There are no clear statistics on step-families in the UK, but recent estimates suggest that one-in-four families is a “blended family” ie where a couple lives with one or more children from a previous relationship.
Parenting brings challenges to every relationship. Parents talk about pressures of money, time, lack of quality time with their partner, worries about children dominating the couple’s life. A divorced or separated parent will bring all of this to a new relationship and to a new partner who has no biological tie to the child or children,
It’s estimated that 45% of second marriages fail and “pressures with children” is cited as one of the most common reasons. Dr David Perl, relationship psychotherapist and founder of LoveRelations, says that issues with “blended families” is one of the main reasons couples seek relationship counselling in his practice.
“Most of the information on step-parenting or blended families is about helping children adapt to divorce, separation and a parents new partner and children. While this is very important, what is over-looked is the difficulties the adults face. Sadly, we see so often a relationship under great strain because couples are not able to navigate the difficulties of forming a relationship with their partner’s children.”
David claims that there is a cultural taboo about talking about step-parenting. “From fairy tales to modern literature, step-parents are demonised as wicked step-mothers or abusive, sadistic step-fathers. We need to up-date the template. If 30% of families include step-parents and children, it’s safe to assume that the vast majority are ordinary people struggling to form a bond with the child of their partner. We need to help these men and women by normalising the difficult feelings they may be having in the new, blended family”
David says that most of the literature or current conversations about step-families, focus on introducing children to a new partner or to step-brothers and sisters. “There is some very good literature on helping children to make the transition to life with a step-parent. What’s lacking is any sort of honest dialogue about the step-parent’s feelings.”
Ruth Perl, co-founder of LoveRelations and an experienced relationship psychotherapist, works with couples and individuals. She says: “Many of the couples who come to LoveRelations are struggling with difficult feelings towards a partner’s children. There’s often a huge amount of resentment and guilt experienced by the partner without children. We often hear – particularly in the one-to-one therapy sessions – sentiments such as “I much prefer it when it’s just me and my partner. I hate it when the children are there.”
She talks of one couple where the husband has two children from a previous marriage, who stay every other weekend. “Claire, Matthew’s wife of two years, loathes the every-other-weekend visit. She finds it hard to disguise her over-whelming feelings of resentment and this puts a great strain on the relationship with Matthew.”
Ruth says that in her one-to-one therapy sessions, Claire talked about her feelings of “being left out”, as her partner showered his children with the love. Claire admitted that she was shocked at her strong her feelings of resentment were, when she saw her partner with his arm round each child, tucked up on the sofa.
“This was made worse by the complete incomprehension her partner had for her feelings,” says Ruth. “Matthew loved spending time with his children and loved Claire being there too. He felt secure in his new family unit. Furthermore, he expected Claire to understand that he wanted to focus a bit more on the children, whom he only saw every ten days or so.”
Ruth says: “In the individual therapy at LoveRelations, Claire was able to share more openly about some of her darker feelings towards Matthew and the children. She was able to look at her anxious attachment style and to understand why anything which threatened her importance to Matthew, was so difficult.”
David talks about the importance of the couples therapy for people such as Claire and Matthew, struggling with their own relationship, as well as with the step-children. In the safe space of couples therapy, Claire was able to explain, from an adult place, that she sometimes found family time, difficult.
“Part of the work with Claire and Matthew,” says David, “was for Claire to work on herself enough and work through some of her underlying attachment issues, and then to ask her partner for help. Claire took responsibility for her feelings and then shared them with Matthew, without blame or an expression of dislike for his children.”
“Matthew was a more securely attached character,” says David. “Furthermore, his relationship with Claire wasn’t under threat. Matthew’s challenge was to develop empathy for this partner, to understand how she needed to feel secure enough in her relationship with him, to allow him to attend to his children.”
David says that unresolved attachment issues are often at the root of relationship problems. He says: “We see this very clearly with blended families. If there is a problem of jealousy or feelings of being left out when a partner’s children are around, it’s often an attachment issue. Adults who are not securely attached, will perceive attention directed towards the children as a threat to their relationship. It’s confusing because not many of us are conscious of our attachment patterns. It’s crucial in blended families that the adults are able to identify when jealousy and resentment is a result of their own insecure attachment.”
David says: “When Claire was able to understand her own, often unbearable feelings, then she was able to separate these from her partner’s children and the ordinary strains of step-parenting. In the couples therapy, Claire and Matthew were able to decide upon time for them, as a couple, to maintain and strengthen their adult relationship, independently of the family relationship.”
“In this respect, a blended family is no different from any other family. The adults need to take responsibility for their own feelings and responses, and the couple needs to work on their relationship as a couple.”
All names have been changed to protect client confidentiality.