How to Raise Children in a Blended Family
and Keep Love in Your Marriage

Letter #1

Introduction: Blending families in second (or third) marriages is one of the greatest causes of divorce. Very few of these marriages survive five years. However, I have witnessed many couples who have learned to beat the odds and create a wonderful, love-filled marriage. The secret is in following the Policy of Joint Agreement. (Check out my column, "You Believe What?! How to Resolve Conflicts of Faith (Part 2)." It is also on the subject of Blended Families.)

Dear Dr. Harley,

This is our second marriage for each of us. We each have two children, all of whom are older teens except one. We seem to constantly disagree on simple child rearing issues, i.e. cleaning the room, household chores, curfew, etc. My largest complaint is that since we have blended our families, it seems my children have had to make the most adjustments while my husband's children just seem to run wild when they are here (they live with their mother most of the time). My husband is always very critical of my children and their "conformance" to house rules yet his seem to make their own rules. While I have tried to stress that no two children are reared the same, he continues to punish them for seemingly minor infractions. This is causing a great deal of distrust among all of us. Is there anything we can do to rebuild trust between us? I am beginning to question my faithfulness to someone so unwilling to compromise.


Dear D.K.,

Marriages with blended families tend to be very unsuccessful, one of the greatest predictors of divorce. You have first-hand experience to see why this is the case. It is common for each spouse to put his or her own children's interests first. It is often in an effort to compensate for the trauma children experience when there is a divorce. But when the children's interests are first, the interests of the other spouse and the other spouse's children are found somewhere down the list, and that's a formula for marital disaster.

However, in cases that I have witnessed, these marriages can be saved if both spouses are willing to follow my Policy of Joint Agreement (Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). In effect, whenever you follow this policy, you put your spouse's interests first, where they should be. (Read my Basic Concepts section if you have not already read it, with special attention to the Policy of Joint Agreement.)

Following this policy means that neither you nor your husband act to reprimand or discipline any child until you have reached an enthusiastic agreement about it. At first, you may not agree about much of anything, in which case you are not to discipline the children (they may do whatever they please). But as you practice applying the policy, you and your husband will begin to establish guidelines in child-rearing issues, and agreements will start to form. Eventually, you will agree on how to discipline your children in a way that takes each other's feelings into account, and your marriage will be saved.

Child rearing is a huge problem in blended families, but it's not the only issue in your marriage, I'm sure. Regardless of your conflicts, however, you'll find that you can resolve them all when you have learned to negotiate with the Policy of Joint Agreement.

Here are a few guidelines that will help you negotiate an enthusiastic agreement:

  1. Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe: a) try to be pleasant and cheerful through your discussion of the issue, b) put safety first--do not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you negotiate, even if your spouse makes threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a while and come back to the issue later.
  2. Identify the problem from the perspectives of both you and your husband. Be able to state the other spouse's position before you go on to find a solution.
  3. Brainstorm solutions with abandon. Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to handle the problem, and don't correct each other when you hear of a plan that you don't like. You'll have a chance to do that later.
  4. Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you. And if your brainstorming has not given you an answer that you can enthusiastically agree upon, go back to brainstorming.

The reason you argue is that you are incompatible -- you have not learned how to act in the interest of both of you at the same time. But if you follow the Policy of Joint Agreement and use the guidelines for negotiation that I have just described, you will find yourselves in greater and greater agreement. Eventually, your marriage will turn out better than you could have ever hoped.

If you don't follow this policy, however, you will eventually make each other so miserable that you will lose your love for each other and divorce, like most marriages with blended families. This process has already begun. Stop it before it goes any further.

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