Does it really ruin a marriage to have children?

Visiting children in my family

Who will marry their kindergarten lover? Since this is extremely rare, there are memories of previous friendships in every relationship. This is quite normal and often even helpful, because you can learn something from the mistakes of failed relationships.

Sometimes the ex-girlfriend was the ex-wife or the ex-husband's boyfriend. In view of the high number of divorces in the Federal Republic of Germany, it is not at all unusual today to come across a partner with a “previous history”. If it's just the failed relationship, the experience can be overcome so that it will eventually be forgotten. How you deal with your previous history and that of your partner is up to you.

But if there are children, both partners in the new relationship have to deal with it, because it affects both how the children are integrated and how the amount of time and money is divided. The children of a previous marriage are facts that the new relationship has to deal with, which it cannot and, above all, should not ignore. In a way, this is a mortgage on the new relationship and new family, and can be a burden on them.

Children from a previous marriage can also be a positive challenge for everyone involved. In principle, one can say that the greatest benefit for everyone is possible when the relationships are clarified, the partners deal with each other honestly and openly and show understanding for the feelings of the other. Visiting children who only occasionally live in the “second” family - be it on weekends or during the holidays - can enrich and intensify the interplay of family members.

The most important thing here is to be aware of the different roles of all those involved and to have an understanding of the respective problems. It is completely different whether a niece or sponsored child comes to visit or the husband's daughter from his first marriage. Harmony between everyone is not a matter of course, but it is certainly helpful to be aware of the opportunities in this constellation - instead of grappling with the fact that the circumstances do not correspond to the picture-book ideal of bygone times.

For the sake of simplicity, I will now speak of “first” and “second” family without establishing a hierarchical order. In the typical case of this constellation, one parent has already had a relationship with child (ren) and later founded a second family with another partner.

How to deal with "visiting children"

The presence of the “visiting children” in the nuclear family is a situation for which there are no role models. Step-sibling models have of course been around for centuries, but this form of "parallel families" with two different places of residence that maintain (good) contact with one another is relatively new.

Depending on the age of the children and their previous history as well as how dramatic they experienced the separation of the parents and how intense the relationship with the parent is at the other place, the interaction in the visiting family will also be shaped. The visiting children bring their problems with them, be it the suffering from the loss of the whole family, be it the stress of the parent bringing up the child (and any step-parent) or negative feelings towards the new family.

Visiting children are on the one hand guests in the family, but on the other hand should get the feeling of being "real" family members. This is a difficult balancing act that very few families can manage. Because hardly any family will be able to provide a visiting child with their own room and furnishings. But that doesn't have to be the case - it is much more important to convey family security. Because no matter how well the child is endowed with material things in his permanent place of residence, he will always compare his situation with that of the children in the second family and, depending on the character, feel more or less envy - for whatever reasons, be it because of material or ideal things. That is certainly normal and not bad either. There are always circumstances that children look at with envy - here the family of friends, there ideal images on television. It's the same with adults.

Conversely, the “host family” experiences the visiting child as an outside observer. The second family will always be subliminally aware that the child is passing on their experiences and impressions - regardless of whether there are disputes within the family, new acquisitions or planned trips. These include things that the ex-partner shouldn't actually know. But you don't want to keep any secrets from the visiting child; the situation should be as relaxed and uncomplicated as possible. Nevertheless, the child comes "from the other star", which is sometimes also hostile country if the separation has not been completely overcome.

The roles of each family member

Let us assume a model that is probably the most common for the “visiting children” situation: the husband already has one or more children from his first marriage. He is divorced and has started a second family with children. The children from the first marriage live with their mother and come to visit on weekends or during the holidays.

Ideally, it is a nice feeling for the father to be able to find a home for his children again. He is happy to be able to keep in touch with the "big ones" and is not overwhelmed by the visits thanks to the existing "infrastructure". His wife takes care of the household; he can share responsibility for shaping the relationship with his children from his first marriage with his wife. It is only difficult for him to show fair behavior, i.e. to respond to each child, to evenly distribute time, love, attention, interest and material issues. However, this is usually made easier by the relatively large age difference between the children.

