“Uniting Blended Families,” Ensign, Aug. 1997, 24
When my father passed away, my mother was left with two young sons. In time she married a childless widower, and they had one son together. I grew up in what my parents could have termed a “hers-ours” arrangement. However, we thought of the five of us as a traditional family.
We avoided such labels as “stepfather” and “half brother.” For example, I accepted the fact that I had two fathers: one was my biological father, who gave me a rich, noble heritage; the other raised me and gave me a second rich, noble heritage. My two brothers and I grew up united and equal, though my youngest brother had a different last name. Our “blended family” was successful because we were given love and respect as well as opportunities to serve and sacrifice.
By definition, a blended family is any family in which one or both parents are not the biological parents of the children in that family. Blended families can result from various circumstances, such as adoption and remarriage following divorce or the death of a spouse.
Like nuclear families, blended families within and without the Church can be successful, loving, and unified. However, blended families can face unique challenges as parents and children live together in new relationships and new surroundings. In cases of remarriage following a divorce, for example, children can feel torn between two adults and two families. Parents who create blended families face the challenge of developing and strengthening their marital relationship as well as their relationship with the children in that family.
A decision to create a blended family requires great care and consideration of many factors. A blended family draws into close association not only the couple planning to marry but also their children, children’s spouses, in-laws, extended families, and the couple’s former spouses.
“Marriage is perhaps the most vital of all the decisions and has the most far-reaching effects, for it has to do not only with immediate happiness, but eternal joys as well,” President Spencer W. Kimball said. “It affects not only the two people involved, but also their families and particularly their children and their children’s children down through the many generations” (Marriage and Divorce , 10).
The Lord has said, “It is not good that the man [or woman] should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Nevertheless, remarriage and efforts to create a successful blended family can be frustrated without proper preparation by both parties. The decision to remarry is difficult and should not be hastened. Some divorced individuals are left angry or scarred by their previous marriage; others may harbor unreasonable expectations of the future while having difficulty letting go of the past. Those who have lost a spouse to death need time to work through their grief. While it is not ideal to be alone, neither is it good to remarry and undertake the challenges and responsibilities of a blended family before one is ready.
Marriage and a home where children are reared by both a mother and a father are part of our Heavenly Father’s divine design. But “disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102).
Such was the case in my adult life. After I married my high school sweetheart, we had three beautiful children and were enjoying life together as we had planned and hoped. But then my wife died in a tragic accident. I grieved and despaired for nearly two years before my parents and my wife’s parents encouraged me to consider remarrying—both for me and my children’s benefit.
After fasting and taking the matter to our Father in Heaven in earnest prayer, I felt guided that it was right for me to remarry.
After a person decides to remarry, it may take some time to find a spouse. In my case I wrote to several friends and relatives who understood my circumstances and told them of my desires to remarry. I asked them if they knew of anyone who would be willing to consider becoming a mother to three children and a wife to a Church district president and banker in South America with many demands on his time. After receiving six recommendations, I took a vacation to the United States and ultimately felt prompted to date and eventually propose marriage to my beloved Helen.
Helen brought a two-year-old daughter into our union, and I brought my sons, ages three and six, and my nine-year-old daughter. In time, we had three daughters together, which gave us a blended family of seven children.
Initially, what made our union possible and successful was that we both received answers from our Father in Heaven reassuring us that He approved of our decision to marry. Without that firm base, marriage after what proved to be a short courtship would have been unwise. But I didn’t expect Heavenly Father to do my work for me. Before taking the matter to Him in prayer, I inquired about Helen’s family background, traditions, testimony, and commitment to the Lord. She also learned enough about me so that she felt we would be compatible.
As we courted, each of us quickly saw in the other three very important characteristics necessary to make a marriage, and a blended family, successful:
Character. Does the person you are considering marrying hold a temple recommend? Is he or she living a life worthy of the Spirit? Has he or she led a life of service in the kingdom of God?
Capability. Can your potential husband support a family? Is your potential wife capable and willing to help you rear your children? Do you both have the determination to make your blended family successful and to rely upon Heavenly Father in doing so?
Capacity. Do you each have necessary spiritual reserves—generated through faith, prayer, service, and sacrifice—that you can call upon when faced with the challenges of uniting a blended family?
“In selecting a [marriage] companion … ,” President Kimball said, “certainly the most careful planning and thinking and praying and fasting should be done to be sure that of all the decisions, this one must not be wrong. In true marriage there must be a union of minds as well as of hearts. Emotions must not wholly determine decisions, but the mind and the heart, strengthened by fasting and prayer and serious consideration, will give one a maximum chance of marital happiness” (Marriage and Divorce, 11).
