The following excerpt comes from our upcoming book, Counselling in Relationships: Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The “Blended Families” chapter explores the complexities that accompany the merging of families over time. Since this is such a common family structure, it is important for counsellors to become acquainted with their challenges and strengths.
“30 percent of children are raised in a blended family and 42 percent of adults have a step-relationship of some kind.”
Stepfamilies. Blended Families. Remarried families. Multi-family families. It’s complicated. The overly simplistic definition of a family consisting of a biological mother, father, and two kids as depicted in yesterday’s popular culture does not match the reality of today’s families.
Statistics Canada (2012) data shows that 12.5 percent of Canadian families are blended. Of these, 41 percent are considered complex, with each partner having children from prior relationships, or one partner having a child from a prior relationship and the current partners having a child together. Statistics from the United States are significantly higher: Patricia Papernow (2018), a well-known writer in the field of blended family counselling, draws on statistics showing that 30 percent of children are raised in a blended family and 42 percent of adults have a step-relationship of some kind.
The overly simplistic definition of a family consisting of a biological mother, father, and two kids as depicted in yesterday’s popular culture does not match the reality of today’s families.
As common as blended families are, researchers in the field highlight the lack of research and counselling tools that exist for them. Papernow (2018) cites the fact that only two books have been written on the subject of counselling blended families – and one of them is her own. She states that the majority of clinicians who see blended families are not trained in these dynamics and misapply theories intended for nuclear families as a result. I agree that, as counsellors, we must continue to look at blended families and attend to the unique challenges and opportunities they face, fitting the theory to them instead of trying to fit them to the theory.
Even the language we have to describe families that have come together after separation or loss of a partner is problematic. Throughout this chapter I refer to blended families instead of stepfamilies or remarried families. The term stepfamily focuses the definition of the family on the relationship between the stepparent and child, and remarried families focuses on the couple relationship. Blended families is inclusive of all involved, but even this term can be problematic as it implies that everyone is equally connected and blended together into a common identity.
The ways in which blended families come together can create opportunities and challenges for each member as they integrate into the new family. Each blended family has a unique story about how they came to be a family, and counsellors need to ask about it. Diane Gibson (2013) and Kellas et al. (2014) highlight the importance of the origin story and the role it plays in how children and adults make meaning of events in the family. Children from opposite sides of the same blended family may have the same origin story but radically different experiences of it, and even children from the same family of origin will have unique experiences. These perspectives within the origin story are often key to understanding the dynamics of the blended family and can help counsellors intervene appropriately
Healthy Families, Normal Challenges
This chapter looks at where conflict is likely to occur in blended families, and how to address these issues as a counsellor, but it is important to remember that, like all families, blended families are typically functional and healthy. They are one of the “normal” constellations of families – they have been with us for millennia and will continue to be a core family experience.
When describing a type of family, it is easy to reduce differences down to a core set of principles, losing all of the complexities and diversity that exists. As counsellors, we need to actively guard against this, especially with blended families. With all the diversity among different blended families, our first job is to know what to look for so we can see the unique experience of the particular family we are working with. While we will explore a number of theories about blended families, we always want to fit the theory to the family, rather than the family to the theory.
With all the dynamics going on within the blending of families, counsellors often forget to look to the larger context around the family.
There are more differences between blended families than there are between nuclear families, making each blended family unique. Consider several blended families you know as you read the following lists, noting how small changes in the different factors can create large differences in experiences.
Factors regarding children
- How old are the children as the family is forming?
- Are they at similar ages and stages in life?
- Are there new biological children in the family as well as children from earlier relationships?
Factors regarding co-parenting and new partners
- How strong is the bond between the new partners?
- What are the similarities and differences in parenting styles, family rules, and expectations?
- How do the partners handle conflict?
- To what degree are former partners involved, and how supportive or challenging are they of the new relationship?
Factors that shape the changing family structure
- Was the transition to single parenting the result of separation or the death of the other biological parent (if the other biological parent was ever involved in the first place)?
- To what degree has each family member accepted the loss of their family of origin?
- How has each family’s religious or cultural community responded to the blended family?
- Are there similar or conflicting cultural or religious norms affecting the family?
With all the dynamics going on within the blending of families, counsellors often forget to look to the larger context around the family. Cultural and religious norms and the presence or absence of community support have significant impacts on family dynamics. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to consider these in depth, however it is essential that we include the larger context that surrounds the family to help us understand a fuller picture of the family.
We cannot control many of the changes that happen in our lives – all we can do is seek to understand and adapt to them in the best possible way. In working with blended families, we are trying to do this with the family as a whole and with each individual member.
All families are complex, and blended families are even more so. In the mix of all the dynamics, it is important to come back to the heart that creates family in the first place. Greeff and Du Toit (2009) remind us that the most resilient stepfamilies are the ones who have a strong couple bond, openly communicate about their challenges, and solve their problems collaboratively. Obstacles and barriers can be overcome. Grief can be soothed. Connections can grow. And all require care and patience.
Read the full chapter in our upcoming book, Counselling in Relationships: Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections, available for pre-order on our website.
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