Blended families are another complexity in partner relationships that deserves a mention, since many partner relationships will establish families that include in them children from previous relationships.
Nowhere else is it more important to understand which garden any particular concern falls in. We want to build bridges everywhere initially, and often we end up not setting appropriate boundaries—with the other family constellation, with our partner, or for ourselves. We are so eager to integrate and create a new, happy family that we are reluctant to rock the boat by establishing too many groundrules or boundaries too quickly. When we are unwilling or unable to define a clear structure, the lack of rules and expectations results in chaos and merged gardens.
It doesn’t take long for these hoped for positive relationships to start to feel unhealthy, and almost everyone involved can feel compromised, manipulated, fearful, out of control, controlled, and angry. Something that was so hopeful, and something that we brought our best intentions to, is now feeling far from good or loving.
In general, as an adult in a blended family, I am responsible for my offspring as far as discipline—since I am the biological parent. If my partner is the biological parent of any of the members of our newly integrated family, then she or he is in charge of the discipline. The non-biological parent almost always fares better with her or his new stepkids if she or he assumes the role of a helpful, supportive adult, but not the limit setter.
Of course, that’s not easy, and often the non-biological parent will be left alone in charge of the kids, and is the one who needs to set the structure. So it isn’t a pure thing, but when the biological parent is present, discipline should be deferred to that parent.
This clarity by itself is part of a structure that assures us as to which garden the discipline issue belongs in.
Often though, there are conflicts between the two sets of stepkids, so it quickly becomes obvious that the two partner/parents need to huddle to create a collaborative agreement as these issues begin to show up. That is a partnership garden concern. The parents are the models for the kids regarding how things get worked out in our new family, so clarity and consistency are important when the parents set up any groundrules. Both partners need to start by finding agreement together.
It gets even more complicated when the kids’ other biological parent remains involved. Collaboration around the kids is necessary, but there is often an immense amount of tension, ill will, and a lack of trust, compounded by the kids’ own unsettled, conflictual, confused, and painful emotions which are boiling close to the surface.
The kids’ other biological parent, like it or not, is somehow in our newly constituted family, as much as our family members from our childhood families. It is a mistake to dismiss or trivialize this important relationship. The Three Gardens applies here too. My partner and I, as a unit, represent a separate garden, with the ex-(and perhaps the ex’s new partner), having her or his separate garden. Both “units” share a partnership garden where the common concern is the kids, and we do harm if we ignore the requirement of creating some kind of Win-Win in this garden!
The concepts of Two Truths, Boundaries and Bridges, and the Three Gardens can be the best organizing principle we might bring to such a situation. As a couple, we have our separate and partnership gardens, with the truth telling and boundary building that go with them. Our biological kids from previous relationships fall within the purview of our separate gardens to some extent, and, as well, in our partnership garden to a degree.
Getting clear with each other as to which garden we are in will help a lot. Voicing that clarity and following through consistently creates a safe, reliable, equitable structure where everyone understands the groundrules and feels respected.
Should we have a biological child together, the gardens get even trickier to keep clear. We have a new common interest that interfaces with our kids and our partner’s kids.
Now we have new complexities of separate and partnership concerns to identify, sort out, and agree on.
Using the Three Garden metaphor, we can clean up some things, and working to consciously and deliberately access and speak what’s true can help as well. Particular attention to where boundaries need to be set is critical, and bridge building might most constructively be used in helping to maintain the boundaries we need to implement.
Whew! Anyone who has found themselves in this predicament is well aware of how complex and difficult it can be to create a positive outcome for all. But it is worth working on, because the quality of life for so many people we care deeply about including ourselves, is at stake.
Moving forward openly, collaboratively, with a conscious and deliberate intention to pay attention to the well being of each of the people in our family in time can result in a rich family life where all members feel cared for, respected, valued and loved.