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Living in a Step-Family Without Getting Stepped On
By KEVIN LEMAN
REGENCY PUBLISHING HOUSECopyright © 1994 Dr. Kevin Leman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThey Thought They Would Live Happily Blended Ever After, and Then ...
Phil C., a regional sales manager for a large computer firm, looked the part: early forties, clean-cut, wearing the carefully pressed custom suit, the fine silk tie, the Gucci shoes. He had invited me to lunch, explaining that he had heard me speak at a conference a few weeks earlier and that he was interested in my "availability for other engagements." Since it sounded like a good contactI speak for many corporations, companies, and organizationsI accepted. Besides, he was buying.
But as Phil and I chatted, I could tell he had something else in mind besides my speaking for a group of sales reps at some posh resort.
"You know, Dr. Leman, when Peggythat's my wifeand I decided to attend your birth order session at that conference in Chicago last month, we didn't know what to expect. But after the first few minutes, we were chuckling and elbowing each other. It was as if you had been looking in our windows or reading our mail. You had her kids and my kids nailed to a tee, describing what happens on a daily basis in our home. It was almost uncanny."
"Well, sometimes I can get lucky. Birth order doesn't always fit everyone perfectly," I told him, "but it is amazing how often it does connect."
"Well, you sure connected with us. My firstborn son, Lance, is a classic example of the conscientious, hard-driving type. And Peggy's firstborn daughter, Carol, is Miss Perfectionist Plus. Peggy's got a middle child, Patrick, who's gone just the other direction from Carol. He's the family jocka terrific volleyball playerand couldn't care less about school. And oh, yes, Peggy's last born, Tina, is definitely the charming entertainershe keeps us all in stitches."
"The typical characteristics of birth order often fit kids to a tee," I commented. "Come to think of it, Phil, I think I can guess your birth order. I've already gotten some pretty good hints."
"Well, sure, I guess so," he allowed, "but I don't know how you could tell so soon. This is the first time we've met, and we've only been talking for about thirty-five minutes."
"Well, the expensive suit, the very fashionable tie, and the alligator shoes all point in one basic direction. But maybe what really clinches it is your digital watch. I would say you're the firstborn male of your family."
"Guilty!" laughed Phil. "I'm the oldest in my family, and I have a younger sister and two other brothers. But how can you tell just from looking at what I'm wearing? A lot of sales managers wear suits and ties. And everybody wears a watch."
"Yes, but your suit is perfectly pressed. Your tie has no signs of having been to lunch in other restaurants, and your shoes gleam like diamonds. In other words, you're what I call impeccably groomed, and this is always a big tip-off on firstborns. It's true, of course, that other birth orders may dress impeccably, too, but there is just something about the way you carry yourself and the way you talk that led me down the firstborn lane."
"Okay, but what's this about my watch?"
"Note that it's digitalcapable of giving you the exact time, not to mention the date and several other functions, all of which point to a certain amount of perfectionism, another telltale trait of the firstborn. But I don't really think you invited me to lunch to guess your birth order or even to talk about speaking for another company conference some time. I heard you mention 'her' kids and 'my' kids. I hope I'm not making too personal an observation, but you're in a blended family, right?"
"Yes, and you're not getting too personal at all. In fact, I hope you don't mind if I tell you about my family because I guess that's really why I'm here. I've been remarried for about two years. Peggy and I both came out of lousy marriagesat the end there was no communication, no trust, no working together, and almost nonexistent sex."
"How did you and Peggy meet?" I asked.
"Through some mutual friends. My life was transformed in a matter of weeks. Everything seemed to fall into place, and even our kids all seemed in favor of us getting married. We made them part of the wedding, and we thought we were going to live happily ever after in one big blended family-my two, her three, and us, almost a Brady Bunch-and if you include the golden retriever my kids and I brought along, we do have the Brady Bunch numbers."
"But you're here to tell me that the Brady Bunch you're not," I said.
"I'd say it's more like 'Married With Children.' As I said, her kids and mine both acted like they really wanted us to get married, but when we came home from our honeymoon, the tension started almost immediately. When I show any interest in Peggy's girls, in particular, my second born, Tiffany, really gives me a bad time, anything from giving me the cold shoulder to throwing a small fit. And Peggy tells me that being stepmother to my two kids has not been much fun. She hadn't been in the house three weeks when they decided she was the wicked stepmother. We're both totally baffled because Peggy has bent over backwards to be good to my kids and give them things their mother never even tried to give them."
"Does their natural mother see them much?" I asked.
