16 15. Remarriage and Stepfamilies

Learning Outcomes:

At the end of this chapter you will be able to do the following:

  • Define stepfamily, remarriage, enmeshed and other terminology related to remarriage and stepfamilies.
  • Discuss the complexity of stepfamilies.
  • Recall strategies for successful stepfamilies.
  • Discuss dating after divorce. 

In December 2008, there were just over two million marriages and one million divorces in the U.S.1 There are many society-wide trends that undergird these marriage and divorce statistics. First, there is an 86% probability for women and 81% for men that they will marry by age 40;2 second, about 48.8% of women and 50% of men had cohabited to some degree in the past;3 third, only about 27% of women and 33% of men married have never cohabited or been married before-this means they married for the first time with no cohabitation history;4 fourth, 38.5% of all U.S. births are to unwed mothers;5 fifth, there is a pattern of marrying, divorcing, and remarrying and even divorcing a second time;6 and sixth, a 2001 study found that 70% of currently married couples had the husband and wife both being in their first marriage-this means 30% were in a second, third, or greater marriage.7

Thus, most people in the U.S. will marry, some for the first time, some who’ve been married or cohabiting, and some who’ve parented a baby out of wedlock. Many of those married persons will divorce at a future date. Many of those divorced persons will remarry (half to three-fourths). Some of those remarried persons will divorce (a second divorce). Some of those second divorced persons will remarry, etc. The U.S. is drawn to marriage, yet does not always get it right the first time. This simple statistically-based principle, “your current marriage has the best odds of NOT ending in divorce and becoming a source of joy and strength for you” is worth remembering. Those odds of success are highest in the first marriage, second highest in the second marriage, and so on.

GETTING BACK INTO THE DATING MARKET

Some couples do divorce then remarry each other, but this is rare. Remarriage after divorce is much more likely to occur if the divorcees are in their 20s. The odds of remarriage decline in the 30s, 40s, 50s, etc. Remarriage typically occurs sooner for the man than the woman. When a newly divorced woman or man finds themselves on the market, they often feel inept. Many express concern in lacking the courting skills required to meet someone new or initiate new relationships. For the most part, they are right. They, like most married people mentally leave the marriage-courting market and avail themselves to the business of being married and parents. Their sudden reentry into the dating scene is typically unexpected and intimidating. Men tend to move more quickly into the dating arena, seeking for social and emotional connection from their new-found friends. Women are typically more socially and emotionally connected while married, so after the divorce they tend to have more friends and more ongoing family relationships.

A study of elderly divorced men and women contrasted their current state in terms of financial and social-emotional well being. By far, men were better off financially and women were better off in social and emotional areas of their lives.8 This tends to be true in most cases for young and old alike. Men rarely get custody of the children after divorce. If his ex-wife is awarded an average child support and alimony, he still experiences an increase in his standard of living after divorce and he has the freedom from child rearing (which is not very healthy for the children).

For example, let’s say he earned $48,000 per year and had three children. That would mean that $48,000 divided by five family members equals a pre-divorce standard of living of $9,600 per family member. Let’s say she was awarded a hefty $12,000 per year in child support and alimony. Because she now has the children their standard of living drops to $3,000 per year per family member. His post-divorce standard of living skyrockets to $36,000 for himself. If he does the honorable thing and pays his financial obligations, then his ex-wife qualifies for welfare and he can live with relative financial freedom. That pattern, even though the details vary, is extremely common among today’s divorcees-she has the children and poverty and he has the freedom and finances.

This, in part, explains why he is more likely to start dating sooner than her, and eventually why he remarries sooner than her. When formerly married individuals enter the dating and marriage market they experience similar fears and anxieties that never married daters feel. But, there is a significant difference in what they bring to the marriage market place. Each has a history of a long-term sexual, social, emotional, and co-existing relationship. Add to that the issues that contributed to the marital breakup, and you are looking at a complex dating experience with divorcees experiencing the date while carrying a vast store of positive and negative memories and experiences into the date. One might expect that remarriage courtships would take longer than never married courtships from first date to marriage. The opposite has been found to be true. Most remarries court for less time before they remarried. It is believed that they are more aware of themselves, of how intimate relationships work, and of what they need at the moment than never marrieds. It’s even more complicated than that.

