Modern families can look all kinds of ways, now in this time in history more than ever. Almost half of all marriages end in divorce, meaning step parents and single parents are more common than it may seem. Grandparents are raising their grandchildren, adoption is more mainstream than ever and there are over 400,000 children in foster care in the US right now. Watching the inauguration in January, it was amazing to see two blended families being sworn into the White House — the Biden family, with Dr. Jill Biden who has been an amazing stepmother to Joe Biden’s children by all accounts and the Harris-Emhoff family both show us examples of supportive, loving blended families.
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But nothing is ever as simple as it looks from the outside, and blended families have a lot of challenges to overcome in order to be successful. I was raised by a single father and a parade of step mothers and step siblings which definitely shaped who I am today. As an adult, I’ve managed to make my own blended family work but it’s taken years of effort and patience. Marriage is hard enough as evidenced by the high rate of failure. Add in the difficulties of raising children who are not your own, navigating relationships with exes, and resolving conflict between your spouse and your child, and happily ever after seems nearly impossible to achieve.
I think many of the conflicts can be navigated if you and your partner are extremely clear and transparent from day one. As your relationship progresses and becomes serious, difficult conversations need to be had in order to manage everyone’s expectations. And that takes both parties having good intentions and being honest with each other and themselves about what they can and cannot accept as compromise in their home. At the end of the day, you’ll either come out of those talks with a plan or come to realize your expectations aren’t compatible and that is all ok — much better to know early than after the moving truck is in the driveway.
Here are some important points to get clear on before you move to the next step in a relationship:
Discuss custody schedules and childcare issues if your kids still live at home.
How much alone time will you get as a couple? If your custody schedules don’t line up, the answer could be zero. Relationships take nurturing to be successful and you’ll need to figure out a way to maintain date night and the occasional trip alone. This is especially important if one partner does not have kids or their kids are grown. They will need breaks and some time to have you to themselves.
What are the “house rules” in your home?
How do you handle discipline? Would you be comfortable with your partner disciplining your child? This is a sticky situation for a lot of formerly single parents (including myself) and needs to be addressed early. Your kids will test you to see if your loyalty lies with them or with your new partner and you need to have a plan for that. You need to have a united front, but also it’s not fair for your kids to suddenly have all new, much stricter rules — they’ll resent your partner for that and the relationship will never grow.
I told my partner when we met that I wasn’t comfortable with him disciplining my kids; I had been parented by step parents in my childhood and it never sat well with me. And I knew if he ever put me in a position where I had to choose my alliance, he would lose and our relationship might not recover. Add to that, he and I had very different parenting styles and conflict resolution strategies. So for the last nearly twenty years, if something the kids are doing bothers him, he speaks privately to me and I handle it my way. That has been enormously successful for us — he has never had a single conflict with any of my kids and they have warm, loving relationships and hold him in the highest regard. But it’s not as easy as it sounds, he recently told me this was the hardest thing he’s ever done!
Seriously plan out your finances!
Nobody likes to talk about money but it’s probably a top issue for most couples. Compare your household budgets and see if you have the same values and habits with money. If one partner does not have children or they are grown, they may be shocked at how much it costs each month to raise kids. Daycare, nannies, sports, camps, first cars, college, etc. — and it adds up. Will they resent chipping in for these expenses? Will you cover everything for your kids and if so, will you resent it? If your partner buys a new expensive mountain bike when he knows you’re struggling to pay for your son’s braces…will that cause conflict? Discuss ahead of time. Do you receive child support? How do you apply that to household expenses? What about college funds or private school tuition?
Even if your kids are grown, you still have a lot to talk through!
Think because your kids are all grown that you don’t have to deal with any of this? THINK AGAIN. Make sure you still have these discussions with your new partner. How will you spend holidays? How often will you agree to babysit grandkids? Do you help out your adult children financially? How often and will you then keep your finances separate? What about inheritance? If one of you is offered a promotion that requires a move, how will you handle that? Where do you want to retire and at what age? Own a family business or have funds from a family trust? Will you keep those things separate?? If you buy investments together, how will you allocate them in your estates? If you still own investments with your ex, how do you navigate that moving forward? Will you cosign for your kids student debt or other loans? Talk to your kids about these things ahead of time too, so everyone’s expectations are clear and no one feels that anything is unfair. If your adult children get the sense that you are spending their legacy on a new partner or the “Bank of Mom” is suddenly closed, it can cause a lot of anger.
And finally, it’s not just about the kids.
How will you navigate caring for aging parents? What if a family member asked for a loan or to move in with you temporarily? Is one of you in more debt than the other or is one of you a saver with investments and retirement accounts and the other without? How will you navigate that? Who do you want making medical decisions for you as you age or if you become unable to take care of yourself? Whose house will you live in or will you buy a new one? This is especially important if you’re still living in the house you shared with an ex. My hubs and I tried to live in the house he built with his ex, it was his baby and he worked so hard for that dream home, plus the tax basis was so low it made financial sense. But we very quickly realized we needed a fresh start and a home we made together. It was a healthy decision for our relationship.
I think you can see that communication is key. Talking everything out before you make a long term commitment can avoid so much conflict. If these kinds of conversations make you uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to sit down with an estate attorney, a family attorney or even a marriage and family therapist to mediate the talks and keep emotion out of it. And for anything financial, put your agreements in writing. It’s not romantic and no one ever plans to break up, but you’ll be thankful you have that agreement if things don’t work out. Even if things are 100% happy, you still need agreements in place so debts and investments are clear if and when one of you passes.
Are you part of a blended family? How have you made things work, and what other tips would you add to our list? Let us know in the comments!
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