Everyone either knows or has experienced some of the challenges of what we call "blended families."
Blended families have always been with us. In Genesis chapter 30 we read about Jacob, his two wives, sons and daughters who present an early picture of difficulties within a home where there was not an original mom and dad along with the children belonging to just these two. In these early years the most common form of blending were polygamist marriages; however, blended marriages as a result of divorce or being widowed have always been common.
Today we have a variety of "blended" families. There are subsequent marriages where children are brought together from different unions; single parents with children from different partners; grandparents raising grandchildren; multigenerational families where parents live with their children, or relatives; families who add adoptive or abandoned children to their household. There are probably other combinations but these are the main ones. Blended families present additional challenges to the ones that already exist for conventional families.
These next three chapters will try to give some insights and Biblical guidelines to help these families find unity, strength, greater love and commitment to each other and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Although there are many varieties of blended families, the most common is the one created by a subsequent (meaning second or more) marriage where children get new parents and vice versa. Our study will use this model and from this I hope you will apply the principles to whatever situation you are in or you are referring to.
Laying a Foundation
In a study of individuals who had recently gone through a divorce in a first marriage, the following reasons were given for the failure in order of importance:
- Immaturity of partner (were not ready)
- Sexual difficulties (sex before or outside marriage)
- Lack of marriage preparation (psychological or emotional)
- In-law interference
- Values conflict (religion, etc.)
- Problems adjusting to married life
- Child rearing disagreements
In a related study of the main reason for divorce in second and third marriages, note how the order (not the type) of problems changes.
- Child rearing disagreements
- Financial pressure
- Relatives (all the different ones)
- Value conflict
- Sharing of tasks
Because child rearing becomes so complicated in blended families, those who are presently unmarried (Biblical term for divorced or widowed) or who are in a single state should consider four principles that should be understood before going into this situation. These are based on Paul's admonition to the Philippians to "Let go the past and prepare for the future."
Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
- Philippians 3:13-14
In practical terms, Paul's advice can be applied to those in blended families in the following ways.
1. Know your mate and their children
When unmarried people begin a relationship they tend to focus their attention on each other and assume that the child-rearing dimension needs only to be considered after marriage. Dating for the unmarried is not like dating for singles.
Dating for the unmarried involves the learning of a whole family system and network, and allowing them to know you. So many unmarried people are looking for the lighthearted and romantic experience of their single days and feel annoyed or overburdened because dating a family is not that easy. Others make the mistake of leaving one relationship (even as the victim) and rushing into another without ever analyzing and acknowledging what they contributed to the failure of the previous marriage (they either blame themselves too much or too little). Still others remarry for reasons of loneliness, insecurity or to provide a parent for their children, and end up regretting it.
The reason to marry is because you have found someone that you want to give yourself to and receive the same from. This giving and receiving is always the same whether it is the first or second marriage. However, in a second marriage it requires more effort to get to know the person you want to give yourself to.
The first step, therefore, is to take the time (lots of time) to get to know the person and their children (because they come as a package) and let them get to know the real you (not just the nice front you present to make everybody feel good). Date the whole family as a group and individually, when proper and possible, so you can know them.
2. Understand your future children's needs
Children are not good at verbalizing their needs or explaining their feelings. They act out. Many times their legitimate concerns, fears and questions may come out as an attack or negative and destructive behavior.
Children are an important part of the equation in a second marriage and their concerns must be addressed, even anticipated, so they can be integrated into the new relationship. Questions such as:
- How often will I see my mom or dad?
- Where am I going to live?
- Will I see my grandma and grandpa?
- What will my last name be?
- Will Uncle Charlie still be my uncle?
- Will dad or mom come to my ballgames?
- Will you have time for me?
- Where will "my space" be?
It is wise to answer these questions over and over again (even after the marriage has taken place) so that children feel part of the process and have a sense of security even if the variables in their life change.