When someone is on the marriage market they do look for homogamous mates (persons of similar tastes and backgrounds). They also look for those they are compatible with and for those who survive the filtering process (elimination of undesirables from the marriage pool). But, remarriers filter with a specific and unique filter in comparison to never marrieds. They look for someone who is not the same person they just divorced. They especially try to find someone who they perceive will do for them what their ex could not or would not do. Like all persons on the marriage market, remarriers look to maximize their rewards while minimizing their losses or costs (Social Exchange Theory). Figure 5 shows a diagram of some of these rewards and costs, which remarriers would typically consider while on the market. Notice on the top of the diagram that men tend to have more rewards when they come to the marriage market than do women. Add to that the absence of children and you can see, in part, why men remarry sooner than women.

The “rewards” lists some of the desirable traits sought out by men and women alike. Some of these are emphasized more by potential mates than others. Financial security is a major draw for potential mates. Adequacy, comfort, and luxury are examples of desirable levels of financial security. For decades Sociologists have taught the principle of relative deprivation. Relative deprivation is the perception of advantage or disadvantage that comes from our own personal experiences in comparison to others. This means, we compare our current circumstances to the circumstances of others based on our past experiences. When divorced with three children, a single mother may find a potential mate attractive if he can simply relieve some of her financial burden. If divorced with three children and middle class, a single mother may find a potential mate attractive if he can maintain the middle class status. Finally, a wealthy divorcee may seek someone to provide luxury.

image

 Figure 5. The Rewards and Costs Considered by Men and Women in the Remarriage Marketplace.

In understanding expectations on finances or any other desirable trait in a remarriage partner, it is crucial to consider the issue of “perceived advantage or disadvantage.” Not only do remarrieds (and everyone else) consider their current rewards in contrast to past experiences, but they do so subjectively. In other words, emotions play into the formula, which modify the maximize rewards and minimize costs decision-making process. Also, some may ignore money altogether if they feel a stronger need for companionship or trustworthiness. Married couples have sex about three times per week. After divorce it drops dramatically for both ex-spouses. Sex and the intimacy that often comes with it motivate both men and women to seek out another mate. Loneliness is a big issue for divorcees. Men quickly find dating partners and are capable of attaining intimacy through dating. Women have the company of children and other family and friends that were in place before the divorce. But, those relationships may not fulfill the social and emotional needs that can be found in a spouse or intimate partner.

As simple as it may sound, if a desirable partner is available, then he or she is more appealing. Someone not in a deep relationship or engaged is immediately available for interaction and potential relationship building. Many seek another partner to distract them from their divorce pain and grief. There is nothing innately wrong about this. Healthy dating and associations can be part of the healing process. But marrying too soon, during the still-in-recovery state of mind, can be detrimental because once the injured partner heals, they may discover that they were not a good match after all. Divorce risks are higher in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th marriages than they are in first marriages. You’ve probably heard about “rebound relationships or marriages.” Marrying on the rebound is considered to be premature and unwise.

Friendship and love are essential needs all people have. Adjusting to the absences of friendship and love, even if your children are with you, is a difficult task for many. Adults often need adult friendship and love. For single mothers with custody (and the few single fathers who have custody), seeking out a co-parent who can live in the home with the family is a major reward. The single parent wants the children to have two parents influencing them and will often seek a mother or a father for the kids. For younger and older singles, children are an issue. Some younger divorcees don’t want to marry a single parent while others do. Typically, the presence of children in the divorced woman’s care will lower the odds of her remarriage.

Children over the age of 18 are not as strong a deterrent as are the younger ones. The stepfather or stepmother only commits to be a consultant to an adult stepchild rather than a day-to-day caregiver. If a single mother receives alimony or child support, the financial burden that might come with the remarriage are perceived as being lighter. Often a man must balance the financial costs as well as the social and emotional costs associated with marrying a single mother.

