In a perfect world, blending families would be as simple as “The Brady Bunch” made it seem (maybe with a few less bell bottoms and backyard sack races).
The reality? Blending families can be critically difficult, no matter how well everyone gets along before the wedding. In fact, the presence of children from existing relationships is one of the reasons cited for the exceptionally high divorce rates for second and third marriages.
If you’re entering into a new marriage or relationship with kids — either yours, your partner’s, or both — know that creating a new family unit won’t happen overnight. It will take work, it will be hard, and you’ll probably make some mistakes along the way.
Ron Deal, a licensed marriage and family therapist, has written more than 20 books and resources on blended families and single parenthood. He says it’s not unusual for families to spend the first five to 10 years of a new family arrangement trying to figure out its rules, roles, and general rhythm.
“Couples in blended families have to lead their family through this unknown, unclear territory so that family members can ultimately define themselves as family with one another,” he says.
We recently spoke with Deal and other experts to get their blended family advice. Here’s what they had to say:
- Advice from an expert on blending families
- Advice from Emma Johnson on blending families
- 9 steps to making a blended family work
- Examples of successful blended families
Blending families: Advice from an expert
Deal, who is also the director of the FamilyLife Blended podcast and president of Smart Stepfamilies, an online resource for stepfamilies and stepfamily ministries, says to successfully create a blended family, couples have to “get smart” to navigate the uncharted territory of stepfamily living — and get comfortable being uncomfortable.
“You will step on each other’s toes a little — not intentionally, of course — but you will,” Deal says. “And each of those relational missteps will give you a chance to further define your expectations of each other, what you need, and the logistics of life.”
He says this “live-and-learn” aspect of blending families cannot be avoided and is ultimately beneficial.
“I believe it’s a necessary evil that ultimately helps bring definition to ambiguous relationships and over time helps to create rituals and traditions that form family identity,” Deal says.
Co-parenting tips for blending families, from Emma Johnson
Blending families is a struggle, no matter how wonderful all parties are. But there are some general guidelines for melding step- and blended families after a divorce or single parenthood:
- Parents make the rules and lead, not children.
- Take it slow. No need to rush.
- Children’s feelings and concerns should be listened to, addressed and prioritized. But that does not mean that kids are in charge.
- In a healthy family involving two parents in the household (of course healthy families can consist of any configuration), the romantic couple puts each other first, before kids.
- Keep communication open with your co-parent and his new partner, if possible.
- Consider co-parenting counseling, or co-parenting classes.
How to make a blended family work in 9 steps
The reality is, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to making a blended family work. Deal says what is helpful for a stepfamily preceded by death might not be helpful for one preceded by divorce (or two divorces).
“Grief is universal in blended families, but the substance of things grieved over by children, for example, varies widely based on circumstances,” he says.
Stepparents have different expectations depending on whether they:
- Have biological children of their own
- Serve as a part-time or full-time caregiver to their step-children
- Are step-parenting children whose other parent is still living or deceased
- Whether or not the kids’ other parent is involved — and how involved?
However, there are steps you can take in most circumstances to give your family a better chance at blending successfully:
1. Clearly define parenting roles and expectations.
Kendall Rose (her pen name), author of The Stepmoms’ Club (Sourcebooks) says the most important part of establishing parental expectations is to be on the same page as your partner.
Depending on your family, that might include conversations about chores, meals, bedtime routines, family time, and discipline (which we’ll talk about more in Step 2).
“Understanding what's important to them — the parent who has the child or children — and you yourself coming into the blended family, how do you want to work as a unit?”
She says blended families should tread slowly, as you would in any new relationship, to learn what each person needs.
“It's kind of like putting your toe into a cold pool,” Rose says. “You're not just going to jump in, right? You need to allow the relationship to develop.”
She says the way you approach blending families will also depend on the age of the children.
“If a family has older children, that's going to be very different than if you're coming into a blended family when they're young,” Rose says.
Valerie Mummert of Phoenix, Ariz., has been married for 30 years with a blended family of seven children, most of whom are now adults. She says parents need to decide in advance the non-negotiables in their families and the areas they are willing to compromise.
