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Working Successfully Across Households
A common outcome of divorce involving children is some form of shared custody
that allows children contact and co-residence with their biological parents at
alternating times. Current research suggests that regardless of residence,
children benefit when they have stable, loving relationships with both parents.
This is the ideal for children and should be pursued, unless one parent has
problems that place the child in danger. Shared custody arrangements are best
for children when all parties agree and parents are willing to work hard,
sacrifice, and cooperate.
Eventually, however, one or both of the former spouses will likely marry. One
of the trickiest challenges for many stepfamilies is learning to work together
with another household and share the parenting of children with another parent
and possibly another stepparent as well. This article provides some ideas that
Create a Parent Coalition
If you were divorced prior to remarriage, you may have had a co-parenting plan
with your former spouse. Now that you have remarried, or if your partner
remarries, there will be additional parental figures in the picture, even if
these additional persons play only a minor parenting role. An important task of
successful stepfamily development, according to Emily and John Visher, is the
creation of a parent coalition.
According to the Vishers, having civil relationships among the adults
surrounding the children benefits children and adults alike, even in cases
where there is little contact among the adults. Having a "neutral, businesslike
relationship" reduces adults' worries about children's acceptance of both
parents and stepparents. Try seeing your new relationship as a cooperative
business partnership with the best interests of your children as the top
Continued contact with both parents is important for a child's self-worth and
sense of feeling loved, even if such contacts don't occur very often. This kind
of contact also reduces the loyalty conflicts children may feel. Instead of
competing for attention, contribute your own specialness to children. All
parents need to attempt to get along so children feel comfortable in both
families. The Vishers recommend several strategies for fostering this kind of
Deal directly with parenting adults in other households. Avoid asking children
to be "messengers" or "spies." Instead, speak directly to each other, in
person, by phone, or by letter, like business partners. Communicate with each
other in the most effective manner.
Keep children out of the middle of your disagreements. Parent conflict is
devastating to children. Work out your disagreements in ways that will benefit
your children. Avoid power struggles between households. If necessary, take a
class to learn conflict management skills.
Do not talk negatively about parents in the other household. When your child
says something negative like, "My stepdad is really mean to me. He punished me
for something that never bugged Mom before!" you may be tempted to chime in and
say, "Tell me what other stupid things your stepdad does. I'd love to hear
them." But you wouldn't want the other household saying negative things about
you. Instead, you can say something like, "I'm sorry you're unhappy. You need
to talk to your mom and stepdad about that. If you bring it up politely I'll
bet they'll listen to you." Respect the parenting skills of your former spouse.
Control what you can and accept limitations. For example, don't expect the
other household to be run the same way as yours. This is unrealistic and can
create a lot of tension between households. Set consequences that affect only
your own household. Remember that children can manage differences between
households fine as long as the adults are clear about what the expectations
are, just as they can manage differences in expectations between home and
Trade assurances. Trading assurances means that each household agrees that
neither will unilaterally change residency agreements. This alone can help
reduce tensions between households.
Accept Continual Shifts in Household Composition
One of the challenges stepfamilies face is getting used to all the comings and
goings of family members. For example, a child may face similar amounts of time
in two households, with different extended family members to relate to.
Confusion can arise as everyone learns how to relate one to another. Over time,
these situations can feel "normal." According to the Vishers, it's important
that you don't save special events only for when nonresident children are in
the household. The resident children may begin to feel that they are less loved
than the others. Make sure you plan special times for various household
Here are some other strategies for getting used to changing household
Allow children to enjoy their "dual citizenship." Imagine being a citizen of
separate countries, each with their own distinctive culture, mores, and
traditions. You spend quite a bit of time in each country and enjoy each one
for different reasons. Contemplate the benefits that such a broadening
experience would bring to you. You have great fondness for and allegiance to
both of these nations. Each has contributed something of what you are today.
Now imagine that these countries are at war with one another. Can you envision
the unhappiness and loyalty conflict you might feel given your deep allegiance
to both nations?
Households place children in similar predicaments when they fight with one
another and don't allow children to enjoy fully the benefits of each family
setting. When children know that it is all right with you for them to care
about all the parenting adults in their lives and enjoy their households, you
help them be enriched by these distinct experiences.
Give children time to adjust to household switches. As people move from country
to country, you would expect to give them time to ease in to the culture,
mores, and traditions. Give children the same benefit, including some
Respect the privacy (boundaries) of all households. Avoid quizzing or probing
children about what is happening in the other household.
Consider a teenager's serious desire to change residence. Changes in
established residential patterns are normal as children grow older. Adolescents
are more likely than younger children to have realistic, thought-out reasons
for choosing one residence over another. Often these reasons are associated
with wanting to maintain continued peer contact.
Provide personal space for nonresidential children. Don't treat them like
temporary residents. Giving them their own designated, unshared area, such as bedroom space of their own, will show you value them and reduce potential
arguments over territorial rights.
Build Relationships With Extended Family Members
A remarriage with children creates a different and more complicated family
arrangement than a first marriage. For example, the size of the extended kin
network grows substantially. John and Mary, who had two children together,
divorced. Mary remarried Bill, who had three children by his first marriage.
Combining these households and extended family members totaled a possible 136
These new kin should be seen as additions to, and not as replacements for,
previous family relationships. Younger children, it seems, have the most
optimistic outlook on more relationships. One youngster remarked, "You get to
love more people, you know!" Another five-year-old girl told her kindergarten
class, with pride, that she had four grandmas and three grandpas. In my
situation, I gained several new step-aunts and uncles, some of whom became very
Tensions can arise, however, when parents (grandparents of the children) are
not pleased with the divorce nor the remarriage that follows. They may react
this way out of a sense of guilt, somehow blaming themselves for the divorce
and the sadness it caused. They may have difficulty accepting the new
stepparent of their grandchildren or a new in-law bringing children from a
former marriage into the new family.
The Vishers suggest the following steps if your parents are having difficulties
accepting the new circumstances.
First, let them know that you love them and understand that it's hard for them
to feel comfortable about all the changes in the family. Acknowledge that it is
challenging for you, as well. Give them time to adjust to the new family
configuration. Parents of earlier generations may not have had the experience
of relating to extended stepfamilies. Finally, let them know it means a great
deal to you for them to accept the changes. You want them to care about your
new partner as well as any stepchildren you have. At the same time, you realize
that they have known their grandchildren since those children's births and you
do not expect them to feel the same about their stepchildren. If your parents
aren't able to become inclusive, let them know this makes you very unhappy, and
ask them to be fair to your stepchildren and also your partner.
In rare occurrences, it may be necessary to break off ties for a while until
your parents get used to the idea. Eventually, they may decide that they really
do want to continue to see their son or daughter, grandchildren and
stepgrandchildren, and that it is best to be inclusive and fair in all
relationships. Many of the new steprelationships can be very strong. As one
young adult remarked about his stepgrandmother, "Grandma B was great. She had
plenty of love to go around."
Many changes and challenges occur as households and extended families work
together to build a cohesive stepfamily. Be patient with yourself and others as
you adjust to the changes. As stepfamily relations grow over time, it becomes
easier to work together.
Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young