How to make your blended family work – for everyone involved. By Crystal Espin
About one in six marriages in South Africa ends in divorce, and about 65% of remarriages include children from previous relationships. This results in a lot of people who are thrown together into what is known as blended families.
Everyone’s doing it
Amanda, who lives with her hubby Warren and their four children in Cape Town, says deciding to blend two families can be tricky. Amanda had a 10-year-old son Jamie from
a previous relationship when she got married to her then-boyfriend Warren. ‘Warren was only 10 years older than Jamie when we got married, so it was a challenge for Jamie to treat him like a father,’ says Amanda.
Still, the couple stuck it out together and Amanda learnt how to balance the needs of her son and her new husband. ‘I had to ensure Jamie listened and, if not, then I had to lay down the law. I also had to get Warren to grasp that Jamie didn’t have a dad until he was 10 and that he had to have patience,’ explains Amanda.
‘When they clashed, I also had to be impartial and agree with the person who was right, no matter who that was.’
The future is bright
Amanda and Warren are still happily married 17 years down the line, with three more kids added to their brood. As for Warren and Jamie, they are inseparable. ‘My son and husband are now best friends. They actually gang up on me,’ jokes Amanda.
So what advice would Amanda give to other newly blended families? ‘It’s important to be aware that this can at times test your love – both ways. But in the end, your loyalty has to lie with your child, so pick a partner you know will be mature enough to handle the rough times.’
Do it for the kids
Whether your blended family is the result of divorce or a spouse passing away, it’s important to remind your children that it’s normal to grieve the end of their parents’ marriage or the passing of a parent. Registered senior social worker Rose Downer says it’s important to remember that everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. ‘Let your children know it is normal to be sad or scared about family changes and that it may take time to adjust to the new normal of their family situation, and then respect their grieving process.’
Just the two of us
Of course, it’s not always just about the kids. Rose says that a solid relationship and marriage is the key to virtually any successful blended family. So make sure you also allow for quality time with your partner. ‘You won’t have the luxury of starting your marriage out child-free, as most first marriages do, so it can be more difficult to make time for your marriage and your partner when you have a blended family.’ She adds that regular date nights, on which you just concentrate on your needs as a couple, are a great way to stay connected to your spouse and have some time out from stresses at home.
Problem child or problem parent?
If, however, your kids aren’t gelling with your new spouse because of a lack of respect or communication, try to get them to bond around family time and fun group activities. Christof Sharp of coparenting.co.za explains: ‘It can be difficult, if not impossible, to want to have a relationship with someone you have no common ground with, so show interest in and validate your new family.’
For fun shared family time, play some board games together or try getting the whole family involved with your child’s favourite sport. Watch their matches or train together as a family to create a bond. ‘Over time, bonding will give way to blending,’ says Christof. But don’t expect change to happen over-night. ‘It takes time and intentional effort on the adult’s part. Children may not seem receptive at first, but keep trying. Consistency is the key.’
I’ve been married for 16 years. I recently found out my husband had an affair and has an eight-
year-old daughter. My heart is broken. He says he loves me and wants to be with me, that he’s very sorry and that he made a mistake. But he did so much behind my back.
He didn’t tell me about the affair, the child, the paternity test or the fact that he was paying maintenance and put the child on our medical aid. We have two children and a few years back I wanted another one, but he said no. I feel so angry, alone and betrayed. I want to lash out at him, but I still love him. I am so confused.
I am so sorry to hear about your pain. This must have been very difficult news to hear and to carry with you. My first instinct is that your husband made a mistake with consequences that he managed in the best way he knew how. He acted with integrity to be a good father to a child innocent of his wrongdoing, but felt he had to sacrifice the integrity of your relationship to do so.
It sounds as if a consequence worse than an unwanted pregnancy was the possibility of losing you and the life you’ve built together. When faced with a huge fear like this, I imagine most people would lie – lie to protect themselves, the well-being of the innocent and their loved ones. In short, I believe you can probably trust that your husband’s motives were quite honourable under the circumstances and that he loves you.
However, the trust that has been broken and your feelings of anger, betrayal and sadness will need to be respected and given time to heal. You don’t need to make any decisions now, while the pain is still so fresh. I suggest you spend some time apart (can he move out for a little while?) and enlist the help of a counsellor to work through these feelings. If you feel up to it, you could even both go see a marriage counsellor. Put your healing first.
Dorothy Black is a sex journalist and educator.
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