Q: Any tips to help us with our marriage as we cope with stepchildren? It seems that our relationship takes continued hits as we work through their issues.
A: You've raised one of the most challenging issues faced by remarried couples. Disagreements about how to raise and discipline the children are a leading cause of divorce after a couple remarries - ahead of financial worries, difficult ex-spouses, and a host of other pressure points.
Raising kids is difficult for anyone, not just stepfamilies. Yet the special challenges faced by blended or stepfamilies are unique.
For example, from the stepchildren's point of view, life is fragile and uncertain. Something they thought of as permanent and enduring-the family-has been shattered. What will the future look like now? Is his or her original family lost forever? Is there any hope that birth parents will somehow reconnect and put the family back together?
Stepchildren deal with these kinds of fears and insecurities, plus the traumas associated with significant change. Is it surprising that so many of them act out, or are difficult to manage?
In the midst of this daily drama, here are some priorities that will help you keep your balance and navigate the challenges of forming a new family:
1) Make it obvious that you are serious about following God and living for Him. Build a pattern of family devotions and prayer. This doesn't need to be long and boring. Make it clear that you - as a couple and as a family - love God and value His precepts.
2) Make it obvious to your stepchildren that you and your spouse love each other and are committed to one another for life. Say so out loud and often. Kids and others learn by hearing and repetition. Demonstrate your love for each other. It's also healthy to show physical affection for each other, reinforcing your verbal messages.
3) In public, be united in your approach to questions of discipline. Long-term successful remarried couples tell us repeatedly, "In the early days of a blended or stepfamily, let the birth parent be the boss parent." That is, let the birth parent continue his or her pattern and style of discipline, while the other adult simply reinforces those same boundaries. Gradually, over time, the two of you can get on the same page about discipline issues. Keep your disagreements about discipline behind closed doors, using quiet voices. If your kids find out that they can divide and conquer you, they will.
4) In general, don't try too hard to be liked by your stepchildren. Such efforts can distort your personality and can give a teen or a child undue emotional leverage over your behavior. Try to let go of being liked or loved by your stepchildren, especially if they are adolescents or teens. Instead, be consistent, fair-minded and polite -- and be who you really are.
As a couple, you will face many challenges: some common to all marriages and some unique to a blended or stepfamily. No matter what obstacles you face, be confident of this: you two can go the distance. Whether it's because you both know how fragile life can be, or perhaps because you've each grown and matured through so much adversity, two remarried adults have the chance to build something beautiful together.
Your remarriage can become a place of thriving emotional and spiritual health. Some of the healthiest and best marriages we've seen are remarriages for one or both partners. After more than two decades of watching remarried couples grow and thrive despite adversity, we can assure you of this: With God's help, you can do it!
David Lisa Frisbie serve the Nazarene denomination as coordinators of Marriage and Family Ministries.