Following the marriage ceremony, the hoped-for “happily ever after” can come to a blended family only through a lot of hard work, prayer, patience, and persistence. All families face challenges, but certain challenges can be exacerbated in blended families. Regardless of how compatible two newlyweds may be, they need to be prepared to handle the trials that will come to their blended family.
Following are some areas, along with related suggestions, that blended families may need to openly address:
• Unity. The Lord has said, “If ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27). Blended families seeking the Lord’s approbation need to strive for unity. Familial unity starts with the parents. Solidarity and love between couples help generate solidarity and love among siblings. That is why the primary relationship in a strong, unified family is the relationship between husband and wife.
To generate unity, families need to share goals and time together. Church attendance, family home evening, family prayer, family councils, work projects, vacations, and leisure-time activities provide opportunities for togetherness. It is important that blended families use the best of former family goals and traditions and that they also establish new goals and traditions.
Stepparents need to be patient. Because emotional attachments between stepparents and stepchildren require time, it sometimes may take years to establish a united and harmonious blended family. Adults as well as children bring to a blended family experiences and expectations that can affect new family relationships. Some stepparents may need to play a secondary role in the life of a child. Rather than compete with a relationship between a child and a parent who is no longer in the home, stepparents need to concentrate on building a new relationship with the child.
Though some children may be reluctant to bond with a new parent, they should not have to compete for that parent’s love. While a stepmother, for example, may never take the place of a deceased parent in a child’s heart, she can create a place of her own in that child’s heart by showing love and exercising patience.
All families would do well to remember the words of the First Presidency’s proclamation on the family: “Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities” (Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102).
• Communication. Diplomatic yet open and honest communication is essential if a blended family is to define responsibilities, establish boundaries, and resolve emotional issues. The wounds left by death or divorce—insecurity, lack of self-worth and confidence, reluctance to trust others—need to be talked about openly and resolved so that new patterns of healthy familial interaction can occur. Family members do not simultaneously close the door on the past. A widower may be ready for a new wife before his children are ready for a new mother. Those children need parents who will encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings.
“To be effective, family communication must be an exchange of feelings and information,” said Elder Marvin J. Ashton, formerly of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “Doors of communication will swing open in the home if members will realize time and participation on the part of all are necessary ingredients. In family discussions, differences should not be ignored, but should be weighed and evaluated calmly. One’s point or opinion usually is not as important as a healthy, continuing relationship” (“Family Communications,” Ensign, May 1976, 52).
Members of a blended family should respect the sweet memories and feelings others in the family may have about a loved one who has passed on. In the case of divorce, they should be sensitive to the pain and suffering inflicted upon family members and from which they may still be recovering. Kind, thoughtful openness that fosters the sharing of feelings is essential to building new, healthy relationships at all levels: child to child, parent to child, parent to parent, spouse to new relatives, and so on.
• Sealings. Former Utah senator Jake Garn was reluctant to remarry following the death of his first wife, Hazel, in 1976, but he soon realized that he could not be both a father and a mother to his children. When he began dating Kathleen Brewerton, who would become his second wife, questions soon arose about how his first wife would feel should he become sealed to a second wife. The couple took their questions to President Spencer W. Kimball.
“He said he did not know exactly how these relationships will be worked out, but he did know that through faithfulness all will be well and we will have much joy,” Brother Garn later recalled. “Kathleen told him that she was afraid of offending Hazel. President Kimball’s demeanor seemed to change. From being somewhat hesitant in his earlier answers, he now became sure and spoke with firmness. He looked right at Kathleen and with a tear forming in his eye, he said, ‘I do know this: you have nothing to worry about. Not only will she accept you, she will put her arms around you and thank you for raising her children’” (Jake Garn, Why I Believe , 13).
Family members need not worry about the sealing situation of blended families as it might be in the next life. Our concern is to live the gospel now and to love others, especially those in our family. If we live the gospel to the best of our ability, the Lord in His love and mercy will bless us in the next life and all things will be right.
I have seen some new blended families become torn apart by worrying about who will belong to whom and who will be with whom in the next life. My mother, who is sealed to my deceased father, is married to a widower who is sealed to his first wife, who died childless. My mother and her second husband have a son, who is my brother. We are not concerned about who will be sealed to whom. We simply trust in the Lord’s wisdom and love and try to live righteously.
• Intimacy. Married couples are commanded to “cleave” to each other and to “be one flesh” (Matt. 19:5). In order for intimacy in a new marriage to be fulfilling, there must be understanding, care, concern, and consideration.
