First comes love. Then comes re-marriage. However, somewhere in between, the revitalized lovebirds have to figure out a delicate way to tell their respective children about their intentions and its possible effects on the entire family’s future.
Though Macy’s wedding registry cannot provide all of the essentials for a combined household, Scott Browning, psychologist and professor of psychology at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia; national JDate “Hits & Mrs” coach/columnist Damona Resnick-Hoffman (aka Dear Mrs. D); and New Jersey-based divorce lawyer/stepfamily adviser Veronique Malka offer up some practical tools for building a new family unit, taking couples from the foundation established during dating and engagement to the completion of the new home’s heart and soul.
For less observant or secular Jewish couples, Malka (who recently started a support group and will soon launch a website for combined Orthodox Jewish families), advises to wait a minimum of a year, and take counseling before taking the plunge.
She would counsel all remarrying Jewish people regardless of denomination or observance to enlist the help of a therapist and rabbi with special training with stepfamilies.
Resnick-Hoffman, who just released her e-book, D is for Dating: A Guide To Successful Online Dating, has pointed advice for those going the online dating route.
“From an on-line dating perspective, I recommend my clients keep photos and information about their children off their dating profile,” says Resnick-Hoffman.
“Though you should briefly mention that you have children, you should not put photos of them on the profile, especially when you are being considered by potential partners. Keep that world part separate, unless it becomes clear the relationship will last.
“Once that happens, it is then appropriate to introduce your children to your mate.”
According to Browning, who recently published Stepfamily Therapy: A Ten Step Clinical Approach with co-author Elise Artelt, when it comes to setting the stage for a good long-term partnership, the best way to go may be to play it safe and wait until you are absolutely sure your relationship will go the distance before you introduce him or her to your children and get them involved in the family building process.
“One of the most common mistakes I see is having the significant other and the kids get to know each other too early,” says Browning. “While it is fine for kids to know the new boyfriend or girlfriend exists, a lot of the time a parent will see how a kid does with the new person, and then allow it to govern his or her decision to continue the relationship.
“The rightness of a prospective partner should not be based entirely on initial reactions of the children, as many kids seem to be quite good with whomever the parent is dating in most cases.”
Browning has observed in his practice that it is more unusual to find children so upset by a divorce that they have no interest in meeting the new person. However, most kids he has worked with understand that Mom or Dad will want somebody in their life for a long-term relationship.
This was certainly the case with Philadelphia-area couple Craig (a physician) and Laurie (receptionist), who found each other on JDate because they each felt both partners being Jewish would lend itself to a stable home life. (They asked that their names not be used.)
Though Craig’s oldest children and Laurie’s oldest son are adults, his youngest son visits their home every other weekend.
Laurie’s younger daughters, meanwhile, have enthusiastically accepted Craig as part of the household, which in part, has helped him overcome some of the baggage from his first marriage.
“Though Craig has been very respectful about not trying to be my daughters’ father, especially as we have a very good relationship with their biological father, he enjoys having that opportunity to be a parent on an everyday basis. He will drive them places, help them with their homework and get involved with everyday responsibilities,” says Laurie.
“The parenting things I may have taken for granted have turned out to be a real gift for him, and for all of us as a family.”
While Laurie and Craig’s situation is shaping up to be a long-term combined family success, Browning has noticed through his practice that kids can bond with a new parental boyfriend or girlfriend once or twice. However, if they bonded with two people the parent later broke up with, they may have a hard time bonding with anybody that comes along later.
The adjustment period to Ms. or Mr. Right may also take longer than the average couple may initially expect.
“Researchers I have worked with have found that the adjustment” of a combined family can take up to five years, “contrary to the six months to one year period most people believe is a sufficient amount of time,” Browning points out.
“Statistically, second marriages have a higher divorce rate, and the most vulnerable time for the new couple will be the first year of that marriage. Furthermore, co-parenting ends up being a much bigger challenge than most people recognized.”
The waiting game is also a golden question, in Malka’s view. She compares somebody seriously considering remarriage to a person who knows how to ride a bike, but now is getting on a motorcycle without proper preparation.
They may think they know how to do it, and have all the basics, but they are in for a heck of a ride if they don’t take the proper driving course first.
“A new couple with a prior family should take its time,” she affirms. “The adults need to discuss and really assess their respective parenting styles, make rules about how they will interact with the other’s children, and do some pre-marital counseling before marrying.
“This is critical to a stepfamily’s success. But of course, the problem is how to slow down the ‘love train’ when passion burns and a couple wants to move forward without considering the risks.”
Even with those caveats, Browning offers the reassurance that if a combined family can make it to the third year (as Laurie and Craig did before making their marriage “official”), the chances for long-term success in the marriage increase and the divorce rate drops.
As far as integration of siblings go, Browning finds this tends to be one of the least problematic aspects of a second marriage. Furthermore, Jewish traditions can resume, continue or even be enhanced if the right mindset is applied.
“In many cases, kids that start off as step-siblings often wind up referring to each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister,’ especially if the kids are around the same age,” Browning says.
“Kids generally understand what’s happening. However, a new union is going to prompt many family discussions about how the rules of the house will be changing and what will be different in the new family setting in comparison to the way things were before.
“It is also important to reassure the combined family members that traditions followed by one home are not going to be flushed away.”
Or, as Browning explains it, if the Cohen family is coming together with the Malsteins, it doesn’t mean that the Cohens are going to have to give up the old bonds or hobbies they had before.
Both sets of biological parents will let their kids know they will have quality time with their own (biological) families and not have to give anything up in terms of traditions or hobbies in the presence of the new family.
Resnick-Hoffman advises that it is easiest to have kids from each parent meet each other once they have met the new partner individually and developed a relationship with him or her.
“Unless it is a small town and the kids attend the same schools, it is best to do everything one step at a time,” she says. “Elementary school age kids seem to (adapt to the new situation) more readily than teens or young adults, based on my experience.
“If you are in love and (the kids see that) you are serious about spending the rest of your life with the person, you have to lead the conversation with that. Kids will have their opinions going in, but much of the time, those opinions will change over time.”
“Though I raised my children Jewish with the blessing of their biological father, I now have stronger spiritual ties to my Jewish background than I have in years, especially as I have a partner who is doing this with me,” affirms Laurie F.
“While we go to temple on the major holidays and on special occasions like Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, having an amazing husband and children to enjoy the traditions with give me feelings of pride, completion and wholeness.”
Though the incidence of divorce in Jewish families has always been lower than in the general population, Malka points out the “surge” of divorce in the world has also affected the Jewish population.
“As a divorce lawyer for over 17 years with an insight into my own religious Jewish community, I decided to form a new support group, both in person and online, to help people ‘survive’ a new family,” explains Malka.
“It is important to reassure children that their traditions of observance will not change when Mom or Dad gets remarried. The child needs to know that they are ‘still Jewish,’ and that their customs will continue in the home.
“Tell the child, ‘Don’t worry, we are still going to plan your Bar Mitzvah, and Daddy will hopefully be coming to it as well. There will be more people there to love you that day.’”
Like Resnick-Hoffman, Malka stresses that consistency is key, and details matter when it comes to establishing stability in the new home. With older children, celebrations such as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah are front and center.
Younger children, meanwhile, should be able to continue observing the traditions they’ve grown up with.
Just like the foundation relationship itself, patience is a virtue when it comes to blending a family, especially if measures can be taken to ensure more people will be there as an expanded family to love each other everyday, adds Malka.
Elyse Glickman writes on health, wellness and philanthropic topics for the paper. She also regularly covers a variety of topics for magazines around the world.