Families in the blender 

A mom, a dad, and their children; but the term ‘family’ isn’t that simple anymore. Divorces and new relationships bring new family structures. Right now, two out of three blended families split within five years in the Netherlands. Specialized organizations like Stiefgoed found a model to help those new families survive. 

Text by Astrid Vlaeminck

Anne van Gemst (24) saw how her family split up when she was nine years old. “I couldn’t really grasp the fact that my parents were getting divorced. It never felt like they were arguing, they kept that away from me and my two brothers.” Right now, van Gemst lives mostly with her mother and her stepdad. Her father has remarried and is now part of, what’s called a blended family since his new wife already has two children from a previous relationship. 

A blended family is a family consisting of a couple, the children they have together, and children from previous relationships. However, a lot of people find love again after a divorce, blended families are fragile, says Patricia Heije the founder of Stiefgoed, an organization specialized in helping blended families. According to her, two out of three blended families in the Netherlands split up after five years. 

Different rules apply to different families

A major cause of why the blended families often don’t work out is because their first relationships fell apart in a bad manner. This often leads to a lot of tension, which the separated couples will bring into their new relationships and families. This is something van Gemst supports. She had a hard time expressing to her parents how the tensions affected her, as she didn’t want her parents to feel worse. Because of that, she decided to hide her feelings.

Van Gemst also experienced a sense of shame. “I was one of the first children in my class whose parents divorced. I felt like our family had failed. At first, I really didn’t want to talk about it at school but in the end, it was more difficult to keep it for myself. So, I did talk about it a few times with my teacher which helped me a lot.” 

A blended family is a family consisting of a couple, the children they have together, and children from previous relationships.

Patricia Heije, founder of Stiefgoed states that when a blended family faces trouble it can be difficult to find the help they need. “Assistance in The Netherlands is mainly focused on the traditional family, the individual person or the relationship.” According to Heije, this is inconsistent with the fact that different rules apply to different families. 

Right now, Stiefgoed helps on average 500 families every year. Sometimes they need to refer families to other counselors depending on the issues. “We only do one thing: the moment a couple visits us; we work on behalf of the blended family. We refer family members who need extra help. In that case, we say ‘this is a piece of yourself that you still have to work on, but don’t do that right now. Do this after the process, when the Stiefgoed counseling has been fully completed’. So, then we refer.” This approach seems successful since about 90 percent of Stiefgoed’s clients stay together after the counseling.

We treat parents and children as equals

During counseling, Heije tries to involve the children in therapy in a way that doesn’t make them feel forced. “We treat parents and children as equals. Children who aren’t adults yet can’t be burdened with a therapist if they haven’t asked for it themselves. Adult children also only come along, if they want to do that themselves. No matter their age, they decide.” Heije remarks that this way of handling with children is often not taken into consideration during other kinds of therapy. “The people who live in a non-traditional family situations are often the only ones in their environment that know what’s going on.”

That’s why Stiefgoed has a second goal: to inform professionals better. They have developed training sessions that make the environment of those blended families more informed. So not only the therapists and counselors but also school, for instance, know how to deal with a non-traditional family. “It needs to get acknowledged that a blended family is very different from a traditional family, it’s vital.”

Van Gemst’s parents don’t really have a good relationship right now and that’s something she mourns. She believes the situation would maybe have had a better outcome if she was offered more fitted help, during her parents’ divorce and information about blended families. “What caused a problem for me t a later age is that I didn’t actually know how to express myself. I think that if I would have got the possibility to say things under professional guidance at that time, it would have helped me a lot.”