Physical attractiveness is important to many who remarry. It may weigh into the formula for some more than others. Divorced men, like never married men, consider physical attractiveness when choosing another mate. It is weighed, though in comparison to the other attributes which are important, given their past marital problems and issues. When we marry it helps to have complimentary needs. In other words, if she needs to be cared for and he needs to take care of someone, their needs complement one another. Not all needs are complimentary, and no one can fulfill all of their spouse’s needs all the time. This is true in all relationships. In remarriages, the spouses use the concept of equity in assessing their rewards. Equity is the overall sense of getting a good deal (or a bad one) when considering all the perceived rewards and costs of a relationship.

To an outsider, a couple may appear to be experiencing an imbalance in give and take. Fortunately, a relationship only has to feel fair to the individual spouses. A remarried woman, who wanted her ex to spend more time with the children, may find it more valuable when her current husband does so and may weigh that as being more important than other contributions. Equity is subjective and changes as new needs arise or new circumstances emerge that families have to accommodate. Being educated, especially college educated means more income and more desirable traits in a potential mate. College graduates have developed a sense of delayed gratification, have less traditional (and more diverse) family role expectations, and have many other resources to bring to the relationship in comparison to high school graduates. Owning a home as opposed to renting an apartment is an important reward.

A home provides privacy, income benefits, and a clear boundary, which can all serve to aid the development of the remarriage and new family system. Finding a healthy mate is also subjectively defined. In the later years, elderly women almost always have to consider the current and near future health of a potential mate. Younger people consider health as well, but not with the same intensity as older daters who have to take into account future caregiving issues. The “right age” for a person to find a new mate is the one that works best for him or her, given their current needs. Sometimes twenty-something mothers will marry thirty-something fathers for stability and continuity. Other times a younger spouse may be more appealing for a variety of reasons. Some seek out the wealthy, famous, popular, or well-known as a new mate and these desires drive their filters. Finally, some simply have a void where the lost marriage or intimate relationship once resided. They may seek to find someone quickly if they perceive that the presence of a spouse or partner will fill that void.

When considering costs, keep in mind that women typically leave a marriage with more costs or losses which on the singles scene inhibit her finding a new mate with the same ease as do divorced men. She often has custody. Younger children cost money, need supervision and nurturing, and tire their mother such that she has less energy to be a companion and friend. There is no difference in divorced men and women in terms of health issues. But, divorce is considered to be an extreme stressor.11 Divorced persons most likely suffer health declines from the stresses that came with the divorce. But some may have long-term or chronic health issues that, when considered in the overall formula, are costs and not rewards.

Single mothers often report high levels of stress, fatigue, and having people around, but still feeling lonely. Over time this may lead to health issues. If a single mother (or father) must pay court-ordered payments each month, then this is a financial cost or loss. Men are much more likely to be ordered to pay child support or alimony. To a potential wife this goes in the loss category. Many divorcees carry unresolved issues for years at the emotional, psychological, spiritual, and even intellectual levels. When the divorce has not settled in at all of these levels, they often have unresolved issues and may have some emotional scars.12

Ex-partners can sometimes be dangerous to their ex and his/her new partner. Annoying phone calls, arguments, mean or threatening letters, property damage, and even threats of harm are launched from ex-spouses to new wives or husbands. In most cases, these are not criminal in nature. Children are sometimes used as battering rams against the ex. They are mistreated, misinformed, or neglected in an attempt to seek vengeance. Entering a new relationship where entanglements from the ex are not present is more rewarding. Poor and uneducated men and women offer less financial and intellectual input to a new marriage. This may not matter to some, but single mothers often place this as a high priority. If a potential mate has many children, cares for a dependent family member or friend, or has a severely ill child she or he may appear to be very unappealing.

Caregiving is common, but it is rarely desired by potential mates. Most caregiving is given by women. Few would willingly take on a caregiving role out of altruistic intentions. Some may take it on if other rewards appeared to compensate creating an overall sense of equity. A desperate or overly needy person enters the relationship with a disadvantage in terms of leverage for negotiating with another spouse. Being needy or desperate may increase the odds of ending up with an insensitive or abusive partner or spouse.

