I have a blended family with my partner. Is it important for our kids that we actually get married?
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MOLLY: Lorraine added that she and her partner have been together for four years, her kids are 9 and 12, both girls, and her partner’s son is 10. Their respective kids refer to each other as “almost step-brothers” and to the adults, as “almost step-mom” and “almost step-dad.” She’s been wondering “whether the fact that we are not married, and may not marry, could be confusing to the kiddos or if, on the contrary, since we have a solid family relationship, we can teach them that it’s just a label and they can actually nix the word “almost” even if our union is not legal?”
She said that although they all get along like biological brothers and sisters the “almost” word does get to her sometimes and makes her heart sink a little. What, if anything, should she do?
Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): I think this is not an uncommon issue in blended families, and it sounds like this family does very well in that there are no big areas of conflict, but there is this sort of nagging feeling –and maybe the kids have it, too– about the parents not being married.
Lorraine can continue to do it the way she’s doing it, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but my experience is that if the parents marry, the children seem to become quite relieved. I think it means to them that there’s something more permanent, more committed, and more stable in the fact that their parents are actually married. After a marriage, kids in blended families often begin referring to the parent and step-parent as their “parents” rather than their “almost parents.” Being actually married does seem to make a difference to the children involved.
MOLLY: Do you think it’s important that they get married even if it’s not something that the parents think is important, or should they encourage the kids to drop the “almost?”
MOM: Well, this can be a tricky issue. First of all, children know the truth. The parent can drop the “almost” because the parent feels committed to the relationship, but the kids will probably continue to think and say almost because the parents aren’t married. Children can be fairly concrete about this issue.
I think a lot depends on what the parents want to do. If they have strong feelings about not getting married, they shouldn’t get married. They should just continue how they’re going and tolerate the “almost” part of it.
On the other hand, if it doesn’t matter to them whether they marry or don’t marry, then I think the kids would be more comfortable knowing that their parents were married. I say that, but I don’t’ think that this should be the only reason two people get married. I think the parents themselves have to feel it and want to be committed in that way.
It’s unavoidable that kids feel more secure in a family when there are two parents who are bound by marriage to stick around. Without a formal binding, the door to splitting up is left open. These kids obviously feel the sense of impermanence or they would not be referring to each other as “almost” siblings.
MOLLY: What is your advice about it?
MOM: My advice is that if it’s a 50/50 deal for the parents about getting married or not getting married, then they might want to just go ahead and get married and include their kids as part of the marriage ceremony. But if they really feel strongly about not getting married for whatever reasons, then they shouldn’t do it. Everybody will just have to work with what they have. And what they have now is not bad.
We can see that there’s no definitive answer to this; it really depends on what the parents want to do and how they present themselves. If they’re all living together, they’re virtually married, except legally, but they will still exist in a state of “almost.”
MOLLY: Obviously the kids have some sort of issue with it or else they wouldn’t say “almost.”
MOM: That is correct. In this case, the kids do seem to have an issue with it and it sounds like they would feel more comfortable if their parents were actually married and all that marriage represents between kids and their parents. When you are blending families especially, marriage between the parents becomes a contract between the step-parents and the kids, too. I think at the bottom it’s a commitment issue that affects the whole family.
MOLLY: Are there any long term effects Lorraine should think about?
MOM: That’s hard to tell from this perspective, but I actually do think there could be some long term effects down the road. I think in general kids are more comfortable when their parents lean toward conventional and they feel safe and secure within the cocoon of their family.
However, saying that, I don’t think there will be any terribly horrific long term effects on these kids, but when those kids are old enough to think about marriage and relationships and commitments for themselves in their own relationships, some committment issues might arise.
MOLLY: Do you think these kids will be more likely or less likely to get married?
MOM: They are teaching their kids that it’s okay to be in a relationship and not to get married, but I would bet that those kids end up married because of the uncertainty of this experience.