It is not that easy for the wife of the second family. She experiences the visit of the "big" children more as an intrusion into their privacy. Just through their existence, the children constantly remind of the old relationship and arouse feelings such as jealousy, envy, guilty conscience, etc. Nevertheless, she will usually try to maintain a good relationship, because that is in the interest of the entire family, not least of her own children. She experiences most strongly the contradiction between guests and family members, because of course she has to look after the visiting children like guests and cannot raise them as naturally and encourage them to help as her own children. She may also have to struggle with jealousy towards the older children who already hold a special position in her husband's heart. After all, she has to clarify her role with the visiting children - that she is not against them, but with them and stands up for them, that she strives for a good relationship and does not want to be seen as a competitor to the biological mother.

In my experience, the presence of children in the second marriage makes it much easier to get along with one another. So the children occupy each other and the visiting children are not too much in the focus of the adults. In addition, a lot can be compensated for, especially on the emotional level. The smaller siblings can be cuddled and cuddled by the older children, which they would certainly not do so easily with the adults. Because they are better able to show feelings towards their (step-) siblings and feel more free. Furthermore, children in the second marriage express a certain persistence. On the one hand, this destroys the hope of the children from their first marriage that the father could come back, on the other hand they experience the new woman - the mother of their step-siblings - but also as a fixed factor that somehow also belongs to them.

How well the step-siblings get on with each other depends on several factors. On the one hand, the children have to feel comfortable in their respective living spaces. This means that the visiting children should not have the feeling that they are allowed to watch the ideal world of the new family every now and then and that they have to suffer during the week in a partial family. It would be ideal if on the one hand the visiting children would like to come and experience an enrichment of their lives through the second family, but on the other hand just as well appreciate what they have in their own home - for example more peace and quiet in front of younger siblings and the special relationship with their parent . It's a tightrope walk, the success of which depends very much on those involved - for example, how relaxed, natural and loving everyone is with each other.

It should also be avoided to make the everyday family of visiting children taboo. They shouldn't get the feeling of living in two incompatible worlds. Even if the adults cannot be as friendly with one another as would be desirable, the children should not get the impression of deep enmity. If the visiting children want it, it is helpful to be told about their everyday life: about their friends, their hobbies, their everyday school life and maybe also their problems. Of course, that depends a lot on the individual child - how happy they are to tell. But the atmosphere should be such that the child has confidence and feels that the second family is still interested in their life when they are not personally present. However, there are also children who like to invent stories and use them to make themselves interesting, or who want to play their parents off against each other. Then you have to try to find out the reasons for such behavior.

The children of the second family ideally experience the visit of the step-siblings as a positive enrichment of their everyday life. Then the "big ones" come with their topics, their experiences, their knowledge, but also their problems. They are role models for good and bad, maybe put some school experiences or disputes with parents into perspective and are welcome playmates and companions.

The integration of the visiting children is of course made easier by good spatial and material facilities. If the visit becomes a "struggle" for space, affection or material things, this inevitably makes coexistence more difficult. Of course, the "house children" shouldn't have a show when the visiting children are there. Just so that the big ones get a good impression and want to come back, you shouldn't put on an event show. It is certainly more popular when the family is wasting time and ideas, playing games together and going on hikes than when everyone falls into the high consumer frenzy.

The "honesty" of the situation also includes adhering to the rules that apply in the second family - even if the visiting child is there. If, for example, lemonade is generally not drunk in the family, it should not be put on the table “to celebrate” the visiting child, because the children of the second family would hardly understand that. Because of the presence of visiting children, on the one hand normal life should not be completely turned upside down, so that the children of the second family do not get the impression that they are not as important as the former. On the other hand, visiting children should also be pampered a little and get the feeling that they are welcome. This is of course a tightrope walk, especially if the visiting children do not come regularly. Jealousy between siblings is simply part of it and cannot be avoided between step-siblings either. But the more confident an individual can be of the affection and feelings of other family members, the easier he will be to cope with jealousy.


Birgitt von Maltzahn works as a journalist and freelance author (e.g. "The Opportunities of the Open Family", Piper-Verlag). She is the mother of two children and occasionally guest stepmother of her husband's two children from his first marriage, who are now studying.


Birgitt von Maltzahn
Morenastrasse 13
81243 Munich

Created on March 6, 2003, last changed on March 23, 2010