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Making a Blended Family Work

by Lindsey Getz

Local experts share their best advice for your Brady Bunch

Divorce is never easy, but when parents are bringing a new family into the mix, there can be additional sets of challenges to address.

Blended families are becoming quite common these days, but forming a new unit isn’t exactly a simple feat. While you can anticipate some challenges, it is possible to make a blended family work. We spoke to a variety of experts to find out what might help.

Richard C. Klein, Esq., partner with Cooper Levenson in Cherry Hill, and chairman of the firm’s Family Law Practice Group, says issues with blended families may arise before a divorce is even finalized as people tend to move on with their lives and get into new relationships right away.

“Those blended family issues may begin causing drama while the divorce is still pending,” Klein says. “The advice I give clients is to keep children out of the legal proceedings by avoiding discussing any of it in front of them.”

Kids first
Keeping kids out of the fray is just one of many ways the parents on both sides should be putting the kids first. But Klein, like others who have been involved in divorce proceedings, knows that’s a term that gets thrown around a lot. The key, Klein says, is that parents are actually following through on it.

“To me, as a divorce lawyer, ‘putting the kids first’ means not involving them in any of the conflict,” Klein says. “It’s really that simple. They need to be completely insulated. Kids of divorce already do not feel secure, so the less confusion and involvement you can bring to the table, the better it is for the kids.”

Emotionally, it’s quite common for feelings of resentment and anger to strengthen as families are brought together. One of the biggest mistakes that parents can make during this time is expecting change too quickly, says Dr. Susan Batastini, coordinator for educational and psychological services at Moorestown Friends School.

“Putting together a blended family takes a lot of time,” Batastini says. “I think parents can’t rush this change. It has to be gradual and done over time. I think giving the kids a chance to deal with the divorce first is important. Let them have some time to come to terms with the divorce before having to accept a new step parent or a new family. It may be exciting and wonderful for the parent to have found someone they love and who makes them happy, but understand that your child may not feel the same way. This is a very difficult time for them.”

Giving things time is definitely important, agrees Dr. Donna Pellegrino, of The Psychology Group in Cherry Hill. You must have patience, she urges.

“You can’t expect a new family unit to feel cohesive right away,” Pellegrino says. “You need to be patient with the process of developing new relationships. It will take time for children to develop new relationships with their step siblings as well as with their step parents. Even the relationship with the primary parents can experience changes. And all of these changes take time to get used to.”

As you do work on putting together a new family unit, remember that communication is key, adds Marybeth F. Baron, an attorney with McDowell Posternock Apell & Detrick, PC with offices in Maple Shade, Moorestown and Browns Mills. “Having open and ongoing communication will help prevent some of the problems that can arise,” she says.

Bruce P. Matez, a divorce and family law attorney with Borger Matez in Cherry Hill, agrees that communication is the “cornerstone of everything.” It can really make or break this new dynamic.

“If people have good communication, everything tends to be better,” Matez says. “It is possible for people to have good relationships after divorce and to successfully make a blended family work. But I would say that communication is the most important factor.”

Addressing challenges
As new family units are formed, it can certainly add strain. There are a number of different issues that can arise from these new situations.

“One issue I sometimes see with blended families is that people are put in an unexpected financial pinch,” Baron says. “As an example, dad may already be paying child support for his own children. Now that he’s remarried with stepchildren, he may also be supporting that new family. While he’s not legally obligated to be supporting his stepchildren, even everyday living expenses can add up—food, transportation, and other things that seem small can become financially taxing.”

Baron says that before entering a second marriage, it may be helpful to consider a prenuptial agreement. This legal document would spell out the parameters of financial issues that could arise and also sets guidelines of how things will move forward.

“Many times when two parties remarry they also make sure they have their wills up to date,” Baron adds. “This helps clarify any confusion that could arise over how assets will be divided.”

Klein also advises that new spouses stay out of financial issues between the original marriage: Money often becomes the source of many problems and Klein says it’s a “symbol of everyone’s anger.”

“When it comes to money after divorce, new spouses must understand their place,” Klein says. “It’s a legal obligation of payment from one party to another—and it’s something you must stay out of. Even if it becomes a dispute between the former married couple, the new spouses absolutely need to stay out because it only makes things worse.”

Parenting issues and styles can also become a challenge. Matez says that it can be challenging for one parent to accept that another parent is going to not only be in their child’s life but contributing to some parenting.

“That can be hard to accept but it’s a fact of life,” Matez says. “If your former spouse remarries, it’s hard to think about a new person parenting your child. But sometimes all you can do is get over it yourself and accept certain realities. This is where having good communication can really help.”

Coming together
Although it may not be easy to do right away, Klein recommends having both sets of parents get together over a cup of coffee once things settle down.

“Nerves are raw early on, but at some point sitting down together and discussing how everyone can get along can be really helpful,” Klein says.

Matez agrees. “If they’re able, the parents and the new spouses all need to sit down and have a conversation,” Matez suggests. “Email is great, but nothing beats face-to-face conversation. The more communication and cooperation you have early on, the better your chances for long-term success.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 2 (April, 2015).
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