Language is important. What we say about a thing says as much about us as it does the thing. Take relationships and particularly cheating as an example. Those with little tolerance describe it with that Old Testament word, ‘adultery.’ Others less convicted may use the phrase ‘affair.’ The watered-down terms ‘infidelity’ or ‘extramarital relationship’ have become famous for the most progressive. This same phenomenon can be said for countless areas of life. How we refer to families are no exception.
I have heard or read several labels for a family created when one or both spouses bring children into the new marriage. ‘Stepfamily’ is still most common. ‘Blended family’ is regularly used today. I have also seen ‘jigsaw family,’ ‘non-nuclear family,’ and ‘bonus family.’ Yet for those living it every day, no name seems entirely appropriate. ‘Stepfamily’ makes it seem a step down from something better. ‘Jigsaw’ is too closely associated with that horror movie. ‘Bonus’ is too Pinterest. ‘Non-Nuclear’ is just weird.
The reason no name seems right is that none fully captures reality. As I will write in a later essay, when a remarried couple forms a new family, those members set off on a journey, one that is surprisingly long and just as surprisingly predictable. As life moves past the honeymoon and children get older, as new routines become second nature and the marriage relationship settles, the family ebbs and flows. At each step along this journey, the dynamic can shift. Members become close then fall apart only to come back together. Old problems resurface that were once thought put to rest. These families are never static, which is one of the reasons remarriage is more difficult and often less successful.
But even as I dislike labels, for coherency sake, they are a necessary evil, and I use a label that, I believe, best describes the facts as I have experienced and observed. ‘Blending families’ seem the most appropriate way to describe these families. Why? Because ‘blending’ represents action and as any person in a ‘blending family’ will tell you, things are always changing. It is why I say, ‘Blend is not who the family is, it is what the family is doing.’ That may seem like a small nuance, but it is far bigger and the consequences much larger.
While ‘blended family’ has become a very popular description, professionals almost unanimously loathe the phrase, saying it gives families false hope. I think they are right, but for different reasons. For them, the false hope is that ‘blended’ implies the family can evenly mix, like ingredients in a recipe. While I agree this is a false hope, I do not think it is a mistaken smoothie perception that gets families confused. Instead, the term ‘blended’ gives an impression that once the marriage happens so too has the ‘blend.’ Put another way, once the couple says ‘I do,’ the belief is the family has ‘did,’ and that implies the hardest work is over. But as these families quickly discover, the exchanging of vows isn’t the finish line, it is the starting block.
I think this is one reason, among others, that so many second marriages fail. Dating couples, full of enthusiasm and hope, come together into a marriage with the false assumption that the marriage is the only ingredient necessary to bring their new family together. But as life continues and they come upon any number of challenges, the couple gets rocked. The circumstances they did not prepare for often lead to a knee-jerk reaction of fear and wonder, ‘Is this how things are going to be from now on?’ Unable to see beyond the moment and misinformed on what to expect, the question turns to if the marriage, or more likely the person they married, was a mistake?
‘Blending family’ makes no such pretense. It points to a beginning, but the end is hazy at best. Is there a better representation of such families, which are a day to day journey into the unknown? I am not naive enough to imagine changing a name changes the circumstances of blending families or their struggles, but I do believe that when we change our labels we change our expectations. Hope can then be rekindled. If I know that any challenges happening in my family at this moment can change with time and energy, would I be more or less likely to give up when they bear down on the marriage? Would I be more or less inclined to assume the marriage or the other person was a colossal mistake? And would I be more or less willing to work a little harder and be a bit more patient if I know the path ahead will not always be uphill?
Two very practical necessities can help blending families succeed. The first is community. Blending families need to be in relationships with other blending families with whom they can share frustrations, get advice, and do life. Too many blending families go at it alone, left on an island, and feel they have to do it by themselves and hide who they are. This is a tragedy when one considers that as many as 40% of marriages today include at least one remarried spouse, many of whom have children.
The other necessity is proper expectations. I will write much more about this soon, but for now, remarried couples must understand that they are on a journey that can last for years and any ideas of what they believed/hoped/prayed would happen after the marriage should be immediately thrown out the window because the reality will almost certainly be different. That means couples who are thinking about remarriage or currently experiencing problems need to educate themselves. Find books, search advice online. There has been excellent research performed, and lots of helpful ideas are out there to create happy marriages and healthy blending families.
Which is why we all got remarried in the first place, right?