser, a relationship coach based in Joburg who specialises in family dynamics, says when it comes to second marriages and bringing families together, difficulties between stepparents and stepchildren usually spill over into the couple’s relationship. ‘As newlyweds or those moving in together focus on their romantic relationship, it’s easy for them to neglect their kids’ acceptance and expectations for the new “parent” entering their lives,’ says Stephanie. ‘Many parents forget that entering a new relationship – especially marriage – shatters the child’s hope that their original parents will get back together.’ Statistically, she adds, the new stepparent has the acceptance level of a babysitter at first, gradually increasing to that of a favoured aunt or uncle.
How can you weather the challenges?
Helping the children adjust
Before rushing into a second marriage, it’s essential that couples take the time to assess their new family’s needs and lay down a solid foundation for new beginnings. ‘It’s rarely not a challenge to bring two families together,’ explains
Stephanie. Children, especially older and adolescent children, may resist change, which will have a huge impact on them at a key developmental stage. It’s easy to become frustrated as the parent or new stepparent if the family doesn’t function as previously or according to your expectations. However, with time, open communication, respect
and patience, it’s possible to have a successful blended family.
Consider the dynamics in play and:
- Keep the primary relationship with your children in the forefront – don’t let your kids feel misplaced, rejected or not given priority in the new family. Respecting and cherishing the original family helps children
realise they’re still special and not just part of a new, bigger group.
- Have age-appropriate conversations with your children, forewarn them about any plans relating to a future marriage, and actively listen to what they have to say and how they feel about the matter, suggests Stephanie. ‘Try to look at the new union from their perspective.’
- Sit down with your partner and discuss and define your child-rearing and discipline expectations, whether there are kids coming from only one or both parties.
- Factor in time where you can spend one-on-one quality time with your children as well as together as a family.
‘The period between changing homes can be a difficult time for children as they’re constantly saying goodbye or hello to one of their parents,’ says Stephanie.
Routine becomes key in this regard as the child can at least feel a sense of stability and security, and knowing what to expect can help them settle and adjust to their new environment. To soften the transition, it’s also a good idea to take a break and head to a park now and again before going to the new home, so that they can release pent-up energy
Parenting for the first time?
If taking on a parental role for the first time with your partner’s child/ren, allow them to spend quality time together as a unit and support this relationship without feelings of jealousy. Remember, the relationship with their children existed long before yours. Stephanie also suggests discussing your house rules with your partner and how they would like to approach parenting and discipline. Remember that you’re essentially new to the family unit and will not win any favours by trying to enforce your own rules and ideas on the kids. Rather take the lead from their parent and enforce and support this code of conduct.
Children will benefit from having a united front rather than being faced with a home filled with bickering and
arguments, where parents are not on the same page. It’ll help strengthen your new relationship, instead of adding to the many challenges you face as a couple.
Co-parenting, not competing
Another key factor to take into consideration when merging families is your former spouse and co-parent of your children. While you may be in a new relationship, your ex is still 50% custodian of your children, unless otherwise agreed on by the court during the divorce process. You and your former spouse have not ended your relationship, it has instead morphed into a relationship held together by common goals for your children.
Research has shown that after a divorce, a primary source of issues for children is the parents’ inability to keep
their negative feelings or attitudes about their ex-spouse to themselves. As long as you have children together, your
life will always be linked to that of your ex, and your duties as co-parents and putting your children first should not alter after a divorce.
However – and depending on why the union ended in the first place – divorced parents often allow their history to
impact their children’s future and ability to move forward. Stephanie says parents need to remember to be the adult in
the situation and put their own feelings aside for the wellbeing of their children.
‘You should be respectful and mindful of how you speak about your ex when you’re with your children,’ says Stephanie. ‘Be sensitive when they discuss what they did with their other parent, allow them the space to talk about that side of their life without interrogating them for information or using them as ammunition in a vendetta.’
Stephanie recommends that:
- Each parent should be allowed to have daily contact with the child/ren, whether through phone calls, skype or as part of the child’s lift club to school or extra-murals.
- Parents should have agreements in place around how they will raise the children, even though separated, and the role each parent will play in facilitating their development. These should include both big and small decisions, from education and holidays to special occasions like Christmas and birthdays – remember that you’re co-parents and shouldn’t be competing for your child’s affections.
- Parents should schedule regular meetings, mediated or not (depending on the relationship), to discuss the current needs and development of the child, especially as they get older and these needs change. This ensures healthy and open communication between former spouses, which allows the children’s best
interests to remain centre stage.
In difficult divorce cases, Stephanie recommends seeking the advice of a mediator or counselling with a therapist, which can assist new families, as well as old ones, to adapt and explore their new reality in a positive and
FEATURE: TARYN DAS NEVES IMAGES: FOTOLIA.COM