March 1, 2016
Written by Lynne C. Halem
In a January 25th 2016 Wall Street Journal article, entitled “How Long Does It Take to Unite a Stepfamily?” columnist Elizabeth Bernstein tells us that forty percent of all new marriages in the U.S. are remarriages, many of which have children from prior marriages.
Based on this quite startling statistic, Ms. Bernstein goes on to relate the story of one California couple whose wedded bliss was interrupted by the parenting dilemmas of blending children from two families. Contrasting, even antagonistic, parenting styles were resolved by living apart. Of course this solution, strange as it may seem as a strategy for marital bliss, was made possible by the couple having sufficient resources to own two homes. Bernstein refers to this arrangement as “Living Apart Together,” since, according to the story, the couple continued to be a “couple” in two different households for four years until the children went off to college. It was then and only then that the husband and wife could move into one home.
Clearly the article raises important questions affecting a large percentage of the U.S. population who are not only dealing with the ups and downs of new marital relationships, but are also struggling to provide their children with the consistency and protection of a “new” family setting.
The problems raised by Bernstein are all too real. The solution presented in the article is, however, not real. Think for a moment.
The fact that Boston Public Radio, a consistently reliable source for top quality journalism, picked up the piece, taking seriously its message of “living apart together” is surprising. Still, the dilemmas facing stepparents are very real and, perhaps that is the message that BPR wanted to bring to its audience. Couples facing the difficulties inherent in the formation of a new relationship are further tested by the parenting pressures and conflicts emerging from having a “non parent” authority figure in the household.
Frequently the blended family feels attacked from the outside as well as from within. Former spouses, as the other parents of the children, may emerge as combatants, objecting to the influence of the stepparent on their children. As these internal and external tugs of war truly test the fortitude and resilience of the newly married couple, increasingly families are turning to mediation.
Mediation presents the newly married couple with a process for developing strategies and tools as stepparents and as parents. At times children and even former spouses enter into the mediation process, hoping to resolve tensions and create harmony for all family members, be they members of the first family or the new
The effectiveness of mediation lies in the mediator’s ability to facilitate problem solving. Here the couple is helped to identify the issues confronting them and to work toward the development and even testing of strategies for resolution. At the Centre for Mediation and Dispute Resolution over the course of three decades of working with families, we have seen many blended families emerge from the mediation process armed with new tools and resolute in their determination to build new relationships that will provide a safe haven for parents and children.
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