How post-divorce families can get along
I have been divorced for four years and now plan to marry my girlfriend of two years. But my daughter, 16, might move to Hong Kong. Her mother in Britain has threatened several times to send her to live with me. My daughter is going through this Gothic phase, but she is doing OK in school and we are still very close. My girlfriend, who is from the mainland, is relatively conservative. She has a daughter of 15 who goes to a local school and seems to want nothing but to study. How can we move together smoothly, considering our kids are so different?
I'm afraid I do not have a magic formula for successfully creating a blended family. I know you want nothing but to create a family with the woman you love and to have your daughter join you and live happily ever after. However, you are likely to encounter friction within your new family as a result of cultural differences and different expectations.
Even if you generally love children, you do not go into a preschool, point at a child and say, "I am going to love this child from now on, no matter what." It takes time to form a bond with someone. It may take months or years for a child to respect a new parental figure. And loving the new parent may take just as long - or may never happen at all.
Blended families formed after divorce generally have more problems than those formed after a death of a parent from the original family. Let the stepchildren know that you care about and respect their boundaries, but that you are there for them when needed.
You are not there to replace the biological parent; you can't expect instant loyalty, love and obedience. Expect some ambivalence. Teenagers will show both love and hate for the step-parent. The child's concern is about remaining loyal to the biological parent.
Blended families must go through a process to become functioning families. Don't expect an instant family. The perfect situation of everyone getting along and loving each other automatically only happens in the movies.
Your relationship with your girlfriend might be all rosy now, but forming a successful blended family needs careful consideration.
Are your parenting styles compatible? Conflicting approaches is common in mixed marriages. Often, parenting conflicts arise from the different cultural backgrounds and each spouse's childhood experiences. The most important is not who is right, but how the two of you resolve it.
To avoid conflict later, sit down with your girlfriend now before you give her the ring and discuss what house rules and limits you are both comfortable with. If your values and styles of parenting are very different, you need to learn to agree to disagree.
Be honest with yourself and your girlfriend; there are likely some non-negotiable terms in both your parenting styles and values, so figure out what those are. Also, what concessions are you ready to make?
If you can't come to common ground, a couple of things are likely to happen: One of you might sacrifice your parental responsibility in order to keep the biological child's love or, worse, the differences in parenting styles might ruin the marriage.
People marrying today have a 50 per cent chance of divorcing. In the United States, 40 per cent of first marriages, 60 per cent of second, and 73 per cent of third marriages end in divorce.
So ask yourself the following questions:
You might be comfortable with your daughter's Gothic look, but is your girlfriend and her daughter going to be happy with that? Are you going to set a blanket curfew for your daughter? If so, check with your girlfriend if she agrees with your time. What if the two daughters not only fail to become fast friends but actively dislike each other?
Keep the rules simple and few at the beginning. Also, keep in mind that it is best for the biological parent to dish out discipline and the step-parent to take on the "good cop" or "counsellor" role, especially with teenage stepchildren.
Give your daughter and your girlfriend time for their emotional bonds to form. How well you get along with her daughter depends not only on your willingness to form a relationship with her, but her willingness to accept you as well.
Lora Lee is a child therapist and parenting counsellor with a background in developmental psychology, play therapy and post-separation counselling