Another issue common to finding a mate is the one of propinquity (sharing geographic closeness and meeting in the same geographic area). The Internet has change the issue of propinquity by allowing people to interact electronically through social and dating sites that help in the filtering process. These sites can eliminate unwanted dates and yield a more desirable pool of potential mates (at least that’s what they promise).

One 2009 ranking reported that Match.com and eHarmony had 20 million subscribers; Yahoo Personals had 9 million, and chemistry.com and Perfectmatch.com each had 4 million.13 In fact, online dating is projected to increase between 2007-2012 with revenues topping $1.9 billion by 2012.14

Sautter et al. (2010) reported that Internet dating is more common among computer-savvy and already socially networked daters.15 Chih-Chien et al. (2010) also reported three categories of online daters based on their motivations. First were the adventurers who thrive in the anonymity provided by the Internet which shields them from elimination through traditional social norms. Adventurers seek communication, curiosity, and even emotional support as they seek to meet new people.

Escapers to a virtual world were the second category. Escapers find the real world too harsh and relax in the relatively anxiety-free cyber world. Third and finally were the Romantics who sincerely seek for love, friendship, and sex. Sex is not the major motivation, but is a common motivation for some Internet daters.16

COMPLEXITIES OF STEPFAMILIES

Remarriage is the legal union of a man and woman that follows the dissolution of a previous marriage for one or both spouses. Stepfamilies are formed when children from another marriage or relationship are brought into a family through a new marriage. Stepfamilies can form in any of the following ways, a wife or husband was married before, a wife or husband cohabited before, a wife or husband was a single parent before and a child from that previous relationship becomes a step-son or step-daughter. Step-children can be of any age. When a former emotionally or legally significant relationship existed for a current spouse it creates a bi-nuclear family, or a family with two core adult relationships formed around the original adults who are no longer together (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 shows the relationship between Husband 1 (H1) and Wife 1 (W1) who were married for 3 years then divorced. They had a daughter together, Marie. Husband 1 then met Wife 2 (W2) who was a widow. They married. This made Wife 2 a step-mother to Marie then Husband 1 and Wife 2 had twins-a son (Sam) and daughter (Lisa) together. Husband 1 and Wife 2 now have a bi-nuclear family with a nucleus from the second marriage and one from Husband 1 and Wife 1’s first marriage. They form a stepfamily subsystem that includes Wife’s 1 & 2 and Husband’s 1 & 2 (even though Husband 2 is deceased, his position as Wife 2’s first husband is part of the complexity of the stepfamily 1 subsystem.

Wife 1 and her daughter Marie had a single parent subsystem for nearly a decade. The complexity of this system included Marie visiting her dad and step-mom and receiving child support payments from Husband 1. For the most part this relationship was functional and not very negative. When Marie turned 10, Wife 1 remarried to a divorced man, Husband 3. Husband 3’s former wife (W3) left him and wanted neither custody nor alimony. Wife 1 and Husband 3 formed stepfamily subsystem 2 which included Marie and Husband 1 to the extent that visitation and child support were concerned. Husband 3 and Wife 1 struggled financially for the first 3 years of their marriage, because of the loss of assets that came from Husband 1 and Wife 3’s divorce.

Within one year of their marriage, Wife 1 and Husband 3 developed deeply rooted financial issues with the ex-husband. Husband 3 was angry at Husband 1 and it placed emotional strain on Wife 1 and Husband 3’s relationship. Husband 1 refused to pay child support because he was certain that the money he gave for Marie was being spent on Mike, Jeff, and Bill. Husband 1 demanded receipts from Wife 1 and Husband 3. Of course this was not court ordered and was extremely impractical. It gave Husband 1 too much influence in Wife 1 and Husband 3’s marriage. Then Husband 1’s parents wanted to see Marie and Husband 3 refused them as retaliation for the financial mess. Lawsuits were threatened. Things only got worse after that. Welcome to the world of the bi-nuclear family complexity. Stepfamilies are perhaps the most complicated family systems in existence.