“You may have different personalities and ways of dealing with conflict, but you need to have the same goals,” she says.
Mummert says it’s important to remember that you are now one family, not a compound sentence, so you have to build your new family identity together.
2. Decide who will handle discipline.
Deciding how to discipline children is a major part of forming a blended family, one that often leads to conflict, Rose says. She recommends families sit down and discuss how involved or uninvolved each parent will be and communicate expectations with the children.
“If one parent is home and the other isn't, somebody needs to enforce rules within your household,” Rose says.
For example, if a child comes home from school and makes a mess in the kitchen, they should know it’s their responsibility to clean it up. The stepparent shouldn’t have to wait until the biological parent returns to make sure they do.
“If you and your partner are not on the same page, it's not going to work,” Rose says.
If the kids’ other parents are involved, the ideal situation would be a group discussion about consistent discipline between biological parents and stepparents. But Rose says in most cases, that’s not realistic.
“If it is contentious and there’s not an opportunity to do that, then you need to create the rules in your own household,” Rose says.
Mother of three Christy posted on Facebook that she sometimes feels torn between being loyal to her son and supporting her husband. Her son recently messed up their yard with his truck, and his lack of initiative in fixing the damage has caused friction in the family.
“My significant other has higher expectations of responsibility for him than I do,” Christy says. “It is especially hard when I know my significant other is correct and my son should take the initiative to fix our yard.”
She says that until her son matures, she thinks there will continue to be strain between him and her partner.
Tabatha Pittman, a mom of three from Metro Detroit, Michigan, says her family actually benefited from her and her husband’s differing parenting styles.
“I am more the disciplinarian versus my husband who is more talkative,” Pittman says. “Incorporating my husband helped my son talk through frustrations, and I learned a different approach to help my son learn from his mistakes.”
Advice from a single mom who blended families:
“Communicate with all parties at the same time to go over rules about other spouses' children, like moms meet moms and fathers meet fathers if this is possible. Usually, there will be a communication error along the line that will turn ugly. The kids need to listen because they're kids, but all parents should be on same page.” — Latoya
3. Make sure childrens’ needs are met.
Andrea Blindt, a registered nurse and holistic health practitioner from Los Angeles, grew up in a blended family and formed her own blended family with her second husband, her two sons, and their shared twins.
She says that in any family, children have basic needs of feeling safe, loved, and emotionally connected to their caregivers. She believes blending families is an opportunity to create relationships that can last a lifetime if handled correctly.
“This looks like honoring each child where they are,” Blindt says.
For example, a toddler might be more receptive to playing and bonding with someone new than a teenager.
“Set expectations that are realistic to each child and their unique needs,” she says. “Family routines and special activities also increase success for blended families and help children feel secure in knowing what to expect (family meal times, chores, movie nights, parent date nights, church, etc.).”
Advice from a single mom who blended families:
“Listen, discuss, and act accordingly when your child feels you spend more time/care about/love their step siblings more. You may feel like you aren't, and maybe that is true. But it is a real feeling that should not be ignored or negated and rather treated with empathy, love, and increased attention.” — Cheryll
4. Communicate openly and intentionally.
Deal says couples must be proactive in their family communication to gauge each family member’s level of openness and constantly reevaluate to see if anything has changed.
He offers this as a positive example to set expectations and boundaries:
“Imagine a stepdad saying, ‘It’s OK that there’s some things you want to talk to your mom about and not me. I get that. Just know I’m cool with it when you are.’”
Deal says proactively defining the boundaries of your relationships lets everyone know where they stand and what to expect, and gives some clarity in the midst of uncertainty.
Grace Baena, mom and director of brands at furniture resale site Kaiyo, says parents shouldn’t underestimate their children’s ability to be a part of the blended family conversation.
“Many people think it will be way too hard for children to accept a new family, so they keep things from them in order to protect them,” Baena says.
She suggests communicating with children about family goals and expectations to make the transition into a blended family a more smooth and positive experience.
