How To Blend Families Later in Life as Successfully as Katie and John

the cast of the brady bunch standing on a staircase in the family home

The Brady Bunch! (Getty Images)

Combining families can be a bit more complicated than moving addresses.

Creating and nurturing a healthy family dynamic is never easy. But when you’re blending two families into one? You’re pretty much guaranteed to see some fireworks along the way. And not always of the celebratory sort.

Combining families from multiple former marriages can feel like a game of chess — and in many ways, it’s quite similar. You need a strategy, not just for short-term goals, but for the long-term success of your new family. And unfortunately, that strategy might have to be a bit more nuanced than grabbing a box of pizza and requiring everyone to sit down at the dinner table at six.

To help break down the ins and outs of how to create a successful blended family, we spoke to Seraphina Geiter, a family therapist and clinical social worker who specializes in family change and transformation.

Respect that every family is different

The first thing to know is that this is the time to rid yourself of specific expectations.

“If you go in with a belief of what success is going to look like, it can set you up to feel like you’ve failed, when in reality, it’s just not gonna work that way,” Geiter explains. “The situations that I see that don’t work very well are ones in which the new couple is so excited about their relationship, they want everyone to immediately all get along like one big happy family. And the reality is that while you’ve had all of this time to fall in love with your partner, your kids are still getting to know this person.”

So instead of entering the new family dynamic with specific expectations and goals, Geiter suggests you allow it to unfold organically.

“Don’t put pressure on your children to have a particular kind of relationship with your partner,” she says. “The baseline should be respect. Respectful communication is most important.”

From there, you can plan group activities, but with very low stakes. For example, Geiter suggests having a movie night with your family where attendance is totally optional.

Approach conflicts appropriately

When conflict arises within a blended family, not all parents are created equal.

“I think there need to be some ground rules set up at the outset where the birth parent is the predominant parent in conflicts,” Geiter says. “Ideally, the biological parent is the one that handles conflicts with their biological child.”

So, for example, if your partner gets into an argument with your child in the early days of living together, it might be wise to step in and have the conversation with your child, rather than your partner. Geiter explains further, “A step-parent can say, for example, ‘No, there are consequences for this behavior, but I’m not going to get into it with you right now. I will be talking to your mom, and she will get this sorted out with you later.'”

This is an important first step, not just because it might be awkward for your child and your partner to argue with one another, but because it will increase your child’s sense of safety at home. “Your kids are generally going to feel the safest emotionally with their biological parent,” Geiter says. “And so when you try to introduce conflict with a new parent, it can make things a whole lot more emotionally complicated.”

Seek help

One of Geiter’s top tips is to enter a blended family arrangement without any strong expectations or immediate goals. But if you’ve been living together for a year and the atmosphere inside your home is awkward, confrontational, or even downright volatile, it might be time to seek outside counsel.

“It’s hard for parents to blend families,” Geiter says. “It’s always going to be a lot. What I see a lot is parents who take it kind of personally when the families aren’t integrating right.”

If this is happening in your own family, one incredibly beneficial next step would be to find a family therapist in your area who can help you sort through the challenges of your new family dynamic.

As for finding the right therapist? Geiter encourages you to take time and really search for the right fit in a therapist. “You may have to do initial consultations with five different people,” she warns. “And that’s completely normal. Therapists understand that. We want the entire family to feel comfortable.”