Education key ingredient to blended family

Lynn Celmer

Exchanging vows for a second (or third, or fourth) marriage often means the bride and groom are committing to more than just each other. Many times, they also are committing their children to becoming apart of a new, blended family.

But melding two families into one can be hampered by issues along the way. But staying educated and seeking professional help when needed can help families clear the hurdles in their way.

Suburban Life columnist Laurie Whitman of La Grange Park knows how difficult blending a stepfamily can be. Single for 14 years while raising her two children, she remarried when the children were 15 and 19.

“It was a big change for the kids; this was a single mom household for 14 years and then a man is brought into the house,” Whitman said. “It was very difficult bringing someone into a household when it was already an established family.”

Whitman said another thing she struggled with was the good guy/bad guy situation.

“With my husband in the picture, he never wanted to be a disciplinarian,” she said.

As far as their greatest triumph, Whitman said the story is not over yet.

“I see everyone down the road being adults and showing mutual respect and understanding of one another,” she said.

For anyone entering into a stepfamily situation, keeping educated on the subject is absolutely essential. One of the main stressors involved in this situation is benign ignorance, meaning typical adults in stepfamilies don’t know what they need to know, according to licensed social worker, stepparent, and retired board member of the Stepfamily Association of America, Peter Gerlach of Oak Park.

“There really is a lack of credible and practical help for people,” Gerlach said. “If people know this in advance, they can prepare themselves for it.”

There are some helpful resources out there available for stepfamilies, according to Ken Potts, pastoral counselor and marriage and family therapist with Samaritan Interfaith Counseling Center, former columnist for Gatehouse Media Suburban Newspapers.

“I think there are quite a few books out there as well as groups for stepparents,” Potts said.

He also recommended organizations such as The Stepfamily Foundation at www.stepfamily.org and the National Stepfamily Resource Center at www.stepfamilies.info.

A common mistake made in blended families is that the adults assume that they are an actual family, Potts said.

“Adults start to assume roles, responsibilities and allegiances that are not supported by biology and emotions, and they don’t work,” he said. “When I work with stepfamilies, there is always a sigh of relief when I tell them they are not families and they don’t have to treat each other like they are.”

Potts explained that while he doesn’t consider stepfamilies to be families, the end result can still be loving, nurturing relationships for everyone involved.

Many divorced people and those who form a stepfamily with the best intentions are psychologically wounded and their children are often times wounded as well, according to Gerlach.

“A high percentage of divorced people and remarriers have significant psychological wounds from their childhood,” he said.

Gerlach explained there are six common psychological wounds involved in stepfamilies.

The first is people have a disorganized personality. While they may function normally and get through the day, they have a personality similar to an orchestra without a conductor, according to Gerlach.

Excessive shame and guilt are common in people raised in unnurturing families. Many adults in stepfamilies suffer this self-wound, which promotes unnurturing relationships and families.

Fear is a primal animal response to possible pain, injury or death. While moderate fears can provide healthy protection, excessive fears, if untreated, can significantly degrade self-respect, relationships, achievements and health.

Typical survivors of early childhood neglect experience reality distortion. Among the most popular ones is denial. They are in denial of what their wounds relate to from their past.

These people typically trust too easily or distrust everyone. Excessive distrust can include doubting one’s own judgment and behavior and ignoring, minimizing or rejecting the support and wise guidance of a loving higher power.

These five wounds can combine to cause reactive attachment disorder, or the inability to form genuine bonds with other living beings. There are parents who have children and want to love them, but they don’t know how, according to Gerlach.

Another dynamic of a blended family is the residual trauma that everyone carries with them, from the desolution of the previous family, according to Potts.

“In a blended family situation there is usually only two people that have any interest in the new family formation,” he said. “It is unrealistic to think that the children will be excited.”