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One Step Closer: The Blended Family Mosaic 

click to enlarge The Dunns' blended family at the dinner table
  • The Dunns' blended family at the dinner table

Young children and dinner tables don't always mix. So the Dunns have a game that they play. They established it as a dinner ritual when Matt and Zoe first got married. Matt's daughter, who was six at the time, wanted a lot of attention, so when she was with them, they would play Roses and Thorns. Each person takes a turn describing the ups and downs of their day. It encourages children not only to express themselves but to listen, too. A few years into it, during the game one night, Zoe told her stepdaughter that she was going to be a big sister. "It was my rose," Zoe says, "but it was her thorn."

The Dunns are just one of any number of variations on the blended family. When they merged, Matt and Zoe each brought someone to the mix: Matt's daughter, on a shared custody basis, and Zoe's dad, who lives with them. With both divorce and marriage on the decline, modern families look more and more distinctive and, according to a nationwide Pew Research Center survey, four in 10 American adults now have at least one steprelative in their families. There is no norm and each situation presents different challenges and opportunities. Blended families can comprise multiple full siblings, multiple stepsiblings on different cohabiting schedules, adult stepchildren, age matches, cultural differences—you name it. United by an adult's selection, blended families are an unsystematic mix of blood and chosen ties, which often means those families have to be intentional about things that solely biological families take for granted.

"Any time you bring two families together," Matt says, "there's an information gap, so that can lead to unintended conflict." The Dunns had to establish a new household structure in the middle of preexisting families. They wanted their daughter to know how important she was and also how important the relationship between Matt and Zoe was. So the first thing they did was to create a routine for their home, with predictable rules, where everyone would feel included. Bouncing between two households, their daughter needed consistency that she could trust. "We noticed the challenges and were observant to the things that would bother her and also that she responded well to," Zoe says. On transition night now, when their daughter first arrives at the Dunn house in Kingston for her week with them, she settles into her room for a while before jumping into the multigenerational household happenings, which now includes her four-year-old sister. Zoe explains, "That was a critical structure that really helped a lot."

Against the Odds

The Dunns are especially intentional about their household because they know the odds are stacked against families like theirs. Statistics show an increase in the divorce rate with each successive marriage. According to the New York Times, blended families have a one in three chance of survival and the odds go down as children are added. "The first thing that I would recommend is for people to give up the expectation of trying to blend," advises Rachelle Katz, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of The Happy Stepmother: Stay Sane, Empower Yourself, Thrive in Your New Family. "Stepfamilies are inherently different than traditional ones, and that's okay. Stepchildren and stepparents don't have to love each other, although they do have to treat each other with respect, kindness, and compassion." Through a monthly support group in her Manhattan office and private sessions via Skype, Katz helps stepcouples communicate effectively. Couples set the tone for a family, but stepcouples don't often have the opportunity to build a team relationship without kids already in the mix. She finds that establishing healthy boundaries, like deciding if surprise visits from the ex-spouse are okay, and removing expectations, like the biological parent hoping everyone will get along right away, disconnects some of the pressure that creates communication gaps and misunderstandings within a family.

"You can't see inside someone's marriage, but you can see inside their divorce," says Zoe. Her divorce from her first husband was amicable. "Marriage is hard work, and for blended families, it's really hard. In some ways, you have this previous experience to draw upon, but there's residual pain in that divorce that can remain in spite of moving on and starting new families." Inherent in divorce is a perception of failure, and there's a loss. Zoe feels that children are aware of those feelings, even if they're unspoken. Her stepdaughter navigates hurt feelings as she pilots between the two households. Though she has a younger sibling at each house, her experience of shared custody is one she traverses alone. It breaks Zoe's heart because she's been there. As a child, her mother had a series of marriages. Zoe, an only child throughout, came home from camp one summer to a new stepfather. "From the moment I met my husband, I knew what I was bringing into my life," Zoe says. "A man with a child, there's an inherent responsibility. In spite of the fact that I didn't have a good experience myself, I saw this as an opportunity."

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