5. Expect that things will be messy.
Deal says there’s ultimately no way to avoid the pain of the past when you’re forming a blended family, so it’s best to embrace and learn from it.
A sense of family identity — what Deal calls “familyness” — does not happen right at the wedding.
“It comes after surviving the trials, after bringing clarity to family ambiguity,” he says. “Those days are full of confusing questions. But when it finally comes, it's good.”
Rose says it’s normal and OK for each relationship in the home to be different.
“You might not blend with all of the kids, and your partner might not blend with all of your kids because each kid has a different personality,” she says.
Her advice? Let relationships develop at their own pace.
6. Lower your expectations.
Couples attempting to blend their families often do so with unrealistic expectations, Deal says.
“For example, assuming that because you love your spouse and want your family members to ‘blend,’ that the children want that equally as much,” he says. “They generally do not, at least not at first.”
Advice from a single mom who blended families:
“Our kids are older (19, 20 & 21), but one of the lessons I have learned is to have no expectations because you really cannot prepare for what to expect. I also learned to be kind to myself. I am doing my best! Try to see it from the kids' perspective and be open to their thoughts and feelings. I have to remember that no one is perfect, and no family is perfect. The goal is to be present, be there whenever we need each other and for each kid to know they will always have a place to call home.” — Christy
7. Be patient.
Deal equates blending a family with cooking in a crockpot.
“What's happening inside the pot is that the ingredients are slowly warming, softening, and then choosing to share themselves with other ingredients,” Deal says.
8. Work as a team.
At the helm of a blended family are the two people in the relationship. Deal says that becoming a marital team is critical to helping your family through the uncertainty of merging.
“Work toward supporting one another, listening carefully to your perspectives, and strive to be a well-oiled parental team,” he says.
9. Don’t lose yourself in the relationship.
Rose says that too often, stepparents (stepmothers especially), get caught up in trying to create a cohesive blended family and trying to fix issues within the family.
“You stop seeing your friends; you don't work out; you don't get your hair done; you don't go through your daily walks; you get sucked in,” Rose says. “We call it the stepmom's vortex, and you lose who you were.”
She cautions stepparents to remember who they were before and when they fell in love with their partner. The blended family aspect was just a byproduct of that relationship.
“Don't change who you are because you're now in this blended family,” Rose says. “You can adapt, but still have your friend time, still have your workout time, still go do the things and be the person you were before the blended family.”
How to fix a broken blended family
Nancy Landrum, author of Stepping TwoGether: Building a Strong Stepfamily, says stepfamilies often have more sources of stress than a nuclear or first family, which can lead to more conflicts. These conflicts can threaten a blended family’s foundation.
Because the success of the stepfamily is largely dependent on the success of the marriage, Landrum offers these suggestions to fix a broken blended family:
1. Call a “time out” to avoid disrespectful communication.
Disrespectful language is anything that feels attacking to your partner, usually beginning with the word, “You.” Instead, speak from your own point of view, ie., “When ___ happens, I feel ____.”
2. Keep your marital love alive.
Take time to regularly have fun couple dates to recall why you fell in love and to keep the love alive during the difficult days of stepfamily adjustments. The rule is that nothing controversial is allowed to come up on a fun date.
3. Refrain from criticism.
Stop yourself from criticizing your partner's parenting style or from criticizing your partner's child. Criticism will only trigger defensiveness. Be in charge of parenting your own child, and allow your partner to be fully in charge of parenting his/her child, unless you agree on a different arrangement.
4. Seek help through family counseling.
Jessica Latin, a licensed professional counselor with JL Counseling in Shreveport, La., says blended family issues are one of the top reasons families seek counseling.
“Family counseling provides a safe space with an unbiased mediator for families to discuss their thoughts and feelings and find solutions to their problems, as well as improve their communication with each other so that they can live more harmoniously,” Latin says.
She says family counseling allows everyone in the family the opportunity to be heard, which may be difficult in the home setting.
