By Jennifer Harman Ph.D. – Colorado State University
Adventures in Blending: Memoirs of Mixing Families
Before launching back into a blog about being a (step)parent in a blended family, it is important to first describe how and why we became that way. I will start with our decision to move in together, something I wrote a little about a few years ago. I neglected to share, however, just how we came to the decision, which was not an easy one to make.
While neither of us wanted to remarry any time soon, we were committed to investing more of our time and energy into our relationship. Research indicates that this is one of the main reasons people move in together if they don’t marry first.1 But, there were other things to consider.
About 10 months after I started dating the Consultant, maintaining two separate homes did not make financial sense. He was living in a townhouse that he had been renting after separating from his ex-wife (who will now be referred to as X). He travelled about 75% of the time for work and was home every other weekend in order to exercise his parenting time with his daughters. His townhome had essentially become a storage unit because we spent almost all our free time together, as a couple or with my kids and his. It did not make financial sense to retain it. Research indicates that another primary reason many cohabiting couples decide to move in together is for financial reasons1, so the importance of this factor in our decision-making made sense. However, this decision was nothing like when I considered moving into a rental apartment with a previous boyfriend when I was in college. I now owned a home, making moving not so easy. And, my home was too small for all seven of us to live in. Moving in together would require a significant and expensive remodeling of the basement to make enough bedrooms for everyone. In this sense, the decision required a greater investment than either of us have had to make so early on in a relationship.
To inform our decision to move in together, I tried to find research on how parents decide to cohabit and blend their families. I unfortunately did not find a lot of published research that was relevant to our situation. In one study of low-income Black families, where the mother was the only parent with a child, researchers found that partners engage in a gradual process of vetting and letting, meaning that a) the mothers vet their partners to determine whether they would be a good parent and compatible with their children, and at the same time b) the male partners would let the mothers do this vetting to hopefully pass their “test” and move in together. The vetting process itself is generally a gradual one, where the parent considered 1) whether the other partner is interested in parenting; 2) whether they foster/support a relationship with them and their child; 3) what the child’s opinion is; and 4) lessons learned from past relationships. This research indicated that the decision was child-centered, and not just a parent’s decision to cohabit.3
This vetting and letting process explained some of our experience; the Consultant and I thoroughly discussed how we would stepparent each other’s children and coordinate care. We had to consider the potential impact of our decision on the well-being of our children. Clinicians have documented that stepsiblings tend to form instantaneous relationships with fluid boundaries, meaning their relationships can change form and roles with each other easily.2 Our blended family definitely began this way. Our children got along great; my sons always asked when the Consultant’s daughters were coming over. They wanted to plan activities we could all do together, such as camping or going to a movie. There were times our two youngest children would skip around the living room singing “I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy” over and over again to their own rhythm.
Although we passed each other’s “tests” and felt confident in our decision to move in together, we had other adults to consider in this vetting process: X, his ex-wife and mother of his daughters, and Y, who was my ex-husband and father of my boys. Children often hold onto the belief that their divorced parents will get back together,4 so we had to work through the kid’s ambivalent feelings about our decision to move in together. We communicated very clearly that their fantasies of parental reunification would never become reality, and discussed the exciting plans we had for the future of our blended family.
All in all, it took some time to weigh all these factors. By allowing the kids to be part of decisions regarding the remodeling the house, they were able to play a role in making my house theirs, and ensure that they all felt they had a place in it.
All characters and events appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, or real experiences is purely coincidental. To learn more about this series, please click here.
1Sassler, S. (2004). The process of entering into cohabiting unions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 491-505.
2Rosenberg, E. B., & Hajal, F. (1985). Stepsibling relationships in remarried families. Social Casework, 66, 287- 292.
3Reid, M., & Golub, A. (2015). Vetting and letting: Cohabiting step-family formation processes in low-income Black families. Journal of Marriage & Family, 77, 1234-1249
4Kurdek, L. A. & Berg, B. (1987). Children’s beliefs about parental divorce scale: Psychometric characteristics and concurrent validity. Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, 55, 712-718.
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Dr. Jennifer Harman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.