With effort, there’s still time to save blended family

I’ve recently remarried, and as well as a new companion in my life, I also have a young boy, 9, as a stepson. He is a handful, having a hard time adjusting at school, not wanting to do his homework, and if we didn’t make an effort to get him outdoors, he’d watch television his whole life. I feel that his mother coddles him a bit too much, one minute we talk about giving him responsibilities like cleaning up his room, doing dishes and the next she is doing the dishes and cleaning up his room!

When I make mention of this and other things, I am told that I am riding him too much. What happened to sitting up straight at the dinner table and learning how to hold and use a knife and fork?

The child whines that it is too hard for him and Mom winds up cutting up his dinner for him. She still ties his shoes!

Am I expecting too much for a young boy to help out around the house a little bit? It’s a constant battle in between the child and my wife. I’m trying to bond with the boy and yet, though I like the kid, I do not feel the love coming from my heart.

My wife and I are at odds from a religious standpoint (I’m atheist, while she is secretly hoping that I join the Mormon church). Sometimes, I use expletives when I’m frustrated. Yet, I also feel that deep down that it would be much easier and possibly better for all of us if we separate.

I’m tired of fighting all the time, and I wonder as I approach 52, is this worth it?

— L.W., Las Vegas

It’s tempting to focus here on Mom, and the question of her "coddling." A 9-year-old boy? Still tying his shoes for him? Still cutting up his food and doing his chores? Well, yes, all else being equal, I would lean toward saying this is a mom creating protracted dependencies in her boy. That is, she’s some combination of not expecting enough and unwilling to allow his healthy differentiation.

But, may I suggest that, before we focus on Mom’s mothering report card, I think we should take a look at some other test scores, namely, the blended family marriage.

The folks I know doing Blended Family Marriage well all have the starting point: They concede that blended families are complicated as hell, riddled with overlapping politics, and regularly require a ton of dialogue and negotiation.

Now, some of you readers might be saying: "Hey! That sounds just like my family! And it’s a contiguous family (that is, not blended.)"

Here’s the difference: Blended families bring to the marriage a painful ambiguity regarding the scope of appropriate authority held by the stepparent. And I mean by this both the authority to intervene with a child and the authority to offer feedback to the blood-parent. I’m saying that, in a contiguous family, there is more or less a presumption of shared authority for both these things. Everyone knows where the lines are drawn. A lot of blended family couples never get beyond the tense, resentful turf issues — "Hey, that’s my kid and it’s none of your business, and I’ll parent my child however I want!"

More simply: Blended family couples tend to marry all of themselves to each other except the part of themselves that is a parent to their blood children. That is, this part is withheld from the marriage. Whereas, in contiguous family marriages, co-parenting is presumed to be an innate part of the couplehood.

This compartmentalizing of parenting drops a confusing ambiguity into the laps of blended family couples, and it’s rife with opportunity for conflict and ensuing damage to the new marriage bond. In some cases, this issue alone can bring the new marriage to an unhappy end.

I think premarital counseling for blended family couples is hugely important. But, postmarital counseling is what I’d recommend now. Two to four sessions to negotiate what the two of you clearly neglected to negotiate before your wedding day.

And, since you’ll be in session anyway, why not negotiate connectedness versus separateness in your respective spiritual paths (atheism and Mormonism), and what the expletive rules will be in your household.

It is not too late, good man. You and your lovely bride simply overlooked some important conversations. Have them now and rescue this marriage.

Originally published in View News, Sept. 15, 2009.

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