Sam (45) and Sally (37) have been married for 2-1/2 years. It’s a second marriage for both. Sam was married at 20. He divorced at 35 and obtained an annulment. Sam has done co-parenting with his ex-wife for a number of years. Sam brings two children from his first marriage, ages 14 and 12.
Sally was widowed for three years prior to her marriage to Sam. She has a 10-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son from her first marriage. While the initial phase of dating, courtship, engagement, and early marriage went well, there is a lot of competition among the children today. Sam and Sally often feel frustrated with the behavior of their respective children. This has caused tension between the couple and resentment towards the children. They both want this marriage to work well.
Keep talking. Besides the beauty both Sam and Sally find in each other, there are many gifts and challenges that need to be acknowledged. They need to keep talking about the gift of each member to the family. They shouldn’t minimize the challenges, but always preface what is said by, “I say this because I love you.” Sam and Sally need to recognize that the challenges they face are normal and developmental. They are hurdles that all stepfamilies face. This reality: “We are going through tough times, but it’s normal,” can be consoling.
Read a lot. The Internet offers sites that provide simple, clear articles on stepfamilies. A great source is the National Stepfamily Resource Center. The local library and the State Cooperative Extension Service are useful resources. Ohio State University’s site has helpful handouts.
Take time to be a couple. Given their ages, Sam and Sally have the possibility of a 35-year marriage, of which only 10 to 15 years will be spent in active parenting. Nurturing their relationship is important, even if these “dates” are time at a diner over coffee and pie. Regularly scheduling this time as a couple also sends a message to the children. Sally and Sam can also commit to going to marriage enrichment programs offered in their parish or community. They are a married couple first and also parents.
Don’t be afraid to seek help. Seeking help from a competent marriage and family therapist can be very beneficial. It is a sign of great love to suggest this help early, rather than when in the middle of a crisis. The therapist should be familiar with stepfamily issues. The local parish priest, diocesan Catholic Charities office and the National Registry for Marriage Friendly Therapists can recommend marriage and family therapists. If Sally and Sam are really struggling in their relationship, attending a Retrouvaille weekend and follow-up program would be helpful. Retrouvaille has helped stabilize many marriages. Also, Sam and Sally should talk to other parents in stepfamilies. This will help them normalize their experiences as a family.
Examine priorities. Sally and Sam might need to accept that in their children’s eyes loyalty to their parent might come before the marital relationship. While this is contrary to a couple’s belief that the marriage comes first, children need to feel that they will never be abandoned, especially after major losses. Children need to know that they will always be first in their parents’ concerns. Thus, Sally and Sam need to make sure to acknowledge the importance of their children’s loyalties, even as they nurture their own marriage. Talking this through is essential to a successful remarriage.
Remember that change takes time. Sally and Sam need to accept that in some stepfamilies the experience is like a roller coaster ride. Acknowledging that time can heal one’s hurts and also begin to create loving relationships is essential.
It takes time for a stepchild to love a new stepparent, just as it does for the stepparent to love a new stepchild. Sam and Sally should try to do things individually with each child, when the opportunity arises. This can happen when they drop a child off at band practice or go to the hardware or grocery store. A little time alone with each child goes a long way in cementing relationships. Also, each parent should accept that the missing parent (the mother of Sam’s children and Sally’s deceased husband) are very important to the children. Let them grieve their losses and support them, even though some time has elapsed after the death/divorce. The Rainbows program can be of great assistance to their children.
Trust that God is in the messiness of family life. Sally and Sam need to keep acknowledging to each other and themselves that God is present in the ordinariness of daily life. There is a real gift–grace–given to us in our sacramental marriage. Sally and Sam can pray daily for and with each other. They can recognize everyday victories (a good report card, a soccer game well played), and acknowledge unsettling challenges (an upsetting day at work, a sick child). In all this, Sally and Sam can give thanks to God for the gift of married love and family life.
Bill Urbine, a licensed marriage and family therapist, is a permanent deacon and Director of the Office of Family Life Ministries for the Diocese of Allentown, PA. He is past president of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers (NACFLM).