Many clients have difficulty with combining two families after divorce. They have children who are different ages, have different needs and personalities and they find it overwhelming and stressful. It’s not surprising considering how difficult it is raising children in intact families where there hasn’t been divorce!
Despite the difficulties, it is possible to have a happy family even if you have children from two different marriages. Some of the ways to make this situation successful are as follows:
These suggestions will help you develop a closer family when you have partners that have children from previous marriages/relationships. If these techniques don’t work, family counseling with an experienced therapist is an option. However, if you make children and your relationship a priority, respect boundaries and communicate effectively, you’ll be far along the way to having a happy blended family!
For most parents, telling their children about the decision to divorce is one of the most difficult things that they have to face. It is helpful for both parents to discuss ahead of time what they’re going to share with their children and how they’re going to respond to their children’s questions.
Parents should make several agreements:
If you don’t know where you’ll live, that will create some stress for children. Letting children know a plan for where you’re living, even if it’s just for the near future, will help lower children’s anxiety.
If there are issues that the children already know about such as substance abuse, sexual orientation or an affair, it’s better to acknowledge the issue rather than avoid it. If you discuss it with the children, it will enable them to ask questions and feel that they can come to you to talk about things that concern them.
Discuss what the schedule will be and anything else that will impact them. Children need to know things like will they be moving, where will each parent live, who they will live with, when will they see each parent, will they stay at the same school and what will happen on their birthday and holidays. Even if you don’t have all of the answers, telling children what’s happening in the near future will help.
It’s best for parents to tell their children about the divorce together. It helps children see that their parents are still working together. It provides a sense of safety for children through an unstable time. It also provides an opportunity for children to process the information in a safe environment as both parents are available for questions, reassurance and support. Choose a time where there's no distractions and everyone can be together.
If children don’t feel like asking questions or talking about anything, don’t push them. Allow them to have time to process the information. They probably feel a lot of conflicting emotions and may not be able to verbalize their feelings right away.
It’s ok to tell children that you’re sad about the divorce and that with time, you will all heal and adjust to the changes in the family. However, try not to show intense emotions like crying for hours or saying, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Even though you may be struggling emotionally, you need to deal with your emotions separately from your children. They need to know that you are strong enough to deal with the divorce so that they don’t feel obligated to take care of you. If you need help dealing with all of the emotions and overwhelm of divorce, see a therapist so that you can be there for your children.
Sometimes you may feel your relationship is going well and other times you may be worried about the strength of your relationship. It can help to take a step back and see what’s working and what’s not. Here are some areas to look at:
These five areas are important when assessing the strength of your relationship. If you’re doing most or all of these, you’re probably doing pretty well. If you need work on one or more of these areas, don’t be discouraged. These skills can be learned. You can improve the strength of your relationship yourselves or you can always try couples counseling.
According to John Gottman, founder of The Gottman Institute which is devoted to helping couples build and maintain healthy relationships, the greatest predictor of divorce is contempt. Contempt means attacking your partner’s sense of self with an insult and includes sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, rolling the eyes, sneering, mockery and hostile humor. Some examples:
These statements are destructive to the relationship and make your partner feel defeated. Avoid these responses at all times. If you’ve said things like this to your partner, you can apologize and start working on eliminating them.
People communicate contempt to their partners because of several reasons:
What do you do when there is contempt when you communicate with your partner? Build respect and appreciation in your relationship. Regularly express the following:
Five or more positive interactions can counteract one negative interaction. There are simple ways to add positive interactions into your day which has shown to decrease conflict and improve intimacy in couples. Remind yourself of your partners positive qualities. Why did you start dating him or her? What was it about your partner that you fell in love with? If you can keep these things in mind and eliminate contempt, you will be able to have a happier relationship and avoid the path of divorce.
Most of the time, when a couple goes through separation and divorce, many angry and resentful feelings occur and it's difficult to see any way to forgive an ex-spouse. However, there are ways to work toward forgiveness. Not only will you benefit from forgiving your ex-spouse, if you have children, they will benefit tremendously.
Forgiveness involves a change of heart and occurs at different times for different people. Circumstances can impact the ability to forgive. If there was an affair, an addiction or some other betrayal, it may take longer to forgive. But there are many reasons to forgive your ex-spouse, including the impact that not forgiving has on you.
“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
When you hold onto anger, you’re hurting yourself. You can become stuck in the feelings from the past and it can hold you back from moving on with your life. In addition, it doesn’t feel good to be angry much of the time. It’s not good for people physically to be angry and to hold onto anger. Finally, it can negatively impact children when one or both of their parents are angry at the other.
So how can you let go of your anger? The first step is getting it out. You can talk about it to a friend or therapist or write about it in a journal. Find a way to release some of the feelings and that will help you move on.
Forgiving yourself is part of the process of forgiveness after divorce. Being angry with your ex may be a way for you not to look at how angry you are at yourself. You may feel guilt, remorse and shame. If you develop empathy for your ex-spouse, you may then feel worthy of empathy and forgiveness also, potentially leading to self-forgiveness. This can lead to a journey of healing and the ability to move on in your life.
Although forgiveness may feel like the last thing you want to do, forgiving another and forgiving yourself may be exactly what you need. It will ultimately restore your personal power, reduce negativity and create peace in your life once again.
Being divorced can be lonely and being divorced during the holidays can be really difficult. Your friends who have intact families may not be able to understand what it feels like to be home by yourself while the rest of the world seems to be happily celebrating the holidays. You may feel emotional pain and lonely. Even if you have friends that invite you to join their holiday celebration, you may feel so different from them that it hurts.
These are all normal feelings. Give yourself the time and space you need to grieve the loss of your intact family. At some point, you will be more used to it and it won't hurt as much. If you can connect with others who are also divorced, that can be extremely helpful during the holidays. They can understand what you're feeling and be supportive when you need them to be.
Focus on your children - think about what would make them happy. Seeing your children happy can help you feel happiness during the holidays. Try to keep traditions going or start new ones so that children have a sense of family. Doing holiday traditions with friends or family is so important for children whose parents are divorced. They feel a sense of family and closeness that helps children feel good when their family is different from what it used to be.
Volunteering is a wonderful way to get a better perspective. Providing gifts for homeless families, working at a food kitchen or visiting sick children in the hospital can really make you appreciate what you have. It's amazing the difference you feel when you help others. You can do this with or without your children. Either way, it feels really great.
Two other important techniques for feeling good throughout the holiday season is to keep active and learn how to enjoy being by yourself. Walk, go to the gym or play tennis and you will find that you feel better. Do something by yourself like read, visit a museum or meditate. Learn how to be alone and you may like it. If you can enjoy spending time with yourself, you will be able to handle the holidays and anything else that comes up. You may find that the time you spend by yourself is not lonely - it's a gift that you give yourself that truly makes you happy.
Jill Barnett Kaufman is a Divorce Coach, Therapist, Parent Educator and Divorce Mediator. She is an experienced professional who helps clients discover new ways to resolve a variety of challenges when considering divorce, starting the process of divorce or are already divorced.