Move may help two families merge into one



Marie has a house and kids. Bill has a house and kids, too. Now they're going to marry and take on one of life's great challenges: blending families. So where should they all live?

Ideally, the newlyweds should resist the temptation to move the whole troop into either Bill or Marie's home. Instead, they should find a third home where everyone in the blended family can make a fresh beginning, therapists and housing specialists agree.

"I vote for new for everybody," says Carolyn Janik, author of "Positive Moves," a guide to relocation. Better that everyone in the blended family flex and change rather than making one group feel like they're being invaded and the other like invaders, Ms. Janik says.

But the issue goes beyond fairness, says Susan Walen, a psychologist who directs the Center for Cognitive Therapy in Baltimore. If Marie's family tries to move into Bill's house or vice versa, there's a danger that the new family will be contaminated by old memories.

"Often negative baggage from previous relationships can intrude the fresh start," says Dr. Walen, a psychologist in private practice.

Suppose, for instance, that everyone crowds into the red brick colonial where Marie moved with her former husband, John, a decade ago. This is a place that carries memories for Marie of her breakup with John. She may have trouble feeling optimistic about her new family life when she associates places in the home with the bitter recollections of her past life.

By the same token, Marie's 7-year-old daughter, Wendy, has undoubtedly staked out private spaces in the red brick colonial. She's accustomed to the middle seat in the kitchen nook and the small blue armchair in the family room with a good view of the TV. If interlopers were to challenge her control of these areas, her feelings could crumble.

Still, if Bill, Marie, Wendy and Wendy's siblings and step-siblings all face the challenge of accommodating to a new space, no one runs the risk of feeling that his personal turf has been invaded, Dr. Walen says. While there will still be the turf issues, no one will have emotional claims to particular areas.

"Moving the merged family into a place where no one has a history can be extremely important and can add to the emotional well-being of everyone," says Dorcas Helfant, president-elect of the National Association of Realtors.

Beyond suggesting a move into a fresh environment, experts offer these housing pointers for blended families:

* Compromise on location -- factoring schools into your decision.

The idea here is that it's often better to have both parts of the merging family make a sacrifice on location rather than having one bear the brunt of the move. However, you'll want to take into account the work locations of both husband and wife. Beyond that, the children's schools can be a critical factor to consider.

Suppose you have two sets of children with two distant school systems involved in the family merger. Assuming one set must change schools, it's usually smart to change the younger children's schools rather than uprooting older children from friendships they have formed at the middle or high school levels, says Dr. James McGee, director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Towson.

"The elementary school guys -- if handled properly -- can make the switch more easily," he says.

Of course, there are exceptions, notes Dr. Walen of the Center for Cognitive Therapy. A young child with a learning disability might need the continuity of remaining in the same special elementary school. On the other hand, a troubled adolescent who has fallen in with the wrong social group could actually benefit by being uprooted from his old high school, she says.

* Give the merging family the biggest house you can afford.

"My husband and I bought a huge, six-bedroom house when we blended our families," recalls Ms. Helfant, who helped merge two households involving four offspring ages 5, 17, 20 and 25 -- as well as a live-in housekeeper.

The chore of merging two families into one was one of the hardest tasks she's ever undertaken, Ms. Helfant says.

But the combination of advanced planning, teamwork among all the players involved and the purchase of a big house made the transition a positive one, she says.

Even though the older offspring involved in the family merger may stay only a short time, a large home allows them the psychological comfort of ample privacy and individual space while they're there, Ms. Helfant observes. The large home, even though sold after only a few years, can provide the right setting to create a sense of emotional well-being that can endure for years and smooth over the difficulties of new relationships.

Whenever financially feasible, Ms. Helfant urges that a blended family seek a home that allows each young person to have a bedroom of his or her own -- even if that young person is already away at college and only comes home on weekends, or is soon expected to move away.

"Where you reside when you merge families can have a lot of impact on emotional well-being and the ability of the family to unify and start out with a clean slate," she says.

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