In February 2008, the Census Bureau gave a report of the living arrangements of children in the U.S.18. The highlights of the report read: In 2004, 73.2 million children under age 18 lived in American households. The majority of these children (70%) lived with two parents. Most (87%) of the children who lived with two parents lived with their biological mother and father. Twenty-six percent of all children (19.3 million) lived with one parent. The majority (88%) of these children lived with their mother.

Based on these survey results, 5.5 million children (7.6%) were living with at least one step-parent in 2005. The same figure was only 6.9% in 1996 and seven percent in 2001. By racial category the 2004 data broke down to eight percent of White, six percent of Black, 2.5% of Asian, and seven percent of Hispanic children.19 The same report showed that fathers were twice as likely to live with a step-child as was a mother.20

Figure 1. Diagram of Stepfamilies and Other Family Subsystems.21

image

When relationships have crossed more than one social arrangement over time (such as more than one marriage, cohabitation, or common-law arrangement), the social and emotional complexity of the family systems increases as does the need for stronger boundary maintenance. Figure 2 shows a diagram of the types of relationships and the demands of complexity and boundaries associated with them. A married couple with children have relatively low levels of social and emotional complexity in contrast to all the other categories presented here. Good boundaries are healthy in families. The phrase, “Good fences make great neighbors” testifies to the need and benefit from healthy boundaries. In the nuclear family, good boundaries are like good fences to protect the immediate family and to keep out all others as deemed appropriate.

In a nuclear family there must be healthy sexual boundaries (only between the spouse or partners), healthy parenting boundaries (the parents care for, nurture, and provide structure to the dependent children), healthy financial boundaries (the parents raise the children teaching them to work and become more independent over time), healthy emotional boundaries (family member respect the privacy of the parents and children and protect all from intrusions of other family and friends), healthy social boundaries (friends and family have their place which is not as intimate as the closeness experienced by immediate family members), healthy physical boundaries (immediate family members have their own rooms, bathroom access, locks on doors and windows, and private space), and healthy safety boundaries (where the family is guarded by the older immediate family members from outside threats and harm).

Figure 2. Diagram of Stepfamilies and Other Family Subsystems with Comparisons for Social and Emotional Complexity and Need for Stronger Boundaries.

image

Remarried couples (regardless of prior marriage or cohabitation) who have no children also have much less complexity because the ex-spouse or partners can be out of sight and mind. They have no visitation disputes, child support, nor holiday complexities that come with remarried couples who do have children. While there may be alimony issues these are not as intricately connected since there is no co-parental vagueness that comes with joint custody or non-custodial conditions.

Widowed and divorced persons find that there are more boundary issues, especially if they become dependent on others for financial and social/emotional support. With dependence come vague boundaries. When children are involved for the single parent, other adult family and non-family members often step in to provide support and nurturance. This typically is not of concern when an intact couple heads the family and works together to maintain healthy boundaries. In some ways, adults stepping in to help children often step in to help the single parents in various ways.

Remarried couples with children from other relationships are more complex in comparison. The ex-spouse gets co-parental influence that can easily spill into the marriage boundary if not properly guarded. Remember the ex’s who were disputing in Figure 1 because the father didn’t want his child support to go to her new step-children? This is a common problem for the remarried couple. They share their money in a combined family fund. Her earnings and his earnings go into the same pot of money as does child support. Partitioning out the ex’s child support in such a way that the step-siblings are separated as belonging to “them and not us” can be very divisive.

Remarried schedules have to be broad and flexible. When a birthday comes up, the remarried couple may celebrate it then the ex-spouse and their family may celebrate it. Things do not always work out as planned, so both parties have to bend and flex as needed. Remarried couples with children from more than one intimate relationship experience all of the above plus added complexity and boundary demands. If Bill and Sue have a 14 year-old from Sue’s first marriage, a 10 year-old from her second marriage, and a 4 year-old from their marriage, plus a 17 year old from his cohabitation, and a 14 year old from his first marriage, then the complexities and need for stronger boundaries is even more intense.

With a remarried couple who have children from more than one other relationship that has legal entanglements with immediate, extended, and other family court-ordered rules of custody, visitation, and alimony, then things become scrutinizable. For example, if the court orders visitation every other weekend then records and details have to be kept showing the best faith effort of both parties to comply-it is after all, a court ordered process with legal ramification to all involved. In a perfect world people would always abide by the orders of the court. They would always make financial payments on time and visitations would always go as prescribed. Perfection is not reasonable in terms of expectations.

