How can I help everyone get along with each other in our blended family?
I feel my partner favours his first son and excuses him of things he wouldn’t with our own child
If you always take the side of your younger son in disputes with his brother, this is likely to make the older boy believe you only favour his brother. Photograph: iStock
My partner and I have two children, a boy nearly three (Jack) and a girl (Alice) who is 16 months. My partner also has an eight-year-old boy (Tom) who lives with us half of the time. Sometimes I feel it’s very very difficult to get the “blended family” right.
Sometimes I feel that because of guilt, my partner favours Tom and excuses him of things that he doesn’t of our own children, particularly Jack. For example, he doesn’t expect Tom to do many chores in the house (because he is only there part-time) and he seems to take Tom’s side if there is ever a row between them.
One evening, when I was out for a walk, Jack accidentally toppled over one of Tom’s toys. My partner’s approach was to reprimand Jack and to tell Tom to reprimand Jack if that happens again. My partner later said to me how Tom lets Jack “walk all over him and I told Tom to stand up to Jack”. I cannot understand this approach, Jack is two, Tom is eight.
The next day I spoke to Tom and suggested (for the millionth time) that he take care of his belongings and if there is anything that is particularly special to him, he should not leave it where Jack or Alice can get it. I am blue in the face from trying to instil in Tom a sense of respect for his toys/books etc. Because my partner does not back me up, Tom takes very little care of his things and has no regard for them or for what I say to him.
And I have a real worry about the relationship between Jack and Tom. When Jack was born, Tom was so happy to have a brother, but as Jack developed his personality and become a person, Tom, at times has resented him so much and he has even lied to get Jack into trouble.
All this is very stressful and I don’t feel backed up or supported by my partner. I would welcome any advice you have.
Answer: As you say in your question, managing a blended family can be difficult to get right. There are lots of delicate relationships to negotiate and lots of children and parents can have divided loyalties to different people. Reading your full question (only partially reproduced above) what struck me most was that there is too much “taking sides” going on.
Your partner appears to be taking his older son’s side (perhaps because he feels guilty about how hard it is for Tom to fit into two families) and you are taking your younger son’s side (perhaps understandably because you feel he might be treated unfairly by his brother). However, taking sides in blended families can be a disaster and puts extra pressure on already delicate relationships.
If you confront your partner about him not correcting or reprimanding his older son when dealing with his younger son, it will feel as if you are forcing him to choose and this could well backfire in your personal relationship. If you always take the side of your younger son in disputes with his brother, this is likely to make the older boy believe you only favour his brother and make him feel more insecure in the family (leading to more resentment towards you and his brother).
If these disputes remain unchecked it can increase a sense of “them and us” and a divided loyalty in the family.
Try to understand all sides
The key to successful relationships in all families and particularly blended ones, is understanding each person’s different perspective. Instead of taking sides in disputes, the goal is to help everyone understand the other person’s perspective and to work together to find solutions. Rather than taking a side in the two boys’ dispute over a toy, (with your partner blaming one boy and you blaming the other), instead support them both to resolve the dispute. Listen carefully to both sides of the story and explore with them what they can do to sort things out and crucially, to get on better. In addition, rather than asking your partner to take your side when you are “reprimanding” his son, ask for his support and help in sorting out the problem.
Moving from a “taking sides” to an “understanding all sides” approach is a subtle distinction that leads to a dramatic improvement in family life. Once both children feel you are on both their sides, and once your partner feels you value both his children, then everyone feels more secure in the family.
Supporting the different relationships
Aside from managing conflict, each of the individual relationships in your blended family need to be supported and nourished; whether this is your own relationship with each of your children and your partner, or the children’s relationship with each other and their different parents. For example, you need to think of different ways to support the two boys to get on with each other (eg setting up a situation where the older boy is in a supportive teaching role to his brother, or getting them involved in games where they discover each other as good playmates). You also need to attend to your own relationship with your stepson. What individual connection can you make with him? What regular one to one activity could you have that gives you time to chat and have fun with him?
Finally, think about how you can nurture your relationship with your partner. How can you have time together away from the stresses of parenting that allows you to develop your connection, shared understanding and support of one another? Creating individual connections and relationships from across “different sides” of the family will lead to much more harmony and to family life running more smoothly.
Please see other articles on my website for more information on putting this into practice, and do seek further professional support if you need it.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He has published 14 books including Parenting when Separated – Helping your Children Cope and Thrive. See solutiontalk.ie.