Tips to help ease tensions when blending two families—even if the kids are grown.
by Isabella Markert
There were 30 of us staying at that beach house in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We spanned four generations, from an 80-year-old great-grandmother to nine children under the age of five. This was the first time my husband’s family had all been on vacation together with his grandmother, mother, step-father, siblings, step-siblings, nieces, and nephews.
It was just as hectic as it sounds.
So I was grateful one night to find myself having a quiet, chummy conversation with my sister-in-law—my husband’s step-brother’s wife, to be precise. We sat on cushy bar stools, eating ice cream and talking about life.
I’d never had such an intimate chat with this sister-in-law before, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t had this intimate a conversation with my husband’s sisters, either, despite the fact that we were all good friends. My mind drifted away from the conversation a little as I realized that in this hectic family dynamic, I had an advantage.
Gaining adult siblings as an adult usually isn’t something you plan for; it often comes as a shock to the system. My mother-in-law had been married to her second husband for five years, but her children and step-children (who now ranged in age from 17 to 32) were still struggling to adjust. Being “together as a family” now meant something totally different than it used to, and while everyone got along quite well, there was still a sense of mourning for the closeness and culture the two individual groups of siblings had once cherished.
As I finished up my ice cream, I knew this wasn’t the same for me: siblings or step-siblings, they were equally as new to me, the in-law.
But for my husband and his siblings, it was hard. So how can adult step-siblings create a healthy culture in their new family? Here are some tips from the experts: be transparent, keep an open dialogue, have realistic expectations, be intentional, and consider marriage and family counseling.
Be transparent—let everyone else be transparent, too
Whether your parent has been re-married for a month or a decade, having a formal talk about what everyone expects can help set (or reset) everyone’s goals in a healthy way.
“Families should have open discussions about what re-marriage means for the family, how this new person is going to fit into the family, and how they can create something new as a family with this new relationship,” says Dr. Jonathan Swinton, an experienced marriage and family therapist.
Families should have open discussions about what re-marriage means for the family and how they can create something new as a family with this new relationship.
Dr. Swinton mentioned discussions, plural. So don’t be discouraged if one discussion doesn’t seem to change anything. The most important thing is to listen and keep listening—to talk and keep talking.
Keep an open dialogue
People’s feelings are going to change, and each sibling and step-sibling will perceive your words and actions differently. Sometimes you’ll feel good about your step-siblings; other times, you may feel annoyed or resentful.
“These feelings come and go and will not harm your relationship if you can talk and listen without defending, fixing or discounting what you hear,” says Ann Smith, author of Overcoming Perfectionism. “Examples: I miss my time with my own [siblings]. . . . Weekends are hard when all of [us] are here.”
Smith was talking specifically about new spouses with step-children, but the principle applies to adult step-siblings. With any relationship, it’s important to keep a conversation going so that each person’s needs are expressed and met.
Have realistic expectations
“Most re-married people report that right from the start, things were much harder than they had anticipated,” explain R. Lanier Britsch and Terrance D. Olson, authors of Counseling: A Guide to Helping Others. Whether you consider your step-siblings part of your blended family or just people you see at holidays, expecting perfection will likely leave you disappointed. Choose to give the benefit of the doubt.
“Without the benefit of the doubt, it may take hours, even days, before you can come back to a place of presence and trust,” says Raphael Cushnir, an expert in emotional intelligence. “With it, the whole thing usually happens in a matter of moments.”
I have tried to push past the selfishness or being uncomfortable and help my mom and step-dad reach the underlying goal of lifelong happiness.
We get into habits with our nuclear family, and that can be a good thing when the habits are positive. But with all families—and especially with adult step-families—we need to be intentional about starting positive habits and traditions. “Don’t wait for some type of ‘problem’ to pop up before you decide to intentionally tend to your relationship,” says Jennifer Wolf, a PCI-certified parent coach.
Consider marriage and family counseling
“It can be very beneficial to begin marriage and family counseling before or immediately after the marriage to help your family from the beginning when going down such a new and challenging road,” Dr. Swinton says.
You don’t have to wait for a problem, either. Marriage and family counseling can be a positive support to an already healthy relationship and help catch any problems early. And even if you go to counseling alone, it can help you be proactive in managing difficult relationships in a healthy way.
I asked a friend whose mother remarried a couple of years ago for her advice on how to improve step-sibling relationships. Here is what she said:
“What I have tried to do is realize the situation is beyond me. It isn’t about me at all; it’s about my mom and her happiness. So I have tried to push past the selfishness or being uncomfortable and [help my mom and step-dad] reach the underlying goal of lifelong happiness.”
Adults with step-siblings can take steps toward a healthy culture in their new family by being transparent, keeping an open dialogue, maintaining realistic expectations, being intentional, and perhaps attending marriage and family counseling. By taking these steps, the whole family will be closer to the overarching goal of lifelong happiness.
Isabella Markert is a freelance writer, editor, and language educator. When she’s not writing or editing, Isabella likes to play games with her husband and family, follow watercolor tutorials from Pinterest, and eat the snobbiest chocolate she can find.