Susan Smith finally meets the man of her dreams following the end of an unhappy first marriage. She and her young daughter settle into a cozy new life, but the bliss lasts only six months. His first wife decides she can no longer be the custodial parent of three children, and so the children move in, bicycles, laundry, pets and all.
Blended families are becoming the norm, but few people are prepared to cope with the complexities and stress, says Dr. Betty Vos, assistant professor in the University of Utah Graduate School of Social Work."People have incredible expectations going into a second marriage," Vos says. "Some want to make right what went wrong in the first marriage. They may want to create an ideal family, so there is even more pressure on the second family. Couples need to realize and accept that blended families are very, very different from intact families."
Across the country about 65 percent of remarriages involve children from a prior marriage, and statistics show second marriages are not only more likely to end in divorce, but to fail sooner than first marriages. The failure rate may result from couples being unprepared for the complexity that blending two families creates, Vos says.
Drawing on 21 years' experience in private therapy practice and academic research, Vos helps people make the remarriage transition flow more smoothly.
It's important to have a balanced picture of how the first marriage ended, she says. Vos believes divorced people need to determine what they did right in the marriage, and what they did to contribute to the problem.
Vos counsels couples and children to give themselves permission to loosen up the definition of family. "Parents feel a stronger connectedness with their children than they will ever develop with their stepchildren, and children usually retain much stronger bonds with biological parents than they form with stepparents."
She explains that children may wish the first family could "live together again" and that such feelings are common.
Successful stepparenting requires flexibility, non-defensiveness and openness, she says. "It is crucial that both parents agree what the discipline system is."
It's a myth that you can marry someone without marrying their children, Vos says. "The children will be part of your life, and you need to be ready to let those children into your life."