“The goal of the family therapist is to not take sides but to let everyone see their role in the family and how they can do the best in their role to help the family ‘win’ as a team,” Latin says.
Examples of successful blended families
When she met her second husband, Blindt was a single mother of two young children (2 years and 5 months) who had recently separated from her first husband.
“I didn't have the desire to date or even remarry again at the time, but the universe had other plans,” Blindt says. “He had a beautiful heart and was beautiful with my children.”
Her new partner had never been married before and didn't have children of his own but had always wanted to be a father. Blindt thought she was unable to have more children and communicated that early on in the relationship.
“After contemplating what was right for him, he told me that he felt honored to be able to play the role of stepdad to my two children,” Blindt says.
Because they were so young at the time, Blindt says her children took to her new partner easily and welcomed him as another father figure in their lives.
Blindt unexpectedly became pregnant with twins while they were dating, though the pregnancy was high risk and her babies had to spend 106 days in the hospital.
“During that time, my now husband cared for my two children at home, brought them to visit me daily in the hospital and loved them as though they were his blood children,” Blindt says.
The pair married shortly after, bought a house together, and navigated raising 3-year-old, 2-year-old, and newborn twins.
“There have been many gifts in our blended family journey, but also many challenges,” Blindt says. “With each adversity, we grow stronger and more connected to one another.”
She offers this advice for creating a successful blended family:
- Ensure all kids feel included, seen, heard, and valued as members of the family. She makes a point to spend individual time with each child.
- Remember you are a team, so do your best to be a united front. Kids are smart and often push against their parents. By joining forces as a team, children know their boundaries and are better able to build respectful relationships.
- Get along with your partner’s ex whenever possible. This will make your life smoother and help your children establish secure relationships with both families.
- Communicate expectations and roles of each family member in age-appropriate ways to reduce the anxiety associated with the unknown. That can mean going over manners, rules, and ways to show respect to one another.
- Give children the time and space to hear them out, and affirm their positive behaviors. A big argument can be avoided by simply being still and listening to the child instead of assuming you know what is happening and disciplining them. Having open conversations about feelings, changes and goals is also important to do regularly.
“Having parents set aside their own feelings in order to do what’s best for the children is critical,” Blindt says. “This doesn’t always happen, and it really shakes a child’s sense of security, self- worth, and confidence.
She urges people to remember that blended families bring more people into a child's life who are able to share love.
Pittman says her family made a point to nurture new relationships within the family. She says doing fun things as a group, like going to an amusement park or Chuck E. Cheese, helped the family bond. Pittman also made a point to allow her children to spend quality one-on-one time with her boyfriend (now husband of 10 years).
“An example for me was going to class in the evening and leaving my then-7-year-old with my boyfriend for short periods or allowing them to go to the barbershop without me,” Pittman says. “These things cultivated bonding time.”
You can find more examples of successful blended families on Reddit:
Examples of successful blended families with teenagers
Landrum has her own experience forming a successful blended family. But unlike Blindt, her family didn’t immediately become a cohesive unit.
Landrum and her late husband, Jim, agreed to separately parent the teens they each brought to the marriage but wanted to co-parent his 8-year-old son. She believes this arrangement lowered the teens’ resistance to their new step-parent.
“Any arguments our children had were targeted at their birth parent, not the step-parent,” Landrum says.
However, when it came to the 8-year-old, they quickly realized their co-parenting arrangement wasn’t working. After talking to a professional who taught them effective anger management and respectful speaking skills, Landrum and her husband decided he would go back to parenting all of his children, which completely changed their family’s trajectory.
“We thought we were terrible failures to have to resort to this strategy, but a few years later, learned that this is the method recommended by step-family experts whenever there is conflict over parenting,” she says.
Landrum says her teen sons eventually developed great relationships with her husband, and she still treasures the friendship she has with his three children.
“A general rule of thumb that we learned about later was that it often takes roughly twice the age of a child at the time the stepfamily was formed before they are fully integrated and accepting of the new family,” she says. “We found that statistic to be amazingly accurate.”
