If you’re considering divorce but haven’t filed yet, chances are you won’t do so in these final days of January.
Many family lawyers note a jump in divorce filings in January, which is why they’ve dubbed this “divorce month.” But the bump in business tends to come in the first half of the month, as soon as lawyers return to work after winter vacations.
Why early January?
Lawyers speculate that many couples hang in there through the holidays, because a split at such a family-focused time would be too blue for everyone. But Jan. 1 seems to sound the opening bell for those who have decided they cannot ring in one more year together.
While the usual suspects play a key role in divorce — money and sex, in that order — another is right up there, although we don’t talk about it much: It’s kids. His and hers.
There are a lot of us in that group. More than 40 percent of American adults have at least one step-relative, be it a child, sibling or parent, according to the Pew Research Center. And that, sadly, leads many well intentioned stepfamilies to the divorce lawyer’s door.
If marriage is hard, and marriage with our own kids is harder, then marriage in a blended clan is often the most challenging with all it brings, including unresolved drama with exes, financial stress, differing parenting styles and divided loyalties.
Approximately 41 percent of first marriages end in divorce. Sixty percent of second marriages do, unless both partners have kids. Then it’s 70 percent.
One recent study put “interfering exes” and “children from previous relationships” as two of the top three marriage busters.
Considering all that, a far better way to start 2018 is with this reminder to blended clans or, more accurately, to forever blending clans:
A new year is a new opportunity to ask for help.
“Unfortunately, most couples don’t seek help,” said Utah-based stepfamily coach and stepparent of seven Kimberly Sayer-Giles, who wrote an eye-opening blog post titled, “The odds are against us.”
“Studies have shown that less than 25 percent of blending couples seek relationship or educational help before marriage, and less than 50 percent even read a book about remarriage or stepparenting,” she said.
But Giles remains bullish on stepfamilies and their many opportunities to thrive — as long as they embrace a few truisms not reflected in any episode of “The Brady Bunch.”
For starters, we don’t have Alice. And let’s restate the obvious. Stepfamilies are different from traditional families. They’re more complicated, especially when children are part of the package. Ex-spouses, too, “inevitably bring issues to the mix,” Giles said. “You will need to learn a new set of rules and adjust to a different way of doing things.”
That means, first, resisting the urge to criticize one another.
“Co-parenting brings up a whole host of worries and insecurities,” said Minneapolis native Debra Orbuch Grayson, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the newly published “Building Family Relationships: A Workbook for Parents and Stepparents.”
“There’s a heightened sense of worry about the other parent criticizing how the biological parent is doing,” Grayson said. “ ‘You’re too easy.’ ‘You’re too strict.’ Mama Bear. Papa Bear. ‘These are my children so don’t say anything against them.’ ”
The Pew study confirms those blood bonds, finding that most adults feel a stronger sense of obligation to their biological family than to their step-kin.
And it’s not just adults. Kids are fully capable of their own takedown strategy. “Children may try to sabotage the new relationship,” said Grayson, who will be in the Twin Cities for a free program at 7 p.m. Feb. 22 at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka.
Barbara Stamp, a Bloomington-based therapist in private practice, also sees this play out.
“Sometimes, kids rule the roost,” she said. “I am amazed at how much power a kid will have, but the parent gives it to them.”
Slow down, be patient
The therapists agree that one helpful strategy to avoid an early blowup is to simply slow everything down.
“Couples will often rush children and even pressure them to love their new stepparent right away,” Giles said. “This kind of pressure will hinder the process even more.”
Stamp heartily agrees. “Do not demand that you be called Mom or Dad,” she said. “It isn’t fair.”
Another helpful strategy is to embrace the loyalty one feels toward one’s kin. Create one-on-one time with your own kids without guilt.
With stepkids, focus on supporting them and championing their interests, but leave discipline to their biological parent. Over time, when trust and loyalty are stronger, spend one-on-one time with them, too.
“Tell them you understand their predicament,” Stamp said. “It’s amazing how kids get things.”
Mostly, develop the patience of Job.
“A lot of parents say, ‘This is too hard. My new partner makes me feel like I’m not doing a good job,’ ” said Grayson, now practicing in Overland Park, Kan.
“I do feel it’s an incredible amount of hard work and can be discouraging,” she said. “That’s why having tools and new ways of thinking about this is so important.”
Plenty of stepfamilies do manage to power through, she said.
“They are working at it and there is a lot of love. I say, ‘It’s a bumpy road. It’s easy to get stuck in a ditch.’ ”
I laugh now at disastrous early attempts to merge my own 11-year-old stepfamily of six kids. Lots of ditches.
Before I became a stepmom, I was a journalist writing about stepfamilies. I bought into the notion that stepfamilies magically merge into a seamless unit at the five-year point, which was the commonly agreed upon time frame among many family therapists of the day.
Nearly 12 years in, the bonds between our now mostly grown kids are miraculous to me and well worth the wait, and the work. But we’re still blending.
We’ll be forever blending.
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Help for blending families
Nearly half of weddings today create a stepfamily. But the considerable challenges of blending pull most of these families apart. Debra Orbuch Grayson offers helpful tips in her new book, “Building Healthy Family Relationships: A Workbook for Parents and Stepparents.”
Consistency. Children want clear rules carried out by parents, even across different households.
Flexibility. Just like a rubber band, which expands and stretches, realize that you are capable of change and growth.
Slowing down. Resist the urge to rush into a relationship with your stepchildren. Create separate activities with your biological children, who likely feel a strong sense of loyalty to you. Be a supporter of your new stepchildren. Listen to them. Don’t take their grief or anger personally.
Good conflict. Conflict is normal in all families but, especially common in blended families. Avoid criticizing your partner; address differences respectfully and away from the children. Let the biological parent take the lead with discipline.
Patience. Relationships are messy and some days are discouraging. They improve with time and effort.