"More than anything, I want us to be one big happy family since we both had such miserable first marriages," says Marge, 35. "But in the year and a half that Tim and I have been married, we've grown further apart instead of closer together. And it's all because of the kids."
Josie, Tim's 17-year-old daughter, makes Marge feel like the wicked stepmother, defying her rules about curfews and chores and constantly interrupting her conversations with Tim and ignoring any of her well-intended suggestions to slim down.
Tim does nothing to help her settle her battles with Josie: "The other night, when Josie accused me of slapping her -- which was a lie -- Tim abruptly got up from the dinner table and left the house. When he returned late that night, he refused to talk to either of us."
Tim's relationship with Marge's 14- and 16-year-old sons isn't any better: "They ignore Tim, and he insists they're spoiled and selfish," Marge reports. "But, frankly, I think he's a real penny-pincher when it comes to spending money on my sons, and he throws a fit when their rock band practices on weekends."
Tim, a 42-year-old lawyer, isn't any happier: "Marge and Josie are both stubborn and opinionated, and they've turned our home into a battlefield." From his point of view, his wife and his daughter hurl insults back and forth, and demand that he render his opinion on pointless disputes. Who could blame him for running for cover?
"And, yes, I do think my stepsons are rude and spoiled. Obviously, Marge felt so guilty about being a single mother that she overindulged them." Tim resents the fact that the boys bring a horde of friends to the house on weekends when he needs to relax, and they think nothing of borrowing his car without asking.
"Marge and Tim are struggling with the all-too-common problems of a second marriage, made even more exasperating by the difficulties inherent in raising teen-agers," says Paul Moschetta, a New York marital therapist. They're not alone: According to recent estimates from the Stepfamily Association of America, half of all Americans are now part of a stepfamily. Most of them are unprepared for the confusing emotions and loyalties involved in blending two families into one.
If you are wrestling with similar problems, try establishing regular family meetings to air differences, express feelings, redistribute chores and responsibilities as well as learn to respect and have fun with each other. Harold Bloomfield, co-author of "Making Peace in Your Stepfamily" (Hyperion, 1993), offers guidelines:
* Remember that this is more than a family chat. It should be held at a regularly scheduled time convenient for everyone -- that includes stepchildren who may not be living with you.
* Set clear ground rules. Everyone gets a chance to talk, without fear of being ridiculed, criticized or ignored. Choose a leader (someone who can moderate the discussion but not dictate) as well as someone to record new family rules and suggestions. If issues are highly charged, consider calling upon a trusted friend or another successful stepparent to act as mediator.
* Begin each meeting with a 10- to 15-minute period of appreciation. Each person gives praise or thanks to another for something done or said since the last meeting that made them feel safe and valued.
* Don't allow adults to dominate the conversation. What gripes and grievances, large and small, do the kids have, and what suggestions can they offer?
The family-meeting framework enabled Marge, Tim and their children to talk freely for the first time. Josie learned to trust Marge more. After much initial griping, the boys have found another place to practice, and they're more diligent about asking to use the car.