Blending Family Styles: Making a Second Marriage Work


Hands tightly clasped, Glenn and I knelt in prayer, preparing for our eternal alliance. A few hours later on that beautiful July morning in 1961, we were married in the Manti Temple. Our eternal adventure had begun. Five wonderful years and three children later, we boarded a plane for New Zealand, where Glenn was going to teach at the Church College. Three weeks later, he and another teacher drowned in a fishing accident.

His stepping from mortality into immortality so suddenly and swiftly left me bewildered, confused, and frightened. As I struggled with the problems of coping with the funeral arrangements, my children’s needs and my own grief, I went to our bishop for a special blessing the day after Glenn’s death. That blessing was immensely comforting to me and helped me to deal with the challenges of getting us started on a new life.

One important part of that blessing was a phrase that I barely remembered at the time. He said, “There is someone being prepared for you.” When I was ready, almost two years later, I met Max.

Max had come through his own crucible of pain and grief. On a morning in August 1967, he heard a thud in the kitchen and rushed in to find his wife lying on the kitchen floor in agony. For the next eight weeks, he watched Jean, his sweetheart of twenty-five years, die of cancer. She was released from her suffering on October 11.

We met in the spring of 1968 on a balmy evening. On November 1, we were married. Max had twin girls who were already married, a nineteen-year-old son, and an eight-year-old daughter. My sons were six and two with a four-year-old daughter between. I also had the responsibility of a fourteen-year-old Lamanite girl. The following year, we added a daughter of our own.

Thus, the challenges of putting it all together were vividly real. What happens to children who still miss the departed parent? How are decisions remade which were already made with the first partner?

We’ve observed that some people remarry to meet physical or emotional needs that they haven’t been able to resolve, while others remarry out of a peaceful sense that they are ready to make changes. In the first kind of marriage, there are usually intense problems because the person isn’t ready to give up his past and insists that the new companion accept the old pattern instead of forging a new one. We’ve seen many second marriages flounder and even fail because of these demands and insecurities.

But even when both partners feel secure enough in their lives and values to be willing and able to compromise, any couple contemplating a second marriage needs to consider several factors carefully. In addition to being able to talk about how we had coped with our grief, Max and I also discussed living arrangements, blending family patterns, disciplining children, handling finances, and living the gospel. Of course, it’s impossible to discuss all of these issues completely before marriage, but every moment we spent discussing them during courtship paid off.

Living Arrangements

Where will you live following marriage? When finances aren’t a problem, building or buying another home is probably the most sensible decision. This way, there are no memories to challenge the newly created family. With a neutral home on neutral ground, it is easier to achieve unity.

We know one couple who sold both their previous homes and built a new one, an especially satisfying solution since each of the ten children had a voice in planning the new home and working out the compromises. In contrast, we know another family who moved into “his” house. After more than a decade of problems, he still refuses to move out of the house and she refuses to live there any longer with his memories. Of course, other problems complicated this conflict, but that initial decision did not contribute to a solution.

In another case we know, it was financially advantageous for them to stay in the husband’s house, but they agreed that the wife had a free hand to redecorate completely. Wisely, she involved all of the children. His children learned to appreciate her taste, and her children felt that a place was being made for them.

Blending Family Patterns

How do you develop a sense of oneness in a second marriage? So small a thing as “but we always did the laundry on Tuesday” can temporarily disturb the tranquility in either partner’s heart or upset a teenager who may feel loyal to a former parent.

A little sensitivity to language can eliminate many problems. One recently married couple was sorting fruit jars when the husband said, “Hey, honey, we used to paint an X on the chipped ones with fingernail polish. Then we knew which ones we could use for jam.” It’s a great suggestion, but it was a painful reminder to the wife that “we” did not include her. If she had felt defensive or competitive, she might have challenged the suggestion. Wisely, she grinned and said, “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we paint an X on the chipped ones?”

Problems can multiply when children are concerned. Some children are easy to love, and some are difficult. Often older children resent change, and little ones become frightened and confused. In my own experience, love grows as one senses each stepchild’s individual needs and meets them in ways that make each child feel loved, loveable, and worthwhile.

It’s easy to ignore a child’s needs—adults in a new marriage are under a tremendous strain and have great emotional needs too. And some problems never will be resolved. But an unloved child is a weak point in the family structure.

Sometimes ignorance can be an obstacle to loving. I had young children while Max’s were older. I needed a crash course on adolescents while he needed to brush up on the early years. In other families, one half may contribute all girls while the other half contributes all boys. One half of the new family may enjoy museums while the other half prefers the tennis courts.

And the new marriage partners must relate to each other. Both of them have probably been used to making the final decisions alone. Now two must be involved. Usually a widowed father—and a divorced father if he has custody of the children—has learned new ways of nurturing to meet some of the children’s emotional needs. A widowed or divorced mother may also have worked outside the home and learned to fix things herself.

Sometimes, both partners go into remarriage with the comfortable assumption that they’ll resume old patterns. But it may not always be possible or even desirable. One father, who stopped using his weekends for golf when he needed to take care of the children, realized that his desire to give his children another mother did not mean that he wanted to revert to being the kind of distracted, uninvolved father that he had been before his first marriage ended. And a woman who has discovered resources of self-reliance and independence would certainly want to channel those traits appropriately.

Since the husband and wife must be in accord before the children’s needs can be met successfully, they need to plan some time for their own growing relationship—particularly regular times to communicate about the needs and demands that the children make, away from the pressure-cooker that daily living can sometimes be.

