Blended family living can create a unique barrier that often keeps couples from staying close to one another. This barrier grows with the concerns, frustrations, and struggles that are all too common in remarriage. I call it “third party thorns.”
These prickly, blended family realities include things such as tenuous stepparent-stepchild relationships, an antagonizing ex-spouse, leftover debt that preceded the marriage, the memory of a wonderful marriage that ended in death, and even an ex-mother-in-law. But despite these thorns, healthy couples find a way to stay close.
For example, let’s look at Matt and Sherry. Matt has a very high need for closeness. His father and mother divorced when he was very young, so he grew up without a great deal of family stability. He mainly lived with his mother and blamed himself for his father not being around much. His grandfather served as a surrogate father for a few years, but then died an untimely death when Matt was just 10 years old. Because closeness in his childhood family relationships was not something he experienced, he longs for it in his marriage.
Matt’s wife, Sherry, grew up in a hard-working middle-class family. While they loved one another deeply, the demands of earning a living kept parents and children going in multiple directions. As a result, Sherry learned quickly how to remain emotionally and financially independent from loved ones. She prided herself on working her way through technical school after having a child in high school.
A later marriage added another child, but the marriage didn’t last. Sherry found herself divorced and the single parent of two. This series of fragmented romantic relationships fueled her emotional independence as a parent and woman.
When Matt and Sherry met, they quickly became romantically and sexually involved. Matt was enthralled with the amount of attention he received from Sherry. She seemed to be a dedicated mom, but went out of her way to make time for him.
Sherry saw in Matt the kind of stability she wanted her children to experience so she pursued him with passion. Her physical and sexual availability and his need for closeness quickly fused their emotional connection, but substance was lacking. They were fooled into thinking sexual passion equaled a healthy future.
After a rushed courtship and wedding, things changed considerably. Sherry didn’t feel the need to pursue Matt as much as she did before and he felt it. The significant drop in time together produced a great deal of anxiety in Matt. He complained to a friend, “Now that we’re married, Sherry is much more worried about being a mom than she is a wife. I feel like I’ve lost her.”
Neither Matt nor Sherry carries all the blame for their increasing distance. Yet each is responsible to fight through the thorns and stay close.
The doing and feeling of closeness
In general, close couples:
- Trust and have confidence in one another; they feel secure as a couple.
- Include one another in important decisions.
- Have a mutual respect for one another.
- Have many similar likes and interests.
- Are committed to spending time together on a regular basis and intentionally plan ways to be together.
- Feel the freedom to ask each other for help.
- Choose to be loyal to one another.
- Balance time with family and friends so as to not take away from their relationship.
The largest study conducted on the strengths of healthy blended family couples reveals that strong couples feel close to one another because they know what to do to make that happen. In The Remarriage Checkup: Tools to Help Your Marriage Last a Lifetime, Dr. David Olson and I reported that 94 percent of happy couples have hobbies and interests that bring them together. They find it easy to think of things to do as a couple (compared to 62 percent or less of discouraged couples). In addition, a full 94 percent said togetherness was a top priority for them, revealing strong couples’ intentional effort to invest in their relationship. Doing things that facilitate closeness certainly contributes to feeling close.
Every healthy relationship has a balance of time spent together and time apart. Healthy couples have both a desire to be together and a respect for the individual interests, pursuits, and freedoms of their spouse. In strong relationships, individuals place emphasis on the “self” as well as the “we.” And there’s something else.
Healthy blended family couples also strive for an appropriate amount of sharing, loyalty, intimacy, and independence within the larger family dynamic. This dance of intimacy is not easily achieved in blended families and demands attention and good communication since couples are continually pulled apart by stressful thorns.
Patience and persistence
Matt and Sherry found balance and a loving heart by doing a number of things. First, both had to calm their fears. Matt had to remember that it was good and right for Sherry to spend focused time with her children and that he really wasn’t in competition with them. Sherry had to recognize that maintaining her independence and emotional distance from Matt was in part an attempt to protect herself from depending on someone she couldn’t guarantee would always be there for her. If she was ever to move closer to him, Sherry had to risk trusting Matt.
Second, both Matt and Sherry became more intentional in carving out time to be together to enjoy a leisurely activity. For them, playing golf on occasion helped them to laugh and connect. But, of course, saying “yes” to golf meant saying “no” to other activities and time with children so they communicated often about finding the appropriate balance.
With patience and persistence, Matt and Sherry removed their thorns and stayed close.
If you’re ministering to stepfamilies:
It’s important to help both married and dating couples stay close, in spite of blended family thorns. Begin with biblically based materials to assist them in understanding their family dynamics and challenges.
Adapted from The Smart Stepmom, by Ron L. Deal and Laura Petherbridge. Published by Bethany House, © 2009.