One of the things I’m good at is resourcing, encouraging and supporting couples in the work of Blended Family. I speak, of course, of divorced mothers and fathers who find themselves again in love. People for whom life has offered another chance to love, and to love well. To do it ‘right.’ To choose a life of creative couplehood that becomes a blessing to themselves and their children. And, in our modern day of divorce, it can’t surprise you to hear that I do a lot of this.
But, couples who come to me with the complexities, the often angst and let’s not forget the potential joys of Blended Family are not always comfortable with my contributions to this dialogue. Because my prejudices here are passionate and clear. On the front end, anyway, I make a lot of people squirm.
The preponderant tendency of divorced parents entering a new union is to invert the healthy hierarchy of family by presupposing their children are the operating foundation. The priority. They then attempt to attach the new marriage/union to that foundation. To tuck it just under and behind the kids. The children end up “driving the bus,” as it were.
The consequence of this paradigm is that it MUST ‘hedge the bet’ of their commitment to the new life partner. And beginning a new union with a hedged bet is a recipe for chaos and conflict. Like building a house on quicksand.
To the parents, this paradigm feels like love and loyalty to their children. In fact, it’s not good for kids. They don’t want the responsibility. And I’ve never met a child who, when an adult, said to their mom or dad, “I can’t thank you enough – you, sitting there alone there in a rocking chair – for summarily subordinating and sacrificing your new love relationship so that I could … could …. Could what? Learn that I’m the center of the universe?
Healthy family hierarchy, whether contiguous or blended, is founded on the marital union. It is from this definitive nexus, then, the parents/step-parents proceed to act in the best interest of children. It’s not ‘either/or.’ It’s ‘both/and.’
Since I am a divorced father, let me say it more personally: While my children are, must be, and will be a huge factor in whether and with whom I make a new life-commitment, this does not mean I would ultimately allow my children to decide for me whether and with whom I make that commitment.
Over and over I say to couples lost in yet another painful, eroding argument about the kids: This is not about the kids! These arguments are about the marriage! That, once the marital commitment is secured, the deal-breakers immediately are transformed into problems to solve and conflicts to be negotiated. Committed partners move in mutual, reciprocal postures of sacrifice and compromise. They never think in terms of the marriage OR the kids.
When these second marriages end with the now estranged partners saying, “We just couldn’t work things out with the kids,” my common thought is, “No, that’s not true. What’s true is that you couldn’t work things out IN THE MARRIAGE.”
You don’t make sure your kids are hunky-dory and then ponder a commitment. You make a commitment! And then proceed to raise happy, healthy children. Children who take their rightful place in a healthy family hierarchy.
Or you don’t make a commitment. You make a semi-commitment. Then you act surprised when the new union wobbles and stumbles. Well, what else would it do? Hedged commitments insert a destabilizing ambiguity into the new relationship.
Now, of course, if I was to discover that I made a commitment to someone who was derelict, drunk, cruel, or unwilling to embrace my life as a father, well I would unmake that commitment in a hurry. But that’s hardly the point here.
What’s the most critical, important attribute of a thriving Blended Family? That the partners have made a radical commitment to each other! That both people have unequivocally chosen the relationship. Then everything else falls into place.
It’s fine, of course, if you don’t want to do that. But better, then, that you should casually date until your children are grown.
(Steven Kalas is an author, therapist and Episcopal priest. You can reach him at SKalas@marinscope.com)