Having a relationship with a man who has children has been one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences of my life. It’s not comparable to any other relationship I’ve had. He was able to love deeper and understand better from the get-go because he already knew how to be selfless from raising two amazing little girls and co-parenting. But along with that came complications that other relationships never had—every decision needed to be thoughtful and the girls were at the forefront.
Learning how to be a blended family shares a lot of similarities with a traditional family—it takes a lot of love, hard work, and consistency. It can be overwhelming at times, so here are five things I’ve learned along the way that has led me to a stable and happy blended family:
1. Prioritize Your Relationship With Your Partner
My partner is one of the best parents I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Truly. And this is one of the reasons why I was attracted to him. He was single six years before meeting me and he took care of everything for his daughters because he had no family in the area. When we started to get serious, almost every decision we made considered the girls as well. Everything from scheduling dates to vacations, holidays to moving in together.
It was difficult when we were forced to make decisions about our relationship a certain way because it was best for the girls, and not the two of us. This actually became one of our biggest challenges and we spent countless hours discussing how to find a middle ground or resolution. We began seeing a family counselor to guide us through our family integration and she shared the most simple, but groundbreaking, piece of advice.
Prioritize your relationship first. This will be the stable bedrock for which the girls will grow and prosper. Without a cohesive, supportive set of adults to set an example of what love, compassion and compromise is, the girls will falter.
It seemed so simple—almost too simple. We took that advice home with us and started to let it guide our decisions. Rather than making every decision around the girls and their needs, we supported one another and that support led us to be stronger for the girls.
2. Learning to Co-Exist with the Biological Parents Takes Time
There is no getting around it—being in a relationship with a man with children means you will also need to create some sort of relationship with their biological mother. As the first of my peers to date a man with children, I became the advisor to those who entered similar situations. All of our situations were wildly different, but one perspective remained consistent among us: at one point or another, we all thought we would let our partner handle the biological mother and we would keep as far away as possible. However, there is no separation. The sooner everyone gets on board with establishing amicable, working relationships, the better it will be for the children.
…at one point or another, we all thought we would let our partner handle the biological mother and we would keep as far away as possible. However, there is no separation.
It can be easy to villainize your significant other’s ex based on the history, but it’s important to focus on the future. Don’t dwell on your partner’s perspective of their past. Think of the mother as someone you’ve never met before. The girls’ mom and I had drinks one-on-one before our first blended family event and it helped to get to know her as a person. There were no distractions and we were able to have an honest conversation that laid a strong foundation for us. You can expect to tango over differences from time-to-time, but be patient and treat each other as you would like to be treated. Be direct, respectful, and courteous.
3. There Is No “Right Speed”
My partner and I hit it off and knew within a month that we wanted to get married. A month later, I met the girls. At the one year mark, we were ring shopping and got engaged shortly after. The plan was to move into my partner’s house right after the engagement, but life took another path. My partner’s oldest had a hard time with the integration during the months leading up to the engagement and we knew it was too soon to move in together because it was a fragile time.
It was scary to feel the need for brakes in our timeline and I worried it signified a bigger message. However, as time passed and my relationship with his oldest daughter strengthened, we picked up right where we left off and I joined my family in their house.
The start/stop fast/slow nature of the relationship initially left me worried, but ultimately taught me that like most other things in the life, there is no right speed. Don’t get caught up in the plan. Everything will happen in its own time.
4. Having Differing Expectations Is OK
Expectations are confusing for a stepparent. I’m not the girls’ birth mother and no one expects me to be. In the beginning, I spent a lot of time trying to define what a stepparent is, how I should act, and what my role is in the house. My partner told me he didn’t expect me to be the girls’ mother, but the things he would ask of me felt very motherly. I was slowly getting to know them and he was hoping for an instant loving connection.
In all honesty, it was challenging to learn how to love my stepchildren. I felt guilty for not instantly loving them with my entire heart, but the truth was that I got on well with one and had a slow start with the other. My relationship with the older daughter was a little more like what you see in the movies—she was holding on to the idea that her parents would get back together and I was getting in the way. With our counselor’s guidance, my partner and I became comfortable with the fact that you can’t force love, but you can control your actions.
I learned that my feelings towards my oldest were rooted in rejection; it wasn’t that she didn’t like me as a person, she just didn’t want another female at her daddy’s house. And that rejection stung me every time it reared its ugly head. She would resist or act out because of what I represented and I took it personally. I couldn’t get past it when she would lash out or say hurtful things, but the counselor advised that parents, both biological and step, couldn’t take that type of behavior personally.
5. Set Clear Boundaries
It took a lot of experimentation with different recommendations from our counselor, but ultimately my partner and I found a parenting style that worked best for us. A combination of expectation setting, timeout, consistency, grace, and warmth. We started by sending my husband’s daughter to her room after tantrums or a series of outbursts, but once her mood had escalated all the way to tantrum mode, she had successfully taken my mood down with her. I was sour and uninterested in spending additional time together.
This evolved into us giving her warnings and sending her to her room sooner to think about what she did. This helped preserve our positive headspace. She would hear the rest of the family having fun downstairs and would rejoin once she collected herself. My spirits were still high and it was much easier to welcome her back to the fun. It takes a lot of courage to rejoin a group after feeling ashamed of bad behavior. It was important to give her grace and support—this was a learning experience for everyone.
Ultimately, my partner set very clear expectations: respect is a non-negotiable in our house and you’re welcome to dislike something, but you can’t be rude. If you talk back more than once, you need to take time alone to collect yourself and the punishment is no screens (iPad/iPod) for the next two days. This was a total gamechanger. This technique completely changed my family’s dynamic.
Clear expectations provided boundaries. Time alone allowed her to process her feelings. Consistent responses provided support and stability. Grace and warmth strengthened hurting hearts. The outbursts and back-talk became less frequent and the love between us slowly grew. My partner and I still have to work through differing opinions and perspectives, but we’ve learned that patience is key and it might take multiple tries to find the right answer.
If you’re a stepparent looking for more information on helping your blended family thrive, check out these resources:
- National Stepfamily Resource Center
- American Psychological Association – Making Stepfamilies Work
- Active Parenting for Stepfamilies
- The Stepfamily Foundation
This article was originally published on May 16, 2018, and has been updated for timeliness.
Read More: “Some Days It’s Incredibly Difficult”—One Mom Reveals What It’s Like to Co-Parent With an Ex