In this blog I would like to focus on writing about relationships in stepfamilies, also referred to as blended families. Parents of children who have experienced either marital separation or divorce, may sometimes opt to start dating, repartner, and in some situations, remarry. In year 2011, the Center for Family Studies of the University of Malta conducted a survey where a total of 2006 persons shared whether they would consider remarrying should they go through divorce. Over 360 persons from these 2006 participants explained that in such a situation, they would very likely consider remarrying.
Relationships in blended families are complex, and in some ways, different to relationships in nuclear families. One factor contributing to this difference is the need for coordination of the different traditions and realities of two families. For instance, the adults of the blended family may have different ideas regarding how they parent their own children from their previous relationships, and this may create strain in the smooth running of the blended family’s routine. This can be a challenging and stressful experience for all members involved while they adjust to this shift, until the family starts to form its own routine, traditions and roles.
This experience can be particularly confusing for children who might still be in contact with both separated biological parents in two different family environments. Sometimes due to this confusion, and a difficulty with understanding that it is okay to love both parents (and families) even when they are separated, children may experience split loyalties. This is a term used to describe the experience of children who are torn between their parents, and when they believe that they do not have the permission to love both parents but rather, have to side with one of them.
This experience may sometimes complicate itself further when a parent discloses anger, jealousy or hurt to their children when their ex-spouse forms other romantic relationships; and may also expect the children to report back information about the ex-spouse’s life, relationships and stepfamily. Same applies to a stepparent who enters a loyalty competition with the biological parent. The distress experienced because of split loyalties can come out in many different forms; for instance, the child might experience difficulties with anxiety or anger outbursts, reject the parents’ new partners, or even find ways to exploit the situation for privileges from parents. Children who are protected from such distresses by the adults in their lives, may learn to be flexible, able to deal with multiple relationships, and gain increased empathy through the experience of growing up in a stepfamily.
Rebecca Cassar is a Family Therapist practising the Systemic Approach. She specializing in offering therapy to families, couples and individuals who are experiencing distress in their relationships.