The foundation of a single-parent home essentially is the parent-child relationship. After a wedding, a blended family establishes a new foundation around the married couple. This is a significant boundary shift that often results in changes to family rules, daily routines, financial arrangements—and with those changes, family stress.
It is critical that you negotiate these changes together first as a couple and then communicate them in solidarity to the rest of your family. This serves to protect and strengthen your marriage while also empowering the stepparent as a part of the new parenting team.
Money boundaries with kids
As a single dad, Sergio was always willing to hand money to his children whenever they asked. In effect, they decided when money was spent and what it would be spent on. This is a serious parental boundary problem. To be clear, Sergio’s kids don’t have a problem because they ask permission; Sergio does because he won’t say no.
Now that he is married, Sergio and his wife need to define how much money is appropriate to give kids (his and theirs), as well as how often and under what circumstances to give them money. And then he needs to say no when the limit is reached.
But what if Sergio refuses to discuss the issue with his wife, or he agrees to set boundaries and then doesn’t live up to them? Sergio’s wife will reasonably assume that he is making a statement about what really matters to him: preserving the peace and satisfying his children’s desires, even to the demise of his own personal finances and marriage.
The parenting boundary problem that preceded Sergio’s marriage is now a marital boundary problem that is sabotaging his relationship and his new family’s ability to bond.
Money boundaries with a previous spouse
Let’s consider another example that includes an ex-spouse. Victor is a successful businessman who regularly negotiates big financial deals. But ever since his divorce, he’s catered to his ex-wife. In an effort to avoid conflict, he’s agreed to give her more custody time and money than required by their divorce decree.
Then he married Felicia, a highly successful consultant who’s not afraid of controversy. Victor and Felicia agreed that she would manage their finances.
As soon as she looked at the books, she told Victor’s ex that they were no longer going to give her extra money every month. Felicia was simply trying to help her new family be better stewards of their money, and she believed setting limits would help Victor’s children learn to do the same.
The decision sent waves crashing through the co-parenting relationship, Victor and Felicia’s marriage, and Felicia’s relationship with her new stepchildren, who heard their mother’s side of the story first.
Communication is key
The first problem here, from our perspective, was not whether Victor and Felicia should reduce paying for things, but that Felicia acted without first discussing the situation with Victor. In our book, The Smart Stepfamily Guide to Financial Planning, we suggest that couples like Victor and Felicia need to decide together how they will implement changes.
Surely, Felicia should have seen that there would be strong feelings about finances on both sides and many layers to consider. There would likely be numerous conversations before they could agree on what to do and find the courage and compassion to make the changes together.
Whatever it took, finding unity would be well worth the effort because it would support their new, fragile marriage, their parenting and stepparenting, and the foundation of their home.
Whether a matter is related to former spouses, children, or an extended family member, you can’t always anticipate and prepare for the decisions that are going to throw a grenade into your living room. There are people and circumstances you can’t control. Despite good intentions, mistakes do happen.
But if you find yourself in a mess of intersecting boundaries, immediately pull back to regroup with your spouse, identify the below-the-surface issues that add fear to the situation, and start talking about how to find unity. Then go back to anyone else in the family affected by the change and stand side by side as you tell them what to expect in the future.
Adapted from The Smart Stepfamily Guide to Financial Planning: Money Management Before and After You Blend a Family © 2019 by Ron L. Deal, Greg S. Pettys, & David O. Edwards, Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used with permission. All rights to this material are reserved.