One of the biggest conflicts that arise in step-families is the clash of family cultures. Most people don’t think of themselves as having a culture that is unique to their family, but in truth, every family has one. Cultures are made up of traditions, ways of relating to one another, foods, attitudes towards the country, religion, and the environment, as well the words we speak and the clothes we wear.

When my husband and I married, we thought we had similar cultures. After all, we met on eHarmony and their algorithms said that he and I had twenty-nine areas of compatibility. And truth be told, we did have a tremendous amount in common. One of the things we first discovered about each other is that we had some of the same books next to our beds! But even given a similar outlook on life, spiritually and mentally, we had very different ways of relating to our children.

My husband was used to being a single dad. This meant that dinners were often take-out or whatever people could scrounge from the fridge. Compound this with his early childhood associations with family dinners as emotional ordeals to be avoided with all costs and you have a non-existent family dinner time.

On the opposite end of the scale, I grew up with a family dinner-time of 7:00 pronto. I usually set the table and helped clean up afterward. My girls each learned to cook and always helped me in the kitchen. I considered it an important skill and an integral part of our little family unit. So when our families merged and the girls and I put on our first family dinner of fish tacos with a luscious spread of guacamole, salsa, my special cilantro sauce and a big platter of grilled tilapia, my husband was overwhelmed.

Needless to say, it didn’t go quite as well as I had hoped. He was shocked at the amount of food (I was feeding eight) and the big family togetherness triggered unhappy memories.  It simply never occurred to me that he would have any negative response. After all, big family dinners were my normal.

Another family culture issue we dealt with was the way that our families fought.

My girls and I tended to have flash in the pan type conflicts. We would have a little fit, though not abusive, and then apologize for our emotions. Conflict over and done. I would come to realize that our methods had its drawbacks. For my husband and his kids, emotional outbursts took a long time to process and get over. My girls and I would draw together to process. Spencer and his kids would withdraw and process alone.

You see, my daughters and I tended to be far more extroverted. We were verbal processors and we had a level of trust with each other. Spencer and his kids tended towards introversion. Disappointment took longer for them to process and an emotional outburst didn’t come with our brand of instant forgiveness.

Neither of these tendencies are moral choices. They are products of genetics and nurture. Neither right nor wrong, these differences sometimes caused some painful confrontations.  So what do you do when you are trying to merge two cultures that don’t see eye to eye? Here is what we did:

  1. My husband and I learned to really look into our individual family cultures. We couldn’t help create a new one unless we knew what the old one consisted of. We discussed our expectations with one another and really made an effort to understand one another.
  2. Choose the ones most important to you. I wasn’t about to give up family dinners because Spencer’s family of origin was troubled. He wasn’t about to give up his need for a certain amount of household quiet. But I could give up having the kid’s friends over all the time or allowing students to stop by unannounced. And he learned to love family dinners. His kids, of course, adapted to home cooked meals quickly.
  3. Be flexible, quick to understand, and slow to judge. When we first married, my husband and I were often shocked by our differences. At first, our knee jerk response was that the other was clearly wrong. In fact, some of their approaches felt all out of whack compared to ours. But over time, we learned to let everyone be who they needed to be.
  4. No criticism allowed. The best marital decision my husband and I ever made was to cease all criticism. Neither of us could take criticism from the other. We are both very sensitive. If we had a problem, we brought it up. But we approached it with more of a question and an honest expression of emotion. No more critiques of each other’s parenting no matter how well meant.
  5. We established new traditions. We went on some vacations, we had a Thanksgiving poster for everyone to write on, and we played games. We go to the movies on Christmas Day and everyone got to choose their favorite dinner for their birthday. These seem simple, but sometimes the best way to establish something new within your new family unit is to start with something small. The best traditions give everyone a sense of belonging and are fun. Even now that everyone is grown, our holidays and dinners, our games and our late night discussions remain good memories for each of them.

The key to creating a new family culture is to honor the original ones as much as possible while being patient while a new culture takes root. Step-family success is measured in years, not weeks or months. Relationships take time to build.

What do I wish I had done differently?

Well, I wish I had started understanding his family culture sooner. The sooner you take the effort to understand each other’s backgrounds and the unspoken rules that govern daily family life, the better off you will be. Start the integration before the wedding if possible. And let the germination of your new family life grow organically. Nothing stunts the growth of a relationship between new family members than trying to over-control the situation. Manipulation causes resentment.

Instead, invite each of the members of the family to participate. And just like a real invitation, allow them to engage or not. Freedom grows relationship. At least it did in our home. Good luck on your new venture!