Once upon a time, two people had a relationship. From the love between these two people, children were born. Time passed, and these two people fell out of love, and the relationship dissolved. But the children did not fall out of love with their parents. The children had a complicated relationship with their parents, and the separation had an effect on them. But they did not stop loving them.
Time passed, and one parent met a new person. This new person also had children.
And this is where it gets complicated. Let's discuss how to build and maintain healthy blended families.
Early in a dating relationship, we are in a state of euphoria. Our brain is flooded with chemicals and we're constantly thinking about the other person and wanting to spend time with him. When we're in this stage of a relationship, it's completely natural for us to want to share all of the important parts of our lives with this person. We want him to love everything that we love. And of course I'm talking about children.
People who are not a party to the relationship are not experiencing this same flood of positive emotion. This is so important to remember. When you're in an early stage of dating, you're happy and excited. Your child, absent this emotional connection, is probably just uncertain about what's going on. They aren't in love. They aren't dreaming of a future with this person.
One of the biggest mistakes that we make when faced with this situation is introducing children to new romantic partners too early. It is normal to be excited and to think, "He's so great. He would love my kids and my kids would love him! Let's just set up something casual at the park." But children are at a different place emotionally. What we see as casual and simple might be anxiety-inducing for children. They might feel pressure that this new person is going to replace their dad. They might love this new person, and then feel crushed and abandoned if the relationship ends. My advice is to work on building a solid relationship between the two adults without any introduction of children for at least 2-3 months. When looking at the best interests of our children, we have to move slowly, slowly, slowly even when our hearts and bodies are encouraging us to rush.
During this early part of the relationship, you can introduce your children through stories. You should share your children's names and ages and interests with each other. You'll learn small things that your children have in common which are little nuggets that you can share with your children when they ask.
Speaking of... what do you say to your children during this time? How do you introduce the idea of dating? Throughout this whole process, you are modeling responsible adult relationships. So you might say something like, "Tonight you're going to stay with a babysitter while I go out. I've met a new person and I'm interested in learning more about him and seeing what he is like." The more you go out with this new person, the more curious your children might become. They might ask follow up questions or they might wonder when they can meet him. You can again model good behavior by saying, "I know you are curious and have a lot of questions about John. I am an adult and I'd love to find another companion to share my life with. But I have to be very careful and make sure that I'm spending time with the right person who is a good fit for our family." If they ask if he has kids, you can say, "Yes, John has two kids. His daughter is one year older than you, and guess what - she also plays soccer! Just like you! So that's why we need to be extra careful. We need to make sure that we're really getting to know each other so we can see if we are right for each other's families." This reassurance makes kids feel that you're really looking out for them and not rushing off to a new person who might become their new dad. Aside from these types of reassuring conversations, you don't want to talk about the new person all the time. It is important that most of your conversation remains on your children and their interests.
When the time comes to introduce your children - and I cannot stress this enough, it should not be rushed - it is important to set up something neutral and with no pressure. Don't plan a road trip or a whole day's worth of activities. Schedule something simple, like an hour at the park or lunch and a movie. The first several visits should ideally be at a neutral location, not at one or the other children's homes, as children can sometimes feel territorial or overwhelmed having someone enter their personal space. I also encourage families to be strategic about who they introduce at one time. If both parents have children around the same age, you might schedule something with just those children first but not all of the children. Depending on the children's personalities, you might introduce them just to the adult first, and later to the children. If he's mentioned that his kids are really outgoing and social, but you know that your own children are more reserved, you might start by introducing them to just him, and then later to his children.
Try to avoid putting too much pressure on these early outings. Don't try to convince your child of anything. If she doesn't hit it off with the other children, don't tell her all the wonderful things about them. If she is more reserved than usual, don't ask her to open up and be more social. Allow her to feel what she feels and honor and respect those feelings.
Instead of, "Sooo.... what did you think?!" which feels like a lot of pressure, you can take a curious and calm stance. You can say, "I noticed that you and Emily were looking at that book about soccer. Does she like some of the same soccer players as you?" Or, if things didn't seem to go as well as you'd hoped, you can say, "I noticed that you were a little quieter today than usual." She might say, "Yeah, I didn't really like being there." or "I don't like John." Then you can say, "Oh really? What didn't you like?"
Remember that your child's reasons for not liking someone might be completely founded - he might not be the right fit for your family - or might seem completely irrational. Children are still processing the loss of your previous relationship, are still trying to figure out the future and how their family will look, and are still going through all of the other pressures of childhood. Your child might say something like, "Well, John likes football. Dad never liked football. He only liked basketball and John likes football. I think that's weird." To this you can teach your child that everyone is different. You can say, "Yep, that's true. John does like football. But John is not your dad. You still have your dad and your dad still likes basketball. Everyone is different. Some people like football and some people like basketball. It's okay if you don't like football like John does." Avoid getting defensive. You don't want to say, "Well so what if John likes football! Who cares? John is a nice guy who works hard and has a great job and a nice house. What sport he chooses to watch is not important!"
If your child offers something constructive about her experience, you should definitely listen to her. If she says, "It was okay, but I didn't like the way he hugged me. I don't like hugs and dad never hugged us like that. I didn't like it." That's great info. You can respond with, "Oh yeah, thank you for telling me about that. I can definitely see why you didn't like getting a hug." And then when you are inevitably talking to your partner about the visit, you can mention that she's not really ready for hugs yet. You can say, "I hope that doesn't offend you. She's just not really a hugger." If he cares about you and your children, he'll understand and embrace that feedback, and of course if he gives you attitude or gets defensive - BINGO - that's good info to know about him!
This process of introduction and getting to know each other should also take quite a while. I usually tell families that it can easily take 6 months to a year before a family feels comfortable together and starts to really become a "blended family."
I highly encourage families to work with a therapist through this process who specializes in blended families. A specialist will know the potential minefields and can help you navigate them before they become issues. As you move through the relationship, more and more complex issues will bubble up. Will you move in together? Whose house will you move to? Who will share bedrooms? What will your children call this new person in your life? What will his children call you? All of these are manageable scenarios, but should be handled with caution. A therapist can help make the most sense of this period of your life.
Always, always, always remember that your children come first. Your children can't go out and find a new partner for you. They are counting on you for that. You need to make sure that you proceed with caution - at a snail's pace - with a partner who genuinely enjoys your children. If you remember to think long term, you can really build a blended family that is based on security, trust, and love.