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Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Trials of a Modern Day Family

Guest post by Rebecca Fordham

Finding Mr Right as a divorced mother is as fulfilling as it is stressful. With children intact, how easy is it to blend two families through marriage or co-habiting? Rebecca Fordham investigates the issues remarriage causes and how to tackle them.

Lucy Taylor has recently moved in with her partner of five years and is in the process of renovating their four bedroom house. Their future as a couple is solidified, the excitement of coming home to someone is a novelty and the feeling of happiness clouds the prospect of having to live with all his annoying habits. This may seem like an enviable stage in a woman’s life. But Lucy is 45, mother to two children aged 21 and 17 and has not lived with a man for over ten years since she divorced her children’s father.

Remarriage for many in the UK is likely as divorce rates remain high. The Office for National Statistics show that 113,949 couples separated in 2009. In over forty per cent of marriages, couples have walked up the aisle at least once before. One in five people who get divorced remarry. However with a high percentage of those already having children from the failed marriage, the decision to then embark on a new relationship, move in with a partner and eventually marry comes with an abundance of responsibility that wasn’t there the first time.  

“It wasn’t a decision to take lightly, there were many things to consider in my situation such as finances, what my family thought, whether it would work but ultimately I had to think of my children”, Lucy explains. “How would they react to this situation, after all this man is not their father. He is my choice, not theirs.”

Inviting someone else into an existing family unit that works well can cause disruptions and upset. Lifestyle coach and relationship expert Karen Morley helps with similar situations everyday in her line of work. “It is about communication, communication, communication. You have to be practical and sit down together as a family to look at all the difficulties or practicalities that need sorting. Having meetings to help merge the two families is key.”

She advises parents to reassure children of their importance and to stress that they have a voice too. As well as easing the children into the idea of a new home-life by explaining the new marriage or living situation, ensuring that everything remains as normal as possible is a vital step in preparing everyone for the new challenge.

And it is necessary for everybody in the situation to prepare. For the partner, who in Lucy’s case is without children, they have a whole new way of life to mould to. “Whereas he previously lived by himself, he now has three extra people to contend with and we have met difficulties. We were both used to being in charge of a house so you have to learn to do things together.”

For many, both partners will have children and this situation can be the hardest of them all. Karen advices that parents who wish to blend two sets of children should make a very clear plan. “They need to sit down and work out their strategies, their compromises, and decide how everything is going to run. When an agreement has been reached they need to sit down with the children and do exactly the same with them.”

Natasha Walton was 6 when her parents divorced 17 years ago. Her dad is marrying his partner of ten years, and her mum has been in a relationship for over 8 years - both parents have young daughters from the new relationships. “At first it was strange accepting two new people into my life but I lived with my dad and soon-to-be step-mum and she became a big part of our family. Now she is more like a mother to me than my real mum. I’m not very close with my mum’s boyfriend and we both agree he will never really be a step-dad to me - but we get on.”

So what happens for those unlucky families whose children and partners don’t get on well? Karen explains that in this instance seeking outside help is the answer. “If you can’t work it out from within, then some help is needed as the problem doesn’t go away. Seeking help in a third party is not about being told what to do but being helped to work out what will work best. It involves compromise from everybody.”

It is the responsibility of the adult to try their hardest but sometimes finding their role within an affirmed family can be difficult. They may struggle to find where they fit in - many may even be thrown into parenting someone else’s child. Everyone’s preconception of what family life should be like is different. But a way to combat this is to sit and discuss how you envisage things to be beforehand, what each of your roles are and how compromises can be made so that everyone feels happy.

Amy Czapnik a 25-year-old events manager, felt resentful when her mum remarried. “It was strange to suddenly have someone else as part of your life. When my step-dad moved in I had to change my behaviour at home as it wasn’t just mum and I anymore. At the time when things started changing around the house I didn't like it and would try to keep things the same - as well as keep my mum's attention.”

We can’t forget that parents themselves have a lot to take on and adjust to in a remarriage. For many, they have lived as the sole earner, decision maker and rule enforcer of the house. Great independence has been gained and as much as a support may have been craved when buying a new car or when a teenager is being difficult, sharing your life again can be hard to get used to.

Keeley Townsend, a counsellor who specialises in couple and family relationships explains how the adult relationship must be strong in order for the merged family to work. “The most successful relationships will be the ones that are able to connect to being a couple as well as being parents. Although the family is important, couple time is vital because that is what will make the family function. Family time and individual couple time is so important”.

Both men and women have expectations of how it will be living together but these aren’t always realistic. If only one partner has children, the other may find they feel jealous or even pushed aside. Every couple has to work at their relationship so time alone is essential whatever your situation. Scheduling date nights, spending time together once the children are in bed, and finding someone to babysit from time-to-time can help. Keeley explains that keeping the relationship fresh is the answer.

Psychologically a merged family is faced with a harder situation than most. Whereas a family who hasn’t split have history together, know one another and have grown together to reach the stage they are in, a blended family lack this growth. They can appear to be at this stage from the outside but they have missed out on the all important developmental process. This solid family image can be hard to live up to and a lot of pressure to be under. Keeley advises that the best course of action is to understand each other’s family history. “Sometimes people don’t want to know about others past but that’s their life-script and has brought them to where they are today. If you are able to understand one another’s family history, then you’ll know where they come from and what makes them who they are.”

A positive that comes with blending two families is of course the gaining of additional family members. However the obligations that come with this can cause unnecessary stress or worry. Both Amy and Natasha are in agreement that the situation can become complicated at this point. “On special occasions there are so many strands of the family to see and having the time to do that is hard”, explains Natasha. “I have a responsibility to go and see them but sometimes I don’t want to because they aren’t real family.” However gaining two half sisters for Natasha and having extended support for Amy makes the situation very rewarding. 

This is one of many great advantages to being part of a blended family. Others include a great support network, more people to love and love you back, having happy parents which should in turn create a happy home environment, and gaining step-children. There are many issues that make the decision to remarry or even cohabit with your partner daunting. As a parent you will always ask yourself; “how long do you leave it before taking the next step?” But there is no easy answer and there comes a point where you have to take your own happiness into consideration too. The process will always have you asking; “is it worth it?” or, “have I done the right thing?” - but you have to try. It won’t be an easy ride but you will have someone there to share it with.