Blending Families and Dealing with Former Spouses

If either or both of you are bringing children from a previous marriage into this new relationship, it presents challenging issues that have been written about extensively. In addition, ongoing conflict with former spouses can potentially undermine a second marriage. With regard to children, one key is easing children into the new relationship and allowing sufficient time for a bond of caring to form in a natural, unforced manner. Sometimes it just won’t happen and that needs to be accepted, as difficult as that may be.

Under those circumstances, the biological parent has to be clearly supportive of his or her spouse and take greater responsibility for disciplining and make sure that there is adequate time alone with the biological children (reducing the sense that the new marriage means losing one’s parent). Speaking of discipline, the non-biological spouse should not attempt to discipline the stepchildren until they virtually ask for limits to be set and reinforced. Given the challenge of blending families, I often recommend the new couple attend a stepfamily support group.

As for ongoing conflict with an ex-spouse, the new partner must try to walk the delicate line between being emotionally supportive without fanning the flames of your spouse’s anger. It becomes particularly challenging when you feel your new spouse is behaving inappropriately. Another equally challenging situation is when you feel the former relationship is intruding on creating the closeness you seek in the new marriage. This goes back to the importance of entering into the new marriage slowly and carefully, with one of the tasks to be as sure as one can that each of you has truly let go of the prior marriages.

Make Sure Your Beliefs and Values are Reasonably Aligned

One major potential advantage going into a second marriage is that each partner is older, has more life experience, and should have a better idea of what is really important to them. (If your new love interest is still searching for hisor her identity, best you head for the door!) Thus, the role of religion in your lives, the way you deal with money, the desire for more children combined with discipline styles, the role of extended family, the role of outside interests and friendships, views on gender roles, sexual needs and preferences, and communication styles are all important issues that should be discussed in depth. It’s not simply knowing what each other’s values are but the expectations of a partner in marriage that flow from these beliefs and needs that are critical.

The more aligned you are in these areas, the easier it should be to spend the rest of your lives together. Equally important, since most couples won’t have the same perspective on all these issues, is whether you can support the differences and work through possible conflicts. Just the ability to have honest, open discussions about these issues is a positive sign. But don’t brush off a significant difference and think it will simply work out because you love each other.

That’s a major trap in first marriages, especially one that women commonly fall into, i.e., that they can fix or save a man who is bringing a significant issue into the marriage, e.g., a drinking problem or rigid expectations about women and children that don’t match yours. The issue of having more children (if one or both already have children) is a particularly sensitive issue that may get glossed over.

Money issues are another major source of conflict. By now you should each have some sense of whether you spend too much or try to hold on to every penny. Of particular importance is the issue of control over finances. I happen to believe that, in most marriages, money should be “ours,” not his and hers, regardless of whether there is a primary earner or two relatively equal careers.

I know this is sometimes difficult when there are child support monies involved and it may be easier to keep certain monies separate. For some couples who are older and have established careers and are used to being financially independent, it may be very hard to think of “our monies” and feel like you have to account for your spending and saving patterns. But I perceive this as part of marital intimacy and commitment. Sharing assets as one is consistent with sharing life as one.

Regardless of what the money arrangements are, it is important that there be honesty about finances. Some have coined the term “financial infidelity” to describe spouses who hide their spending and investing from their partner. Research has indicated one in four couples were guilty of such indiscretions. Obviously such dishonesty is bound to become a serious source of conflict and distrust that will threaten the marital relationship. So, like with other issues mentioned in this article, it is about openness, about trusting your partner enough to be honest about what you are doing as well as what you value and believe in.

Concluding Thoughts

From your previous marital experience you should be very conscious of the fact that whatever you may believe, value, or need at the start of this second marriage, neither of you nor your relationship is some static arrangement that remains unchanged over time. Just because you are aligned at the start obviously doesn’t mean you will stay that way over time. By establishing a pattern of talking openly about these issues at the beginning it increases the likelihood of that you will continue to discuss and explore changes that take place over time and, if you are able to maintain respect for each other as well as an ability to talk through important issues, your chance of a successful second marriage is quite good.