Challenges Remarried Couples Experience as they Blend Families

Ex-Spouses are Part of the Package

This is the second post to our blog series that explores the challenges defined by stepfamily expert Dr. Patricia Papernow. These challenges correspond closely with what we personally have experienced as therapists in working with couples who are blending a family.

A child almost always has another parent outside of the stepfamily. Whether this parent is present, absent or even deceased, they can often make a big impact on the family system. We talk a lot about trying to create a collaborative, low conflict relationship with our ex-spouses because we know it’s critical for the wellbeing of our kids. But, we don’t talk much about how ex-spouses affect the new marriage. It’s different for everyone but for some couples the ex-spouse can be the primary source of conflict. How do we protect our new relationship and in doing so, our new family?

First, it’s important to normalize the situation. In first time marriages, former relationships are usually just that: former. Not so in a blended family. Ex’s, for better or for worse, especially when kids are small, are intertwined in our lives. That can be a wonderful thing for our kids, but can sometimes contribute to problems for the new couple. The following are ideas we have collected that help couples protect their relationship and in doing so, they protect their stepfamily as well.

Try to let more things go.

For instance, your husband’s ex-wife is always late to pick up or drop off the kids. It’s irritating because it affects your schedule. You’ve been polite and then not so polite but nothing seems to get through to her. You’ve bugged your husband about it but it only starts a fight between the two of you. Let it go. Your anger only damages your relationship with your partner, which affects the whole family. Build some padding into your schedule for when you know the kids will be dropped off late. It’s a small price to pay for the peace it will bring your relationship. This concept also applies when the kids return after the weekend with their other parent dirty, exhausted, and never having touched their homework

Try not to speak contemptuously about your spouse’s ex no matter how much you can’t stand them.

It’s not productive. Your partner once found their ex so great they married them and then went so far as to procreate with them. So, in some cases, ridiculing this person might cause your partner to become defensive, and to you, it seems they are now defending the terrible ex. (Hint: It’s probably not about defending the terrible ex, it’s about your partner defending their decision to be with the terrible ex at one point in their life.) Keep your judgements of this person to yourself unless your partner asks for your input.  And, this goes without saying but I’m saying it anyway, NEVER speak in a derogatory manner about your partner’s ex in front of their children. You will cause irrevocable damage to your relationship with your step children. Remember, they are half their parent, and when you insult their parent, even in the slightest way, you insult them.

Parent Bond

Most biological parents, even after divorce, are bonded on some level in their love for their children. This bond, though it exists only because of the children, can be painful for a new partner to witness on a regular basis. (Think soccer games, holidays and the multitude of other places you all need to be together.) This is especially true when the new couple does not have children together. This type of grief, unexpressed, will sometimes show up as anger or resentment towards the new spouse and/or his or her ex. If this hits home for you, talk to your partner. You might explain that while you seem angry on the outside, on the inside you are grieved that the two of you will never share that bond. These feelings may never dissipate completely, but if your partner knows you feel this way, he/she can simply be there for you in those difficult moments. If this is a conversation that seems too scary to have with your partner, couples therapy can be a safe place to begin talking about your grief.  

Parenting and financial agreements, for the most part, should be kept between your spouse and his/her ex.

You may not agree with how much your spouse must pay his ex-wife for maintenance or how little your wife’s ex-husband is ordered to pay for child support, but complaining about it only hurts your relationship. Your spouse already knows how unfair it is but trying to modify child and/or spousal support when one party doesn’t agree means going back to court. This stresses the whole family system and is extremely hard on kids. Unless the financial or parenting agreement is truly causing hardship, it probably should be left alone for the sake of your relationship and the children’s wellbeing.

Notice when conflict between you and your ex is affecting your relationship with your spouse. 

If things are more contentious between you and your ex than not, you can bet it will impact your current relationship. Often this occurs when you find yourself falling back into that predictable but distressing cycle with your ex-partner, causing you to be unavailable to your current partner. (Sometimes this will develop into you and your current partner spending an excessive amount of unproductive time talking about your problems with your ex.) If you think more about managing your ex than nurturing your current relationship, this is a clue you need to disengage with your ex. Limiting communication unless it pertains directly to the children is a start. In truly high conflict situations, services such as My Family Wizard reduces conflict by providing a central, secure location to document and share important information concerning all aspects of co-parenting after divorce. Therapy can also be an important resource if you continue to struggle in your relationship with your ex.

Spend time together, just the two of you.

We cannot stress how important this is. New couples blending a family never had those first years of being together without children, and with insta-family comes insta-stress. You need time to reconnect and strengthen your bond to face stepfamily challenges together.

If something can’t be talked about, therapy can help.

Sometimes couples have disagreements that become so contentious that they are avoided, but they still fester beneath the surface of everyday life. Over time these issues can corrode relationships and create distance between couples. Therapy can help couples bring these issues to the surface and process through them, bringing you closer together.