Then they can work on meeting the needs of the children. If a child suddenly has to compete with several new brothers and sisters for the attention that was previously undivided, the transition can be difficult. One family solved this problem by each parent taking his or her own children out for a separate evening. They discussed the past, remembered the departed parent, and concentrated on themselves. These trips became less necessary as adjustment progressed, but they helped smooth the beginning.

Another challenge is how to find time to spend with each child when the number of children increases dramatically. One mother, after much fasting and prayer, spent a few minutes alone each evening with each child. In a bedroom with the door closed, they had prayer and set a goal which they wrote down in a “goal book.” The child worked on the goal for a week, evaluating his progress each evening. At the end of the month, the mother wrote a letter about the child’s progress. All of the children were motivated to improve and the mother became closer to the stepchildren as they became aware of her concern for them. Meanwhile, the father was having his own time with them working on straightening up the house and getting them ready for bed.

Another mother, discouraged by the workload of a suddenly larger family, assigned each child a room in the home to clean in addition to his own bedroom. This room had to be cleaned before school. (There were no preschoolers.) With cleaning less of a problem, cooking and laundry also seemed less overwhelming. The children learned to help each other, and they all went to school feeling satisfied with their accomplishments.

Disciplining Children

Max and I discovered that strict discipline had to wait until we had a good working relationship with all of the children. We also had to learn to attack the problem, not the child or each other.

Parent councils, family councils, and family home evenings were all places where we sorted out the rules, reduced confusion, and increased communication and support. When children knew that they could talk to each other as well as to us, the bickering and tattling dropped dramatically.

Even more important was the time Max and I spent together talking about our values. We could not assume that the children would somehow “know” what they could snack on, when they could watch television, how late they could be out, or even where they should put their dirty clothes. It was hard, detailed work to look at our assumptions about behavior, talk about them, and agree on standards that we both felt comfortable with. But until we did, we could not help the children feel good about following the rules.

Handling Finances

Experts say that money alone is the greatest cause of marital problems—and that includes second marriages. What happens to the father who has been paying child support for three and now has three more? What about allowances? And what about the husband or wife who can’t manage money?

We feel that the best way to start is to pool the financial resources of both partners so that decisions can be made—with the children, when appropriate—on how to spend “our” money. One family we know decided to keep finances separate because the husband was a meticulous bookkeeper and the wife was an impulse shopper. As a result, the father felt no responsibility for his stepchildren, and the mother overcompensated with lavish presents.

This does not mean that every financial detail should be subject to review. Every budget, no matter how tight, should include a sum, no matter how small, that each spouse gets to spend without having to explain. This is sometimes a good solution with older children, as well, particularly if they find themselves with less access to available money than before the marriage.

When a stepparent reaches the point of honestly wanting to provide financially for a child, it’s a healthy sign of adjustment in the new marriage.

Living the Gospel

Other problems concern religious observance. One family may find watching a television show an acceptable Sabbath activity while another does not. Older stepchildren may not share a strong commitment to the gospel. And being sealed to the first spouse may make the couple feel that total unity on religious questions is not necessary.

In one family we know, the husband and wife had formed the family pattern of reading the scriptures aloud each night. As the children came along, they were also included. In another marriage, which also began in the temple, this couple did not set the same goal and had fewer spiritual experiences as a result. When remarriage brought the two families together, the mother objected to the lack of regular family prayer, no spiritual counseling for the children, and stepchildren who complained that “you’re trying to change dad.” She resolved the difficulty by quietly and firmly providing the kinds of gospel experiences for her children that she thought were important. She discovered that she was being too rigid in some areas; and the stepchildren discovered that they liked participating in some of the experiences.

Sometimes the challenges posed by sealings in previous marriages cause concern. One of the great men that we know is married, for the first time, to a woman whose temple marriage was interrupted by her husband’s death after the birth of two children. They now have five children of their own and the father has raised all seven to be fully committed to the principles of the gospel. Even though he has felt some uncertainty about the future, he has felt the spiritual peace that he will be blessed and be happy if he fulfills his responsibilities.

We’ve discovered that example, as in other areas, is the best teacher in gospel living. Preaching to stepchildren or to a new partner usually backfires. Instead, we recommend teaching your own children what is right, then praying that all might be affected by the Spirit’s influence.

Conclusion

Second marriages can work an are working. No marriage become perfect overnight, and some problems may never be resolved. But it is an extremely satisfying experience to see your new family develop individually and learn to love each other.

In summary, here are some suggestions to help your marriage work.

1. Do not criticize each other or each other’s children.

2. Do not share troubles outside your family that properly belong within it, but do maintain your former friendships and develop new ones so that you do not put impossible pressures on your spouse or your children to meet all of your emotional needs.

3. Keep a sense of perspective. Your deceased or divorced partner may have been perfect in areas in which your current partner falls short—but your previous partner probably needed improvement in other areas.

4. Do not exclude your present spouse by talking overmuch of former activities.

5. Never argue over the stepchildren. Prayer usually brings better results.

6. Do not think the former way is the only way.

7. Confide in your children and stepchildren only those things which concern them.

8. Try the things your new companion likes—and both of you feel free to try brand-new things. Change is something to be welcomed.

9. Be yourself. Remember, someone fell in love with you because of what you are.

10. Be patient. Not all issues can be resolved your way, and some issues will probably remain unresolved.

[photos] Photography by Marilyn E. Péo

Francine Christensen, mother of nine children, serves as Young Women athletic director in her Orem, Utah, ward.