For years, blended families have lacked the support that they need to thrive—often ridiculed as imperfect and ignored in the family education movement and even the churches. While society still celebrates spouses whose first marriage is their only marriage and who only birth children within this context, fewer and fewer families fit this model. The reality is that blended family configurations now represent a force that cannot be ignored or marginalized. Blended families are the “new normal” and they represent an opportunity to bring majesty to our culture.
For much of American history, the traditional family structure has been lauded and romanticized as ideal (though admittedly there was hypocrisy in the handling of Black families during slavery). The celebrated paradigm for families went something like this. Virgins marry. Children are born within the context of the marriage. And, first marriages last until one spouse dies. People who didn’t fit within this model were stigmatized, sometimes even outcast, in many communities.
But, times change.
The Blended Family Boom
American culture is experiencing a blended family boom. This trend represents a convergence of several national trends:
- Our sexualized culture has created an atmosphere where virginity before marriage has become too rare
- 41% of all unmarried couples living together also have children living with them (a figure that is even higher in the African-American community)
- Even when marriage does occur, only about half of first marriages survive. The odds are even worse for second and third marriages.
- The presence of children is no longer a high barrier to divorce. In fact, about 65% of re-marriages involve children from the prior marriage)
The results speak for themselves.
- 2,100 new blended families are formed EVERY day in America
- More than one-third of the U.S. population is in stepfamily configurations (meaning 1 out of 3 Americans is now a stepparent, a stepchild, a step sibling, or some other member of a stepfamily)
The Blended Family Challenge
Blended and traditional families share many characteristics and concerns. But, there is no doubt that blended families face some unique challenges—highly dependent on the age of the children and the maturity of the adults.
According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census only about one-third of stepfamily marriages last until death do them part. Furthermore, more than 70% of re-marriages involving children end in dissolution within six years.
To whom should these blended families turn? Some have looked to the church for help. But, 7 out of 10 pastors and church leaders in America say they ‘don’t know where to turn for assistance on how to address step-family dynamics”.
So, how do we respond to this trend? We have to stop and notice. All of our lives depend on it.
In his book, Outlive your life: You were made to make a difference, Max Lucado tells of an amazing occurrence on the streets of Washington, D.C. at 7:51 a.m., January 12, 2007. A young musician, dressed in jeans, t-shit, and a baseball cap, positions himself at a Washington D.C. metro station and begins to play his violin. The plays for forty-three minutes, performing six musical pieces. More than one thousand people passed the young musician. But, only seven of them paused more than one minute to listen. During this entire performance, $32.17 was thrown into the empty violin case. Only one person out of more than one thousand recognized the violinist as the famed Joshua Bell—who three days prior filled Boston’s Symphony Hall at well over $100 per seat. How could it be that only one person even noticed? Lucado goes on to write, “No one expected majesty in such a context.”
As I read this amazing story, I am reminded of blended families. Historically, they have been stigmatized. Their unique needs have often been blatantly ignored. Like the unrecognized violinist, no one expected beauty and majesty in the blended family context. But, it is there today. And, in many ways it always has been. Blended families represent opportunities to demonstrate God’s majesty in the context of what are sometimes, confused, erratic, unpredictable, hurtful, and sometimes shameful contexts. But, this is where God shines.
God’s idea of beauty is not bound by the rules and expectations of our culture.
I grew up in a traditional two-parent home. But, when I was younger than ten years of age, our home became a foster home. More than three dozen children have been fostered by my parents. Some of them were there for just a few days. Many were there for months. Several were there for years. We were a type of blended family. But, I don’t think even we recognized it at the time.
Though the circumstances of these children coming to our home were usually sad and sometimes tragic, I am proud of our blended family culture. It had its flaws—many in fact. But, through the adversity, many of us became better adults.
All these years later, I still am privileged to have relationships with some of my foster brothers and sisters. Despite the challenges of their youth, you can see the beauty that many have made in their lives. Our blended family made a real difference—not because we were perfect but because we took the time to stop and take notice (like the seven people who listened to the D.C. violinist) of children needing a place to call home, if only for a while.
I believe there are three ways that we can celebrate and support blended families today.
- Recognize their diversity
- Normalize their struggle
- Encourage their unity
Recognize their diversity
Many people lack a clear understanding of what exactly entails a blended family. So many people see blended families through a monolithic lens. Hence, they often suggest “one size fits all” solutions that are ineffective and in some cases damaging.
In order to celebrate blended families, you first have to know who they are.
I like to think of a good definition of a blended family as “one in which one or both members of a couple or a single adult parent children who they did not biologically birth” . But, with that said, there are still many different configurations.
The most typical blended family configurations are:
- One or both spouses were formerly married and one or both have biological children
- Neither spouse has ever married, but one or both have biological children
- Spouses have biological children and adopted/foster children
- Spouses have no biological children, but have adopted/foster children
Each type of blended family has unique challenges. But, where there is challenge there is opportunity to grow. Bringing together two different family systems can help adults and children to be more open-minded and flexible. The blended family has a more diverse array of strengths from which to pull. If they muster the will and flexibility to all pull in the same direction, the enrichment opportunities are boundless.
If you are in a blended family, tell us about your family configuration. Do you feel that your diverse strengths are appreciated?
Normalize their struggle
Blended families, often mired in the daily grind of keeping everyone on the same page, can feel overwhelmed.
Adults often struggle with how to best parent their stepchildren. Children, particularly those who were older when the blend began, struggle to accept the stepparent’s authority. Others find it difficult to share their lives with their step siblings.
Blended families must be vigilant to protect against the forces that strain the family fabric. Issues such as extreme expectations, unchecked emotional baggage, poor boundaries, role confusion, overprotective parenting, and dogmatic doctrine can sabotage family functioning.
It is important to help blended families understand that the relational struggles they experience are a normal part of growing as a blended family. Often, it takes a while for individuals to appreciate each family member’s value. There are often emotional wounds that take a while to heal. There are expectations to be made clear.
By consistently and respectfully communicating needs, feelings, and aspirations, each individual in the blended family can see that it takes that exact same level of communication for any type of family to thrive. The challenges are somewhat different. But, the solution is the same. Think more of the other than for yourself.
Encourage their unity
The biblical passage, Matthew 12:25 should be the rally call for blended families. It reads as follows: “…every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.”
The majestic purpose that God seeks to establish through your blended family is obscured under the weight of a divided house:
- At least two sets of rules
- At least two types of discipline
- At least two sets of expectations
- At least two agendas
The results of a divided house are circles of exclusion that impede the ability to develop a shared vision, a failure to reach desired goals, and a general lack of trust and authenticity.
Circles of exclusion are the culmination of convoluted rules, divergent expectations, divided loyalties, unspoken innuendo, and other negative interactions that inevitably lead to independent enclaves that focus on protecting themselves, often at the expense of others.
This, of course, is not God’s plan for your blended family. Blended families are called to foster Circles of Inclusion which focuses on OURS rather than YOURS-MINE.
As we encourage blended families to prioritize a unified sense of “we-ness”, we all get a better sense of the interconnectedness of all of us. That is why we must celebrate them.
Yes, blended families represent a microcosm of society. Blended families symbolize the human family.
Each of the three areas that we have discussed for the blended family is a parallel of our broader community. Our communities, our nation, and our world need to develop that collective sense of “we-ness” by better appreciating diversity, understanding how we all share common struggles, and finding a sense of unity.
We are each enriched as we embrace a worldview based on Circles of Inclusion–requiring each of us to bend to blend. This is the beauty and majesty that God intends. Each of us just have to stop and notice.
What parallels can you draw between blended families and broader culture? I’d love to hear your comments below.