Beyond just the complications that come with co-parenting with your ex-spouse, a specific problem blended families have is the relationship between a parent and his or her ex-spouse’s new spouse or significant other, which for simplicity, this article will refer to as the “new spouse.” In particular, there may be significant difficulties regarding how the relationship between the new spouse and the new spouse’s stepchildren may affect the relationship between those children and their biological parents, particularly the non-custodial biological parent.
The new spouse will most likely be the same gender as the non-custodial biological parent. Because they are the same sex, the children’s relationship with the new spouse will likely be affected significantly by the nature of their relationship with the non-custodial parent. If that relationship is good, the children may be more likely to perceive the new spouse as an intruder into the family. If that relationship is not good, the difficulties of children’s relationship with the non-custodial parent may be transferred to the new spouse. In either case, the new spouse is in a difficult position and may be tempted to interfere with the non-custodial parent’s relationship with the children, in order to improve the new spouse’s relationship with the children.
The issue where this interference is most likely to occur is in the non-custodial parent’s parenting time. Such interference can be overt or covert. Overt interference might be encouraging the custodial parent to ignore the parenting plan or seeking to have it modified to benefit the custodial parent (and the new spouse). Covert interference might be encouraging the children to schedule events during the non-custodial parent’s parenting time, particularly events the children might prefer over activities the non-custodial parent might prefer.
If it is possible for the parents to address such issues directly, they can avoid involving outside parties and will likely arrive at agreements that will work better for them and the children than plans imposed, for example, by a court. Where parents cannot negotiate directly, mediation or counseling may be helpful. The goal of such direct negotiation will be to craft as specific a parenting time plan as possible, minimizing the possibility of misunderstanding regarding each parent’s expectations.
If, prior to a divorce, it appears likely that such stepparent issues may later arise, it will be important to seek specific language in a separation agreement identifying a parenting time plan. If no agreement is possible, the parents should ask the judge to be as specific as possible in ordering parenting time. It may also be useful, in either an agreement or a court order, to note that both parents will avoid disparaging the other parent when the children are present, and that they will not allow the children to remain present where anyone is disparaging the non-present parent.
Because blended families are created out of death or divorce, they are ripe for emotional turmoil. Because a custodial stepparent is taking the physical place of the non-custodial biological parent, such emotional turmoil often focuses on the stepparent, the non-custodial parent, and their relationships with the children. If children of divorce are ever to regain their faith in families, such that they will be emotionally equipped to risk marrying and starting their own family, it is important that the adults in the divorce the children witness approach this emotional minefield with as much maturity as possible. While it may be tempting for the parents to continue the animosity of the divorce, or for the stepparent to enter the fray, should they do so, the damage will be borne out in the children and their future relationships. The duty of the adults in such circumstances will be to treat each other and their agreements with respect, and hope their children will learn from their parents’ examples.