I had a great therapist during my single-mom years, who helped me to change my thinking and to heal a lot of my psychological wreckage.
When I brought my then-fiancee to meet the therapist, we learned that the rules are slightly different in blended families. We were told not to put each other before our kids, because chronologically, the kids were here first.
He said that kids can break couples up, and very often do, in remarriages, because the step-love hasn’t grown in yet, and resentments build easily. When push comes to shove, parents have to side with their biological children. The answer is: don’t let push come to shove. Love your spouse, don’t let the kids manipulate wedges between you, but also don’t let the new spouse edge out the established parent-child bonds. It’s a balancing act, and needs lots of love and creativity to work.
So you put the children first, let the biological parent be the disciplinarian while the step-parent is a friend and supporter only, for kids over age 3. For kids under age three, both parents and step parents can act like biological, disciplining parents almost right away.
In time, when bonds of love have gotten strong, both parents can begin to discipline older kids, if wanted, but that usually takes years.
Another great piece of advice I received was never to talk badly about your ex-spouse in front of the kids. I have worked hard to make this rule my own. Sometimes, it feels impossible not to spout out in anger or annoyance about your ex, or about your new spouse’s ex. But don’t do it. It will only hurt your efforts to bond the new family.
Kids want and need to know that both of their parents are strong, respected, and deserving of respect. They take it personally when one of their parents is degraded by the other. Resist the temptation to speak badly as you would resist the temptation to strike your child. Just don’t do it. It will hurt them.
Another great piece of advice is not one I received, but one I stumbled on myself: improve yourself rather than wishing improvement upon your ex-spouse.
You’re always going to have a relationship with your ex if you had children together; you are permanent co-parents. As long as there are Christmases, birthdays, graduations, weddings, ball games, recitals, and summer vacations, there will be negotiations and meetings with your ex. Remember: there is no such thing as divorce. There is only a rearranging of relationships and roles.
You never changed him/her while you were married, so what makes you think you’re going to change him/her now? Stop complaining about the way he is always late, or never makes the kids brush their hair, or gives them dangerous toys for Christmas. Stop blaming your financial problems, your emotional problems, your child-disciplining problems, or any other situation in your life on your ex-spouse!
The moment you cut that cord of resentment that keeps you frustrated and keeps you under the influence of your ex, you’ll be free.
My current husband calls this “stranger-izing” the ex. You treat the ex like a pleasant stranger, with civility and respect and distance. It’s great advice.
The final piece of advice is: date your current spouse. When my husband and I go on dates, whether they’re a one-hour trip to the 7-11 for a drink and a walk down main street, or whether they’re a fancy dinner-and-theater affair, dates help families. They really do. Staying in love takes a time commitment; you don’t stay in love without making space for it to thrive. And kids love to see parents, and that includes step-parents, in love.
Just watch. They’ll squirm and scream when they see you kissing, but they like the feeling of living in a home that’s safe, within the walls of love.