"She ran off with my supposed best friend. Seldom contacts the kids at all. But what I want to know, Dr. Leman, is where did Peggy and I go wrong? We had long talks, and we knew there would be some problems. We even got some counseling before the wedding. We thought we were ready. Everything looked so good, but now we have to admit that we weren't at all prepared for what we got into."
"Actually, I wouldn't think of it as what you did wrong, Phil. When you remarried you stepped into some typical problems that I hear about all the time. It's interesting that even though you got counseling and you thought you were ready, now you can see that you weren't preparedthat's also a situation I hear about a lot. If it's any comfort, you're like a lot of intelligent people who try to go into building a blended family with their eyes open. They somehow still buy into the myths that make them think, Our blended family will be different."
"Myths? What myths?" Phil asked.
"Well, for one thing, while you admitted that you might have a few problems, you probably believed that everything would just come together and you'd have a happy, 'normal' life."
"I have to admit you're right," said Phil. "It seemed to me that we had so much going for us. The wedding went so well we thought managing our new family was going to be a piece of cakeno pun intended."
"I'm afraid you may have been indulging yourselves in a bit of denial. Not too long ago I was talking with a stepmom who said, 'Denial is so much a part of a second marriage. You want to pretend you're like everyone else, and you're not.' She's absolutely right."
Phil didn't say anything, choosing to work on his lunch and ponder what I had said. I hoped that I hadn't discouraged him, but I had wanted to make him think.
In Blended Families, E - R = D
Under the best of conditions, blending a family is no snap. Chances are, you already know this is true because you are in a stepfamily situation. In 1992, it was estimated that one out of three Americans is a stepparent, a stepchild, a stepsibling, or some other member of a stepfamily. In addition, it was estimated that more than half of all Americans have been, are now, or eventually will be in one or more stepfamily relationships during their lives.
According to the Stepfamily Association of America, about 43 percent of all marriages now are remarriages for at least one of the adults. About 65 percent of remarriages involve children from previous marriages, and thus form stepfamilies. An estimated 15 to 20 million stepfamilies existed in 1998, and it was projected that one out of every three children in the United States will live in a stepfamily before they reach age eighteen.
With a few years (or even a few months) in a stepfamily under your belt, it's very likely that the assumptions and expectations you had before your remarriage have been tempered by stark reality. A woman who remarried and wound up with five children instead of her original two told me, "We went through months of premarital counseling, but it didn't prepare us for being a blended family Until you live with someone every day, you and your children with him and his children, all together under the same roof, you don't know what you're going to cope with."
This woman's honest admission can be summed up in the following equation that my colleague, Dr. Jay Passavant, and I have often quoted on realFAMILIES.com, a syndicated television show for parents:
E - R = D (Expectations minus reality equals disillusionment.)
Yet, despite the odds against them, despite the bruising and shattering experience of divorce (sometimes more than one), people remain intrepid eternal optimists who try marriage again. In America alone, it was estimated in 1994 that more than thirteen hundred new families formed every day. Those figures have surely risen, since the blended family has become the most common form of family in the twenty-first century.) Most of the men and women who decide to remarry naively expect that this time their marriage and family life will work because they won't make the same mistakes. This time they have found Mr. Right or Mrs. Wonderful, and they will live harmoniously blended ever after.
Unfortunately, experience usually proves them wrong. As I try to help blended families make it, I can think of another equation that applies:
N x R = C (Naiveté times reality equals chaos.)
The key to both equations is reality. One of the major reasons that expectations get dashed on the rocks of reality is "the kids." As one woman who married a fither of two said, "The situation is just impossible. People go into these marriages with no idea of what is involved, and it's like filling off a cliff. There's never enough money to go around ..."
And she could have easily added that there is never enough time, energy or patience to go around either. The plight of many stepfamilies reminds me of a corny old joke:
Question: What's green and goes 100 m.p.h.?
Answer: A frog in a blender.
A growing army of moms, dads, and children might wryly agree that another punch line could be "A blended family." And they ought to know. Stepfamily members often feel as if they're in a blender, turning green from getting whirled violently around and aroundwhile they're being chopped to pieces in the process.
These days with the divorce rate hovering around 50 percent, the odds are against any family. Put a divorced mom and her kids in the same house with a divorced dad and his kids, and those odds get even longer, increasing to 60 percent and beyond.
For over twenty years I have been working with families like Phil'sin my office, in seminars and other classroom settings, and on radio and television. Many of these families have involved remarriagesstepmothers, stepfathers, and stepchildren. From what I have seen, I have to admit that I often ask clients who are contemplating remarriage, "Are you absolutely sure? When you live in a stepfamily," I tell them, "you can get stepped on."
I decided I wouldn't tell Phil the blender joke. He looked a little green around the gills anyway, and, besides, he was hoping I might have some answers for his blended family problems.
