A blended family is formed by the merging through official or common-law marriage of two or more family remnants of previous marriages or family constellations. At least one of the spouses has been in a parental role in a previous family system and brings to the blended family a child or children from that union. Blended families vary considerably in composition. The children may belong to the wife or husband by a previous family union or may be theirs by the present arrangement. Inasmuch as custody is ordinarily awarded to the mother, the typical blended unit consists of a wife, her children, and the husband, whose children, if he has any, reside with their mother.
With the growing popularity of joint custody and the rising number of serial family relationships, blended family configurations are becoming increasingly varied and complex. Many children now belong to two households, dividing their time equally between both. In some families children from two or more previous marriages retain their paternal surnames. Hence, numerous last names may be used within the same family, affecting the bonding and identity formation process significantly.
Blended families may be extended families with exponentially complicated structures, though the term is normally used mainly to refer to newly formed nuclear families that are made up of integrated subsystems from previous family units. The principal challenge of the blended family is to develop into a cohesive unit. Yet it must be defined by boundaries that allow appropriate contact with what frequently is a large, disjointed network of relatives in the new extended family. These families must negotiate several critical developmental tasks in order to coalesce.
One task faced by all the members is the mourning of the lost families they represent. Family failures and breakup are severe emotional trauma, and this loss requires substantial grieving if one is to be prepared for investment in new relationships. Blended families frequently arise from relationships motivated by the rebound from former relationships in an effort to escape the pain of the loss, loneliness, and shame about failure. Though one may have accepted cognitively the termination of a previous family union by death or divorce, the new relationship symbolizes the old loss and failure. Out of loyalty to the new relationship one may repress that grief/loss but that merely constipates and subverts the residual grief. It will surface in some destructive way at a later point.
This grief experience may be particularly true for children, who often grieve long after the family breakup. This is seen in the persistent longing to be reunited with the absent parent and in the enduring fantasy that the child’s mother and father will eventually remarry. It is also manifested in the refusal of some children to form a relationship in the new family constellation or with the stepparent. Unfinished grief tends to skew the child’s loyalty toward the natural parent exclusively. This usually produces destructive counterforces in the entire family constellation. Unresolved grief is poison to the blended family. It produces intrafamilial tension and siphons off emotional energy that could otherwise be channeled into strengthening family relationships. Professional help is frequently needed to resolve this type of mourning because of its insidious character.
A critical developmental task for spouses is to form a strong marital bond. Continued contact with the ex-spouse and former in-laws, for example, in the course of normal child visitation, can be disruptive to developing the new spousal relationship. Issues of jealousy, trust, and loyalty are easily activated by these continuing contacts. Yet the cornerstone of the blended family is the quality of the new spousal union. Moreover, one dimension of this spousal union is the development of a co-parent partnership of care for each other’s children that is strong enough to withstand repeated counterforce dynamics injected by the children, who are likely still to have their own unresolved and pathological agenda to act out or resolve. Children accept the stepparent more readily if their natural parent demonstrates unwavering commitment to the spousal relationship and its long-term viability. Children often create conflict between the parent and stepparent, maneuvering for the natural parent’s support. Feelings of loyalty and guilt on the part of the parent, particularly regarding having failed the child by failing in the earlier relationship, tempt the parent to side with the child against the new spouse. This kind of triangulation is always destructive.
Maintaining a “mine/yours” view of the children undermines the stepparent-stepchild relationship. It places the stepparent in the untenable position of having to borrow authority from the natural parent when dealing with stepchildren. This obstructs the process of true blending between the new spouses as well as between all the members of the new family constellation. Triangulation produces divisiveness.
Moreover, building functional stepsibling relationships is complicated by the fact that the ordinal position among siblings and the entire structure of the genogram for the new family will change extensively with the merging of the family remnants into the blended family. Rivalry with siblings may decrease as that family remnant closes ranks for this new experience, but stepsibling rivalry often increases, painfully changing the roles, identities, and self-perceptions of all the children. A related issue for blended families with adolescent or young adult progeny living in the home as part of the family constellation is the fact that children who could be dating are living together as siblings. Sexual boundaries are usually weak, as blended families may not have well-established inherent incest taboos. Conflict and rivalry are ways in which teenage stepsiblings define boundaries to protect themselves from the anxiety and threat of excessive intimacy. Many blended families achieve well-adjusted and harmonious relationships, though the usual critical adjustment time frame is two to four years.