On average, marriages in England and Wales last little over 12 years at the time of divorce. But as people find love again after divorce or separation, blended families are created and family dynamics evolve.
It’s now estimated that 1 in 3 families in the UK are a blended family, also known as stepfamily.
In fact, in contrast to traditional stepfamily stereotypes, the narrative of blended families has transformed – even King Charles III is a member of a blended family.
For many couples, divorce can mark the beginning of a happier new era for them and their children.
Knowing how to make a blended family work can take time and effort but fuelled by love, the choices made by separated parents can transform a family structure.
What is a blended family?
Blended families are created when a couple begin a new life together with their children from one, or both, of their previous relationships.
What’s behind the increase in blended families?
Divorce rates are on the rise meaning more people starting new relationships are divorced, with children.
For example, the latest ONS marriage statistics released in 2022 show that over 32% of marriages include at least one partner who is remarrying. Of course, these figures can’t track the number of couples where one or both partners have previously been in an unmarried relationship.
Still, it’s understood there are at least 1.1 million children in England and Wales who live in a blended stepfamily.
Becoming a blended family
While a positive experience for many, often the most significant concerns when forming a blended family are the integration of new family members and changes to living arrangements.
Or, perhaps it’s more the reactions of each family member to these inevitable changes, and the emotions they bring, that pose the greatest challenges.
While parents can appreciate the benefits of becoming a blended family and visualise what their stepfamily homelife could look like in the future, the children may struggle to share that vision. For them it can feel like a huge amount of change, affecting fundamental aspects of their lives, over which they have no control.
As with any changes, some will take them in their stride, and others will need a greater degree of support and encouragement.
Introducing a new partner
Gradually making children aware of a new partner and giving plenty of notice when and how things will change is vital.
This begins with establishing the right time and approach for introducing a new partner to children, and meeting future stepchildren if their partner also has children.
Whatever the child’s age, it’s a good idea to prepare them ahead of introductions and offer them a sense of control over the situation. Having some level of control, even if only perceived control, allows us to deal with potentially upsetting or uncomfortable events more effectively.
Challenges for children of blended families
There’s a lot for children of blended families to take in. Maybe they’ve come to terms with their parent’s separation, and now there’s more change on the horizon.
They must navigate the complexities of having stepparents, possibly step-siblings, and even step-grandparents, potentially forging multiple new relationships.
Sharing loved ones, a home, and belongings with new members of the family can understandably raise worries and negative feelings and behaviour.
Furthermore, the shift in family roles and responsibilities can become a source of tension, with two sets of parents each with different parenting styles, rules, and routines.
Harmonising these differences and treating everyone fairly isn’t easy.
How can I help my blended family succeed?
Groundwork: It’s beneficial to do plenty of groundwork ahead of any changes to your family to help children process and adapt. Take your time and explain things clearly and openly.
Communication: Telling children about changes in their living arrangements is a crucial step. Be upfront about what will change and when, and encourage children to ask questions and share any concerns.
Tact: Handling the integration of new family members and routines delicately and with patience will help avoid unnecessary stress.
Togetherness: Fostering a sense of unity within blended families can help, through identifying common ground, enjoying shared activities, and establishing new traditions when the time is right.
Age appropriate: While younger children may adapt more readily, older children and teenagers may find the changes more difficult. Recognising these differences will help you provide the right support for each child’s needs.
Belonging: Reassuring the child of their central place in the blended family will strengthen relationships and bolster their sense of belonging.
Regularly connect: Ensure you also give your child one-on-one time where they have your undivided attention to reinforce how much you love and value them. Where it’s safe and appropriate, maintaining a sound connection with the non-residential parent is also important for a child’s well-being.
Be consistent: Within reason, upholding pre-existing rules and traditions while gradually incorporating new ones helps create a stable environment. This steadiness offers children a sense of security during change.
Legal considerations for blended families
When couples create a blended family after separation or divorce it’s worth considering how they can protect their interests for whatever lies ahead.
Couples who live together but are unmarried may be interested in finding out more about how Cohabitation Agreements can set out agreements regarding finances and children.
Similarly, couples who are planning to remarry, might benefit from knowing how a prenuptial agreement can offer some financial protection for theirs and their children’s future in the event of divorce.
With the right approach blended families offer the opportunity for a new beginning and a bigger and more diverse family network. Although evolving family structures demand flexibility, understanding, and effective communication, the rewards could last a lifetime.
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Adopting a stepchild
Stowe talks – How to co-parent calmly and navigate the challenges of blended families with Tom Nash More