Working Successfully Across Households

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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 can help.

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 priority.

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 cooperation:

  • 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 school.
  • 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 arrangements.

Here are some other strategies for getting used to changing household composition:

  • 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 transition time.
  • 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 kin relationships!

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 dear friends.

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."

Conclusion

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 University.

References

  1.  Fitzpatrick, J., Williamson, S., Duncan, S. F., & Smith, T. (1989). The remarried family: Meeting the challenge (Publications 607A-H). Auburn, AL: Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.
  2.  Visher, J. S., & Visher, E, B. (1999). How to win as a stepfamily. New York: Routledge.