3. Build a new relationship
Remarried couples often "assume" that they know about marriage and relationships so they can just "run with it" when they get remarried. Every relationship is different in its needs and expectations. For those entering subsequent marriages there needs to be an understanding that building a successful marriage is not any easier just because you have been married before.
Single parenting is lonely and difficult, and many think that when the opportunity to remarry comes along, it is the answer to all the problems. They do not realize that remarrying will create new challenges as well.
It is important to take the time and be ready to start from square one in order to build a strong and lifetime relationship with a new partner. It is also wise to accept the fact that this new person does not represent all the answers to the problems created by a previous relationship. They will bring some new questions and issues too.
4. Include everyone in the wedding
A book on blended families tells the story of a boy who went away for the weekend and when he returned, his mom introduced him to his new dad… recipe for disaster!
The marriage ceremony for blended families should reflect the nature of their family situation and celebrate this idea. Children should be included and encouraged to have input. If they feel part of the union from the very beginning, it will help deal with issues later on.
Now that we have had a brief look at some of the issues that need to be addressed before one enters a blended family situation, let us look at some key goals that blended families have a harder time in achieving than nuclear families (original mom, dad and kids).
Goal of Unity
Every family wants to be united, close and in harmony, but for a blended family this goal is especially difficult. The problem with unity issues is first accepting that blended families are not nuclear families, they are a combination of two separate families. This means that there are two histories, two sets of kids (at times), two established ways of doing and seeing things that have to be blended together to arrive at unity.
In order to achieve unity, here are some basic things that have to be dealt with in the blended family:
1. Avoid the co-conductor system (Imagine a symphony orchestra with two conductors)
When people remarry with children from one or more households, the great danger is to have two families living under one roof. Long time single parents or divorced people with children are used to their own system (for discipline, for family rituals, for the use of money, etc.). When they remarry the temptation is to try to maintain these independent styles or integrate the styles instead of reestablishing a single new system for everyone.
Of course, God's word provides invaluable information in describing the basic role of each member of the family.
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
- Ephesians 5:22 – 6:4
This helps everyone know that the family system is based on a principle higher than just what they are used to or what has taken place before. The new family is now going to follow God's system for the family.
2. Giving up previous roles
The hardest thing about seeking unity is giving up our previous role in the former family, or the family system established after the first marriage dissolved. Single moms become the head of the house. Children sometimes lose their "place" in the order of things (the oldest becomes the second oldest, etc.). Bachelors who marry women with kids are no longer responsible only for themselves.
In a blended family it is wise to examine each person's present role and see how it will change in the new situation. Adults find it difficult to give up sole "parenting" rights; kids find it traumatic to have to share their rooms and TV (not to mention their parents) with strangers. Knowing and discussing these things in advance helps.
3. Establish ground rules
Nuclear families grow naturally from one stage to another. Blended families are grafted together from existing pieces. One advantage blended families have, however, is that they can discuss and agree in advance about the type of home and relationship they wish to have with each other and establish ground rules to help reach their goals. Establishing, agreeing and following the ground rules are important in creating unity in a blended family situation. Here are a few basic rules that will work for any family:
- Courtesy. Kind words, politeness, consideration in treating each other is the norm.
- Establish one set of family rules. About the car, TV, curfew, discipline, etc. When everybody knows the rules, then they are easier to follow and enforce.
- Fairness in disputes. Blended families have a lot of "turf" wars and parents need to deal fairly with all members. Usually this means that not everybody gets what they want all the time.
- Division of labor. Have everyone pitch in to make the household work. When everyone works, everyone feels part of the home and this breeds unity.
- Pursue spiritual goals. When the entire family knows that their life is based on faith in God, and the family begins to exercise a spiritual life together (worship, prayer, service, study), they will become united.
Blended families cannot unite because of their past or present situation but if, as Paul says, they are reaching forward to what lies ahead (heaven, eternal life with God through Christ) they will find unity.
Again as Paul says,
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
- Galatians 3:26
In the end, the blended family will only find its true identity and unity in the name and service of Jesus Christ. Only He can heal the wounds and make the two into one again.