Updated: Mar 10, 2022
The blending of two families can be a joyful experience. Some important measures can increase the likelihood of this being the case. Suppose you are already immersed in an integrated family. In that case, I'm sure you have been presented with some difficulties, to say the least! While I cannot speak to your specific challenges, some prevalent ones exist for families. My hope is that by understanding why certain ones are so common, and if these do apply, you may feel less alone and much more hopeful. With clarity comes a sense of control and the power to make changes, and I will be providing guidance toward the solutions.
Firstly, consideration of every family member's attachment-related experiences is vital. The attachment-related experiences are the most critical factor. I am tempted to even suggest that this, first and foremost, must be addressed for optimal family functioning to occur.
An attachment-related experience is essentially one's subjective experiences driven by the human neurobiological proclivity for bonding. As children, our nervous system is highly attuned to the presence and potential loss of beings who care for us. Bonding is integral to our being, and disruptions (perceived or actual) in any significant bond activate the nervous system in the same way that actual life-threatening occurrences do.
Children can experience psycho-emotional pathology due to unresolved attachment injuries, which could even extend into their adulthood. And as adults, unresolved attachment injuries from childhood inform our perceptions and emotions in our romantic relationships to a large extent. They drive our sensitivities, desires, and fears relative to the other — further impacting this blending process. Blending a family can be ripe for excessive difficulties without consideration of attachment-related experiences for the children at present and for the adults relative to their past.
The first challenge.
The first challenge stems from the fact that everyone has attachment needs. As mentioned, security and bonding find their function in our physiology — the nervous system and neural networks specifically. Its very nature is rooted in survival. As helpless infants, we survived because of our connection with our caregivers. Our body understands this before our brain functions are fully developed — and it continues to understand this even post-cognitive development, right into adulthood and every age in between.
The key point here:
Our nervous system responds when there is a perceived or actual threat to the attachment bond with our caregivers and, as adults, our significant other.
The second challenge.
The second most significant challenge is that if our attachment needs are threatened with no recourse (re-attunement with our attachment figure, which brings a sense of security), it leads to destructive core beliefs. Beliefs about who we are relative to the world, such as our values and feelings about ourselves, i.e., self-love vs self-disdain. This misstep can put a wrench in the cultivation of a joyful, newly formed family unit despite your positive intentions.
I'll use a case study to demonstrate this. An adult client I was coaching came to a critical understanding. As a child, when her stepmother came into her life, she was conflicted on multiple levels - consciously and subconsciously. The story she formulated in an attempt to make sense of her experience was that she had been 'replaced' — that her father's love was limited and, therefore, none was left for her. Although now she sees this as ridiculous, part of her remembers what she believed. Jealousy, disrespectful behavior, and rejection of the new parent resulted. As an adult, insecurity dominated her romantic relationships due to the incessant unconscious belief that she would inevitably be replaced.
Another important consideration is one I can speak to.
My experiences were similar to the client noted above. Although, what manifested outwardly as stubbornness and rebellion was debilitating guilt for 'abandoning' my biological mother. Children and adolescents often feel as if they are betraying the parent who has been 'replaced'. The repressed guilt eventually led to anorexia. Because these feelings were so deeply embedded, I could not address them. Indeed, my father could not understand what was going on.
Had he known that this is a common experience for children, he would have been equipped with an explanation for my behavior. Unfortunately, he did not realize that help from a good family coach or counselor could have assisted him as he navigated this new ship.
Just keep in mind that children formulate all sorts of ideas to make sense of their internal experiences. Consider that while their attachment needs inform their feelings, their developing minds form their beliefs accordingly. These stories are then driving their behavior — and this can come across as defiance. And let's not forget, their nervous system interprets all of this change as life-threatening because new information is introduced into their already established attachment-based reality.
The third challenge.
The third challenge concerns the new family member who can feel immobilized, confused, and hurt by the rejection by her partner's children and perhaps their partne
r's lack of intervention. Or, if the interventions are non-productive and lead to further unintended attachment injury, the children can blame the new parent figure, exacerbating the fundamental problem. Aside from this, the new parent could quickly become frustrated by the child's irrational behavior and thus respond by rejecting them, thus further reinforcing the child's stance.
Lastly, it can be tough for the initiating parent of this family integration without knowing these foundational truths. They want their partner to feel accepted, and when they see that this is not happening, they feel like they are failing. As you can see, it can be a vicious cycle!
What to do about this?
1. Observe your children's behavior from the lens of attachment. Think of how their nervous system may be responding. If they feel that their bond with you is threatened, their sympathetic system has taken over. Before they formulate and embed their own 'theory' about what is happening, you can turn toward them to soothe their nervous energy. Remind them that there is no threat to your bond by spending time with them and communicating your goals and needs for the family — and how important they are to you. Reminding them that they can never be replaced.
2. If they have already formulated meaning to make sense of their world, ask them to share what that is. Once shared with you, validate your child's perception with something like, "it makes sense that you would think that. If I were you, I probably would also. Would you like to know the truth though? You can keep thinking that, but I hope you will trust me when I tell you my truth. Could I ask you for that favor?" Whatever is age-appropriate, of course.
3. Spend one-on-one time (even 15 minutes can be enough if the attention is undivided) with each child at least once a week. This sense of security you will be nurturing will allow them to soften to the new parent instead of seeing them as a threat.
4. Consider doing a family of origin exercise with a coach or counselor for the adults. This will allow for deeper bonding and understanding of one another's vulnerabilities. With this, both can honor these nuances of their partner's attachment-related experiences and respond sympathetically when they surface in the relationship.
For newly blended families, awareness of the importance of bonding and how it operates can help alleviate or entirely prevent unnecessary conflict. Both for the couple and the children. From here, the household logistics, boundaries, rules, and expectations will more likely be integrated effectively. The roots must be nourished first.