If you take any of the marriages below and add to that the issue of criminal charges or child protective orders, then the complexity and need for stronger boundaries can become extreme. Children have to be protected from criminals and once protective orders are issued, non-complying family members can be charged with crimes themselves. Under such extreme circumstances, visitation can be ordered under supervision such as a neutral third party supervisor. The stakes become intense because of the power the state has to hold the family accountable.

Figure 3 shows the family day-to-day activities and patterns experienced by a typical nuclear family. Nuclear families typically have complete control through the parents over the day-to-day patterns and activities. Parents, in cooperation with their children, set up meal times, vacations, and all the other arrangements and plans mentioned in the diagram. They rarely have input from other family members that would diffuse the control or cause a disruption in these activities and patterns. It is a very simple form of family in terms of planning and day-to-day family events.

Now, imagine the worst case scenario mentioned in Figure 2 where there was a remarried family with criminal and or legal issues pertaining to family members. The complexity of the day-to-day goings on would increase dramatically because the control is diffused between sets of parents (step-and their biological parent spouses). In other words, day-to-day interactions get fuzzy in every area because parental authority is spread over two sets of parents.

Figure 3. Diagram of Typical

image

Day-to-Day Life, Activities, and Patterns Experienced by a Typical U.S. Nuclear Family.

Figure 4 shows how complex the day-to-day activities of the family can become. The red arrows represent areas of day-to-day interaction that may be interfered with or confused by having two sets of parents in authority. For example, when step-father and biological mother allow the child to get a cell phone when she is only 11, but the step-mother and biological father feel that she is still too young and not mature enough to handle the responsibilities that come with having a cell phone. The more the parental authority is diffused, the less the parental continuity the child will have. If parents who have divorced and remarried other spouses don’t concur, then the child may suffer by not receiving the healthy limitations needed for their circumstances. The red arrows show how the court-ordered criminal or legal issues can interfere. Imagine also that a court has ordered protection or visitation rules that must be supervised and must be documented for children to visit a parent. Each ruling that may interfere has the potential to throw any family out of its “groove” or day-to-day routines.

As you may already know, the bonds of affection become strained in all types of families. It is very difficult in remarried families where unhealed hurts and boundary complexities persist. A model emerged in the late 1970s which identified family functioning on two intersecting dimensions: first, family cohesion is the degree to which family members have emotionally bonded to one another, the second is family adaptability, which is the degree to which a family can adjust to changes in family member’s roles and relationships22. The quality of communication comes into play for each family because communication either facilitates or inhibits cohesion and adaptability. The Circumflex Model is by far one of the most powerful family models ever developed for diagnosing, studying, and treating modern families. Healthy families tend to be average in regards to cohesion, adaptability, and quality communication. Olson defined a number of extremes that occur in families and there are a number of intervention strategies that therapists utilize to mediate these extremes during family therapy.

Figure 4. Diagram of Typical Day-to-Day Life, Activities, and Patterns Experienced by a Remarried U.S. Family where Criminal and/or Legal Issues are in Involved.

image

In Olson’s model, families could be either disengaged or enmeshed. Disengaged means the family is too chaotic (very loose rules and weak patterns of associating, or there is little family leadership) or rigid (very strict and structured patterns of associating, or there is too strict leadership). The family could also be too enmeshed. Enmeshed means the family members are overly entangled or over involved in the personal affairs of one another to the point that the changes experienced by one family member are experienced by other if not all family members. Enmeshment is an indication of weak interpersonal boundaries. Enmeshed people lean on others for their own identity-meaning their sense of self is based on being a sister, brother, parent, or friend rather than an individual. When we lean too heavily on family and friends for our own identity we often let their actions or behaviors determine our own. They make decisions we follow because it feels like the right thing to do. We simply have a difficult time saying no because we depend too much on the decisions of others in lieu of our own decision making processes.

