A few years ago, I was asked by someone at a party if I had any tips for a newly reconstituted family. Having been part of such a family for two thirds of my life, I did indeed have plenty of useful advice, just not the kind the person asking the question wanted to hear. They wanted to know that it would all be fine, that things would work themselves out in a couple of weeks and everyone could get on with playing happy families. I could have told them that, but I don’t believe in offering up useless platitudes. So instead I mumbled something about being patient and giving it time. Afterwards, I pondered how I could have answered this question better, had it not been a party and had I not been caught off-guard. It’s a few years late, but here is my response.
Do remember that everyone is coming from some kind of trauma.
Whether it’s a divorce, a custody battle or the death of a parent/spouse, no one in a reconstituted family has had an easy time of it. When I first met my step-siblings, I was convinced they had it easier than us because both their parents were still alive. Not unreasonable, given that I was nine years old with a limited capacity for empathy. But as I matured and learned more about what went on, I came to understand that our respective experiences were not at all comparable. Theirs was a different kind of difficult, but it was not lesser.
Don’t expect things to be fine straight away.
They might be, but it’s highly unlikely. Chances are it will take at least a few years before you all learn to muddle along together, and that’s fine. I think everyone in my family would agree that those first few years were difficult. Not only were there a lot of us, we also had vastly different personalities. Arguments and misunderstandings were commonplace, but with time, effort and a lot of patience, we were able to figure it out. It took eight years for me and my stepmom to learn to get along properly. Nowadays we are very close. My step-siblings used to do my head in; now I would gladly walk through the fires of Hell for them. These things cannot be rushed, no matter how impatient you are for a happy ending.
Do accept that you might look like the bad guy, even if you’re not.
If you are the partner who ended things, who cheated or who moved on first, then rightly or wrongly, people are going to draw conclusions about you. They might be entirely wrong, but they are going off the information they have, and unless you are willing to divulge all the details to them, there’s really nothing to do but take it on the chin.
Don’t expect children to behave like adults.
This one is super important. Even the most mature teenagers may not have the emotional capacity to accept a parent’s new spouse or a new set of step-siblings straight away. Plenty of adults don’t have that, so how can we expect it of children? I’ve known people complain that their eighteen-year-old is acting up around their new stepparent or refusing to engage altogether. Of course they are. They’re doing it out of loyalty to their other parent, especially if that parent has yet to move on themselves. I get it, you want everything to be perfect straight away, but you’re expecting far too much from them. They need time, and I don’t mean a few weeks or a few months. It may well take years for them to accept the situation, if they ever do.
Do accept that their might always be tension.
It may well be that certain people will never see eye to eye. Maybe there’s a fundamental personality clash, or maybe there was some kind of betrayal that one person simply cannot see past. It doesn’t mean they can’t be civil. It just means that things like family gatherings have to be approached sensitively.
Don’t give up.
Things might not be good now, or indeed for many years, but that doesn’t mean they never will be. People grow. They change. They learn. Things get easier. As a child, I never stopped to think how difficult it must have been for my Dad and my stepmom. Being a single parent is hard enough. To then take on two other children and have another baby was an enormous undertaking. It is no wonder tempers sometimes frayed. Having four teenagers in the house as well as a small child cannot have been easy, but as I myself was one of those teenagers, I simply did not have it in me to empathise with my parents. Now that the youngest of us is seventeen and three of us have left home, the family dynamic is much easier. Our adult perspectives mean we understand each other more, and are therefore able to love one another better. The stepchild who hates you today might adore you in ten years’ time. The step-sibling who annoys you right now may end up being one of your closest friends. Your relationships will evolve over time. With patience and understanding, there is no reason why they cannot evolve for the better.