Examples of dysfunctional blended families
There are unfortunately plenty of examples of dysfunctional blended families on Reddit. Here are just a few from the r/blendedfamilies subreddit.
FAQs about blended families
Why is a blended family so hard?
Blending families is hard because there are so many moving parts, different personalities, and family dynamics to contend with. These are some of the many reasons blended families struggle, according to real stepfamilies:
- Step-parents are asked to parent kids that are not their own
- Step-parents can feel sidelined when the bio parent and kids have a long history as one unit
- Step-parents can be unsure how to fit in in a co-parenting arrangement
- Uncertainty about who has the final say in parenting decisions
- Different parenting styles trying to meld, with children of varying ages who need different things
- Bio parents struggling to shift from focusing on children to focusing on new spouse as primary bond
- Complications with the other co-parent and his/her new partner/kids, like parenting with a narcissist.
- Differing behavioral expectations between households, and the children going back and forth
- Dealing with court orders, custody arrangements, court-ordered communication, and child support
Deal says the hardest part about forming a blended family is the uncertainty.
In his most recent book, Preparing to Blend, Deal shares this analogy:
“When the pandemic hit, no one really knew how the world should respond. All we were told was to pull back and lock down with those we know and trust the most. We then had to figure out how to do life from home and gradually moved through various strategies for managing closeness and distance in society.”
Deal says you will make mistakes and learn from them.
“You will feel discouraged and perhaps disillusioned about how quickly you're moving forward,” Deal says. But each step is progress; you must be patient with the progress.”
What is considered a blended family?
The most basic criteria for a blended family is that one or both partners have their own child or children that they’re bringing to a new union.
Partners in a blended family might be divorced, widowed, single with children, or single without children (entering into a partnership with someone who has them).
Who comes first in a blended family?
While married couples in biological families put one another “first” for a lifetime, they often spend the majority of their childrearing years investing in their children. Deal says the same is true in blended families, except that new partners and children often feel in competition with each other.
“A stepmom, for example, might wonder if she's valued by her husband if he spends a Saturday afternoon with his children (just like he did for years before she came into the picture),” Deal says.
In a biological family, both parents would likely be spending this time together with their children or see the value in their partner’s individual time with the children. Step-parents don’t often share this mutual investment in their partner’s children, so they compete for affection and time.
“Marriage, by nature, requires an exclusive allegiance to your spouse,” Deal says. “At the same time, children are to be valued, loved, and invested in. Both are important.”
Balancing the time and energy between marital and parental love is the tricky part.
Deal suggests couples clearly articulate their love for each other, privately and in ways that let children know of their loyalty to one another. That includes spending exclusive date time together and honoring one another above all else within the home.
“At the same time, make sacrifices for the children, cheerlead them through life, and pour into their lives,” Deal says.
What is the success rate of blended families?
The divorce rate has been widely publicized at 40-50% for single marriages, 60-67% for second marriages, and 73-74% for third marriages, though there is no legitimate reported data that backs up these statistics. Nor do they specifically address whether those marriages involved children from previous relationships.
“In the end, I estimate the divorce rate for blended family couples to be 45-50%, but I believe that 80% of smart step couples can not only go the distance, but thrive in their family,” Deal says.
Why do blended families fail?
Deal says some of the most common pitfalls of blended families are:
- Not helping children cope with loss
- A stepparent who tries to “erase and replace” the biological parent
- Biological parents who are paralyzed by guilt over the past
- Combining holiday and special day traditions and rituals, etc.
He says smart couples learn about these pitfalls and get smart about how to manage them.
Blending families is hard because there are so many moving parts, different personalities, and family dynamics to contend with.
The most basic criteria for a blended family is that one or both partners have their own child or children that they’re bringing to a new union.
Balancing the time and energy between marital and parental love is the tricky part. While married couples in biological families put one another “first” for a lifetime, they often spend the majority of their childrearing years investing in their children.
“In the end, I estimate the divorce rate for blended family couples to be 45-50%, but I believe that 80% of smart step couples can not only go the distance, but thrive in their family,” Ron Deal, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says.