Blended families

Blended families

When ‘ plus ‘ equals more than 4

When presidential contender Rudolph Giuliani tried to discourage the media from asking about the rift that has developed between him and his children, he told The New York Times, "Problems with blended families are challenges…. And the challenges are best worked on privately."

In early March, Andrew Giuliani, a senior at Duke University, told the Times that he would not campaign with his father and that his sister, Caroline, has been estranged from their father as well. He cited the former New York mayor’s relationship with his new wife, Judy Nathan, as a source of discord.

Despite Giuliani’s plea for privacy, that was clearly not his priority when he announced his intention to divorce Donna Hanover at a public news conference.

According to Abe Davis, executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of North Jersey in Wayne, Giuliani "sowed the seeds of discontent" when he publicly blindsided his children’s mother. "That would make it especially hard for his children to bond with a new woman," said Davis, who spoke to the Standard about the challenges faced by blended families and the sensitivity needed to address them.

Dr. Jonathan Garfinkle, associate executive director of Jewish Family Service in Teaneck, pointed out that while Giuliani’s experience is "high-profile," his situation is "becoming more the norm," with blended families on the increase. According to Davis, about 75 percent of divorced people remarry, and two-thirds of these remarriages involve children. In addition, he said, there appears to be a higher percentage of second divorces than first divorces.

"Blended families face countless unique challenges," said Garfinkle, from financial pressures to legal issues to feelings of loss and unresolved anger. While there’s no "simple, perfect formula" for the success of these arrangements, he added, parents who are "more willing to confront the inevitable difficulties" and take advantage of "coping strategies" have a much better chance of coming out on top.

Davis — who cited his own blended marriage as a case in point — agreed that blended families can work, stressing that couples need to do a significant amount of advance planning. "Without hard work, planned, thoughtful communication, and parental responsiveness," it is difficult to succeed, he said. "While the adults may have talked about what they will do, when it actually happens, many find they are poorly prepared."

Citing potential problems, Davis noted that in choosing where the family will live, one set of children may feel "dislocated … moving into someone else’s house," while the other may feel that strangers are encroaching on their space. Add to that the logistics of arranging visits to an absent parent, rivalry among new siblings, increasing demands involving money and finances, complicated relationships with ex-spouses, and sexual tension between new siblings of different gender, and the situation becomes even more challenging, he said, noting that even such mundane questions as whether to have pancakes or French toast on Sunday morning can cause tremendous friction.

Davis pointed out that the age of the children is also a complicating factor. Questions may arise as to who has authority, with children saying they "don’t want to be bossed around" by the new parent. Another problem is what to call the parent’s new spouse. Families choose different options, he said, some using terms such as "stepmother," others employing descriptive terms like "my father’s wife," and still others choosing to use first names.

"There’s also a competition for new roles" as members of the enhanced family jockey for position, said Garfinkle. "There are confusing dynamics, with each person struggling to define his or her own place."

"The adjustment is especially hard for kids," he said, "particularly for emerging adolescents, who have an acute need to strive for independence. This conflicts with their attempts to bond" in the new family.

"You have to juggle the needs of so many different people," he added. "There may be conflicting loyalties, with parents feeling that they need to ‘choose’ between their children and their new spouse."

Esther East, director of Jewish Family Service of Greater Clifton-Passaic, pointed out that when two families merge, "usually the kids have not been adequately prepared."

"The parents are involved in their own survival issues, and the children haven’t yet mourned" the death of their parents’ marriage," she said. "Now, when they’re still ambivalent, they’re being asked to connect to a new parent figure."

East suggested that parents who remarry may have unrealistic expectations as regards their children’s behavior. "There’s a very long adjustment period, likely to be measured in years," she said. "It needs a lot of patience and tolerance, and [parents] need to lower their expectations to a realistic level."

For example, she said, "parents expect their children to be respectful of [the new spouse], but the children may not be able to," feeling that it would be "disloyal" to the absent parent. And, she said, "the older the children, the harder it is. Even those no longer living at home have a difficult time" with a parent’s remarriage.

To minimize problems, parents should "discuss parenting expectations with the new partner and develop explicit rules for children to follow," said Garfinkle, stressing the importance of presenting "a united front." Acknowledging that it is helpful for the child’s own parent to be the authority figure in the beginning, he said the stepparent can gradually take on a greater role.

Family meetings might also prove helpful, he said, allowing the new family unit to deal with some of the challenges and to create new family traditions and rituals. In addition, he said, to help children adjust more successfully, "it’s really important to keep the relationship with a former spouse as friendly as possible."

According to Davis, children unhappy in a blended marriage may express that anger in diverse ways, from withdrawal to a change in social or academic habits to aggressive behavior. If families are not able to solve these problems on their own, he advised, they should seek the help of trained counselors.

Davis also said that he would advocate some kind of "pre-remarriage counseling." While, he conceded, there are not many such programs available, services do exist for family therapy. Techniques such as play therapy have proved effective for children, he said, describing a possible scenario. "We might set up two doll houses and ask the child who lives in each. It’s useful in helping children identify their feelings," he said.

"You have to patient with your children," Garfinkle concluded, noting that the newly married couple, who may be eager to "rush consolidation" of the new family unit, must realize that "love takes time to develop."

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