Couples need to be open in a kind and sensitive way. Misunderstandings can occur if he believes that intimacy is unnecessary because the new blended family is large enough, or if she believes that at a certain age physical intimacy is no longer important. Even if such issues are discussed before marriage, they may need to be reconsidered in light of changing feelings, health, and circumstances.
President Gordon B. Hinckley has counseled: “I have learned that the real essence of happiness in marriage lies not so much in romance as in an anxious concern for the comfort and well-being of one’s companion. Thinking of self alone and of the gratification of personal desires will build neither trust, love, nor happiness. Only when there is unselfishness will love, with its concomitant qualities, flourish and blossom” (“I Believe,” Ensign, Aug. 1992, 6).
• Finances. The budget of a blended family can be complicated because of assets and debts carried over from a previous marriage. Alimony and child support may come into play, and previous spending habits may need to be adjusted because of a change in income or an increase in the number of family members to feed and clothe.
All family members need to understand the family’s financial situation and monetary constraints. Establishing a sound budget and setting financial priorities with the help of all family members can limit misunderstandings. Review the family’s financial situation often, and avoid preferential treatment in money matters. When necessary, advice from a bishop or qualified consultant can be sought.
Blended families, like all families, need to remember the blessings the Lord has promised to faithful tithe payers.
“One of the best ways that I know of to pay my obligations to my brother, my neighbor, or business associate, is for me first to pay my obligations to the Lord,” President Joseph F. Smith said. “I can pay more of my debts to my neighbors, if I have contracted them, after I have met my honest obligations with the Lord, than I can by neglecting the latter” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. , 259–60).
• Discipline. No parent can effectively correct or discipline a child until after a bond of love, affection, trust, and care has been firmly established. In the absence of love by a new parent, discipline can be interpreted by children as rejection.
“Above all else, children need to know and feel they are loved, wanted, and appreciated,” President Ezra Taft Benson said. “They need to be assured of that often” (“Fundamentals of Enduring Family Relationships,” Ensign, Nov. 1982, 60).
Parents of blended families need to reach a consensus early in their marriage regarding proper behavior and methods of discipline, and they both need to be prepared to adjust those plans as they deal with the children in the new blended family. Unless parents are united, children may become confused.
“To understand one another’s beliefs about discipline requires active listening and respect for differences. With understanding, though, differences in discipline standards can be reconciled and the couple can develop one unified standard” (Jeffry H. Larson, “How to Unite a Step-Family,” Ensign, Feb. 1987, 48–49).
Children also may become confused as a result of having to divide their time between their divorced biological parents. Because rules and expectations change from home to home, children need time to adjust and internalize what is expected.
Activities such as family home evening, parent-child interviews, and Church attendance create valuable opportunities for teaching, correcting, and reinforcing accepted behavior. Some couples have found it necessary that the biological parent be the voice of authority for both parents—at least until the nonbiological parent gains the confidence and love of children.
Some children attempt to divide or manipulate parents. It takes a firm resolve, made in private between the couple, to fairly and consistently enforce rules and consequences. Otherwise, discipline breaks down. Parents can be successful if they treat “my children” and “your children” as “our children.”
• Former spouses. In the case of divorce, former spouses need to put aside personal prejudices and resentments, both for their own sake and for the sake of their children. In fact, they should try to maintain a good relationship. Divorced biological parents and their new spouses can more effectively rear children if they work together. Problems with former spouses should be handled privately, and couples should encourage and support ongoing relationships between children and a biological parent who no longer lives with those children. No one benefits from verbal criticism about a former spouse, who may have a significant impact on a blended family’s efforts to become united.
If a former spouse chooses to terminate or otherwise ignore any further association with a child, the family can unite to help fill that void in the child’s life. It is vital that the child feel a high degree of love, acceptance, and support from family members, including the stepparent. The child may need to be reassured that he or she is not to blame for the situation. Perhaps the disaffected parent may one day have a change of heart or be in a better position or frame of mind to maintain a relationship with the child. Family members may need to help the child understand that despite present grief and bewilderment, the child can nevertheless enjoy the blessings of a complete family unit and a normal upbringing.
Children of a blended family can find themselves with twice as many grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins as they had in their former family. Each parent, meanwhile, has acquired another set of in-laws. All of these individuals make up the children’s extended family and, to a degree, are interested in a relationship with the children. Visits, family gatherings, and the observance of holidays require compromise and planning.
Family success requires uncommon spiritual stamina and perseverance. Adults in blended families know that for the eternal progress and welfare of those in their families, every sacrifice must be made, every spiritual resource must be called upon, and every effective technique must be used. Those who pay the price of making their blended families successful can know the joy that comes when we “live together in love” (D&C 42:45).