Dear Mr. Dad: My fiancée and I are both divorced, and between the two of us, there are four children from previous marriages. Mine are 7 and 5, his are 6 and 8. When my girlfriend and I first met each other’s kids, things were great—the children hit it off really well and liked hanging out together. And the adult-child relationships seemed to be blossoming. But over the past few months, things have begun to deteriorate on all fronts—the kids are squabbling and my fiancée and I aren’t getting along as well with each other’s kids. We both had such high hopes of building a strong blended family together, but that’s looking less and less likely. What can we do?
A: You’re all—adults and kids alike—walking into an incredibly challenging situation, and, unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to make it work. That said, by far the most important thing you can do is to take a close look at your expectations—and then lower them. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s truly for the best. Imagining that the six people involved will all love each other and that you’ll come together into one big, happy blended family is setting yourself up for failure. Things might end up that way eventually. Or they might never get there. Most likely, they’ll be something in between.
Let’s start with the kids. The behavior you described is completely normal. Things started off well because the four of them are pretty similar in age and they could get together, play, and then go back to their own home. There were no territorial issues and not much pressure. But as things between you and your fiancée have gotten more serious, everything has changed. They know that when everyone moves into the same house, they’ll have to do a lot more sharing and they’ll have a lot less space of their own.
It’s also normal that your relationship with your fiancee’s children—and her relationship with yours—has changed. Young children instinctively want to form relationships with people they meet, and chances are good that in the beginning, you and your fiancée made an extra effort to connect with each other’s kids, which made them like you more than they otherwise might have. But as your wedding date approaches, the kids may be realizing that their hopes that their biological parents will get back together are being dashed. I’m not saying that all children have that fantasy, but it’s very common.
As you move forward:
• Talk to your children about the need to treat your fiancée with respect. They don’t have to love her, but they do have to be nice. And the same goes the other way—she doesn’t have to love them either, but she does have to be respectful. Your fiancée should have the same conversation with her children about how they treat you. Sometimes a truly loving step-parent/step-child relationship takes years to achieve. Sometimes it never happens at all.
• Make sure to spend plenty of time with your children, individually and together. They need to know that they aren’t losing you in this process and that you still love them (and always will).
• While all this is happening, don’t forget to pay attention to the relationship between you and your girlfriend. Second marriages—especially those involving children—are especially fragile and require a lot of work and patience on all sides. So set up regular family meetings and make them a place where everyone can speak freely (respectfully, of course) about what’s bothering them.
• Don’t be afraid to get some family counseling. This blended family that you and your girlfriend are signing up is a tough job and you’ll need all the help you can get.
Originally Published on Mr. Dad
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