Phil's Remarriage Started Well and Then ...
Phil finished his last bite of salmon and said, "One thing that has amazed both Peggy and me is how touchy our kids have been about the simplest things. Little things, like who gets a ride to school or who gets a little help with homework, can set off a major hassle."
"The little things will do it every time," I told him. "Another myth that a lot of remarrying couples subconsciously believe is that children from broken homes adapt easily into stepfamilies. A few kids do adapt quickly, but most don't. The basic reason is that children coming into a blended family have been hurt by a divorce or the death of a parent. They have deep wounds that are barely healed over."
"Why, then, did her kids and mine act like they thought our getting married was such a good idea?" Phil asked me.
"At first, they could have been naive, not realizing that you'd really go ahead and do it. When you announced your wedding plans, they were probably shocked but tried to be polite. You and Peggy may not have read their signals correctly. Perhaps you heard only what you wanted to hear."
"Maybe, but everybody seemed so happy at the wedding. We had a great time," Phil persisted.
"I'm not sure why the wedding went so well. Maybe the two of you had a great time while the kids just gritted their teeth. Or maybe you were just lucky. But once you came home from the honeymoon and you all moved in together, everyone realized that this was for real. Life would never be the way it was. The grief and anger and the feelings of separation and loss that all your kids were carrying were still there, and your remarriage opened up the wounds again."
"I guess I didn't realize that everyone was carrying all that baggage," Phil mused as he took a sip of coffee. "I thought my kids had pretty well gotten over my divorce. Peggy's kids seemed pretty well adjusted, too. I can see now that I was wrong and that both Peggy and I have a lot to learn about all this."
"I don't mean to make light of your problems, Phil, but our conversation has reminded me of a little play on words that I like to use tongue in cheek with the parents of a blended family. Here, I'll scratch it out on this napkin." After busying myself with a ballpoint pen for a minute or so, I showed Phil this acrostic:
Bis for bloodshed ("Nobody's pushing me around!")
Lis for loneliness ("I don't fit anywhere in this family.")
Eis for eternity ('Will these hassles ever end?")
Nis for naiveté ('Why can't we live like a normal family?")
Dis for dumbfounded ("Why did we ever get into this?")
Eis for education ('We've got to find some answers!")
Dis for determination ("We will make this work!")
"Very clever," Phil said with a wry smile. 'You don't have that printed up on little cards, do you? I particularly like the last two about getting education and being determined because that's what Peggy and I really want to do. We can see that all of this is really affecting our marriageno time or motivation to communicate, perfunctory sex, and sniping at each other more and more, particularly about the kids. Lately, I've even wondered if we should have ever tried this blended family thing."
"Well, keep in mind that a lot of supposedly normal nuclear families could identify with this acrostic, too. Actually, the good news is that you both seem to be aware that you've got a real problem on your hands. This tells me you've at least reached stage two of the process every blended family has to go through and that you'd like to move on to stage three."
"I'm sorry; Phil said, "but I haven't heard of the stages of a blended family. What are they?"
"Some counselors say there are three stages, and I know of one who outlines sevens, but I have typically observed four. That little acrostic I showed you was just for h, but it does roughly parallel the stages that every blended family seems to go through. In stage one, everybody's going around saying, 'Let's walk softly,' as they try to feel each other out on how all this is going to work. The walk softly stage might last several months or only a few weeks. For some families, it's only a few days!"
"With us, I'd say it lasted maybe two weeks, and then we started in: Phil offered.
I nodded. "That's when you got into stage two'Why did we ever do this?' In stage two, the polite sparring is over and everyone starts landing cheap shots, throwing punches, verbal and otherwise. Or maybe they're just retreating into a shell and freezing other people out. Many remarried couples I've worked with say it takes about eighteen months to get through stages one and two. Then, if the family is still together, they can begin solving their problems and becoming truly blended."
"Well, we've been at this for almost two years, and I don't think we're moving toward solving our problems yet J' Phil said sadly.
"But you're searching and wanting to move into stage three. I hear you saying you want to work this thing out."
"I don't think our kids are really that interested in working it out."
"That's not too surprising: I told him. "But I think you and Peggy would like to find a way to pull it off. And if you can pull together and present a solid front to your kids, you will eventually move into stage four'We're going to make it.' Maybe it won't be the perfect bliss you've dreamed about, but you can all have a lot more respect and peace as you function on a more positive, healthy basis."
Excerpted from Living in a Step-Family Without Getting Stepped On by KEVIN LEMAN Copyright © 1994 by Dr. Kevin Leman. Excerpted by permission of REGENCY PUBLISHING HOUSE. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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