How to stay in love while raising a stepfamily


You fall in love and decide you want to be together - but the decision isn't just about you and him. One - maybe both - of you have children from a previous relationship. In the early days of getting to know each other, it's easy to ignore the impact this will have on all your lives.

But as soon as you know it's serious, your relationship seems to recede into the background. You start to grapple with other issues: you may want to spend your time getting to know all about him; instead you have to start by getting to know his children.

There'll probably be an ex-partner still on the scene, who may be downright hostile to your good intentions. The children themselves may be confused, angry or frightened, unwilling or unable to share you with their parent.

Failure rate

The Brady Bunch may have made it look easy back in the 70's, but blending two families together in the hope that everyone will be happy usually succeeds in achieving quite the opposite. As if the high failure rate of second marriages isn't enough of a warning, stepfamilies bring with them enough additional emotional baggage to make any successful ones seem little short of miraculous.

Suzie Hayman, relationships counsellor and author of Your Kids, My Kids (Hodder & Stoughton, £6.99) says: 'Any change in a family means a tragedy. Either a relationship has come unstuck or someone has died. However much you may feel it's all behind you, the chances are it still affects all of you. The shape of the family you are in may be a central reason for your difficulties. The very existence of children affects what happens between you and your partner and affects other members of your family too.'

So how do you stay in love when you're picking up the pieces of one broken family and reforming another? Suzie Hayman has this advice:

Accept your feelings. 'It's perfectly normal, permissible and to be expected that you might feel anger, jealousy, guilt, envy and even hatred,' says Suzie. 'The point is to accept the feelings, deal with them, and discuss them with the relevant people. You can accept your feelings without having to act on them. Not accepting feelings is often what leads us to behave cruelly and badly.'

Talk as a family. Don't just assume that because you and your partner have a consensus of opinion, or are able to discuss matters when something's going wrong, that it's enough to keep your relationship ticking along. The wider relationship of the whole family directly affects yours, so everyone else needs to have their feelings acknowledged from time to time. Suzie Hayman suggests the idea of the 'Family Round Table', where you should:

(a)Let everyone speak. 'This may feel uncomfortable at first if you are used to telling your children what you are going to do, rather than eliciting their opinion. But the fact is it can be enormously helpful,' says Suzie. 'Everyone, from oldest to youngest, should have an equal turn to speak and to be heard.'

And, (b)Own what you say. Everyone should put forward their own feelings: 'I think' or 'I feel' rather than 'Everyone knows' or 'So-and-so says.' Suzie explains: 'The aim is to put across your point of view, not to criticise or attack other people.'

Ask for advice. Even friends not in your situation can often offer good suggestions you may not have thought of. Remember, too, that there is always help at hand specifically for stepfamilies: Parentline Plus offers help, support and information for anyone caring for children through a freephone helpline (0808 800 2222). Relate can also help with personal relationship problems arising from stepfamily issues.

If you feel you can't cope, say so. It's a brave, rather than a weak, admission. If you don't ask for help, others may not feel you need it.

Acknowledge jealousy. 'Step-parents often complain about the amount of time spent on the children, because they feel this is a rival for their relationship,' says Suzie Hayman. 'If you enter into a stepfamily relationship, you have to expect that the children will require a certain amount of love and attention and your partner's time will have to get divided around.

'This is a huge and often difficult adjustment, and these feelings have to be dealt with if the relationship is to succeed. If you are finding yourself becoming very resentful, then it's important to face up to this. Couple counselling may be necessary to help you find ways of working through these feelings.'

Forget a 'new start'. It may be tempting for you and your partner to try and forget the past: perhaps destroying old photos and insisting that the previous relationships were rubbish. But this attitude can cause huge problems within a stepfamily. Says Suzie Hayman: 'This behaviour may feel satisfying to you, but it's devastating for a child of that union.

'Children are well aware that they are a blending of two people. For a child to hear a parent say the other parent is rubbish and the whole affair was a mistake, is to hear that half of himself is rubbish, and he was a mistake, too.' Hostility from the children is the inevitable result, putting, in turn, a huge strain on your relationship.

Accept hands-on help. The children's grandparents are a vital element of continuity in their new life, and will very likely be keen to increase contact with them during this period of upheaval. You may find they're keen to babysit, or have the children during school holidays. Take advantage of this opportunity to recharge your batteries and enjoy being alone together.

If grandparents aren't available, friends may be willing to give you a break. Or try Home Start UK, a voluntary organisation offering support, friendship and practical assistance to parents with at least one child under five (0116 233 9955)

Take time for yourselves. Find somewhere you can be quiet and alone, for a few moment's peace each day. Give each other support, encouragement and praise, and learn to accept it in turn.

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