Remarried families find themselves making very difficult adjustments that transpire uniquely in the remarried or stepfamily circumstances. The merging of previous family systems into a new system does NOT occur with the ease TV viewers found among the characters playing in the Brady Bunch Series. So, what might be the goals of a remarried couple as they form stepfamilies? Most likely the same goals shared by any first married couple, meet the needs of the spouses, children, and pets, have a secure home which functions as a safe haven from the stresses and trials of the outside world, enjoy life together with people closest to you, acquire and own assets that will ensure financial stability over the long-term, and raising dependent children into their adult roles in a successful manner, to mention a few.

STRATEGIES FOR STEPFAMILIES

What are strategies that are known to work in these stepfamilies? One core strategy is to recognize and deal with the events that brought all the stepfamily members together the way they did. Step-children and remarried parents likely have some grief that lingers from the divorce or death of another spouse or parent. Too many stepfamilies are emotionally battle-worn in a way that makes them want to disregard this grief and get the new families moving forward. Of course this is ill-advised. There are numerous studies, self-help books, and even Websites designed to help the remarried couple deal with the grief and transitions.23

Eventually addressing grief, loss, and heartache is the best approach. Feeling grief for a loss does not undermine the current family system. In fact, if it’s within the current stepfamily that the healing takes place, it can often strengthen the newly formed family as the sense of cohesion grows.

Many stepmothers over expect what they can do for their new stepchildren and family. They try and try not to be the “evil stepmother.” Some of the best/worst villains in stories are stepmothers, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and others. Stepmothers are notorious for not treating the stepchildren with the same affection and loyalty as they do their own children. Some argue that stepmothers are doomed by virtue of the stereotypes and family disadvantages. The antidote for this is for new stepmothers to enter their role with a few strategies. First, be realistic in your hopes and dreams. It is not uncommon for stepchildren to grow to love their stepmothers, but typically not as much as they love their own biological mother. So, perhaps expecting to have a good friendship where love may emerge after years of working at the relationship is a better approach.

Second, go slow. Resist the temptation to want to hurry things up and get them resolved so that they will be taken care of and out of the way. Healing, developing cohesion, and building flexibility and adaptation takes time if it is to become permanent.

Third, set short-term goals that are more easily attained. For example, you might set a goal to go on at least one family outing per month over the next two years as opposed to wanting to hold a family reunion were strong bonds are expected as though you’d all be close family members forever.

Fourth, learn and know your own limits as a wife and mother/stepmother. The Superman and Superwoman mythology makes for great movies and comic book stories, but they are not real. Your limitations can be used as a healthy boundary for what you are capable and willing to do as a mother and stepmother. For example, you may find that you can’t help all the children with their homework (especially if there are many of them). Sometimes older children can be convinced to help the younger ones. Again, this has the potential to establish support patterns that reach across family and stepfamily systems.

Fifth, treat all the children with the same healthy standard of care. Children need to feel safe and protected. They want to feel loved and sometimes it is enough to let them know that you are sincerely interested in their well-being. Love may follow your care giving efforts in due time. All children want to have a confidant, someone to share their worries with, or a source of unconditional acceptance. Let children give input and search for consensus in matters of choice such as which restaurant to dine at or which vacation spot to visit. Finally, children need and though they may not know it, want boundaries. Show them you care by setting healthy limits, rules, and restrictions that both spouses agree upon and can uphold together.

It is important for stepparents to avoid getting caught up in the structure of their family. In other words, it is not the fact that you are a combination of his, hers, theirs, or whatever. It’s much more important to focus on how the family systems functions, ensuring that the criteria mentioned above are in place and working well. It also means that when adjustments are needed that the system allows for adaptation and accommodation. If the family is functional, adaptable, and increasingly cohesive then it has a solid base of resistance to acute and normative stressors.

One lesson learned by public educators that can be applied to stepfamilies is transparency. When assigning chores, make the process coming to those assignments clear to all. This means they’d better be fair to all. When it comes to discipline do the same and make sure the discipline is fair and predictable. When or if biased processes are discovered, correct them openly for all children to see.

William J. Doherty published a book on family rituals in 1999.24 In it he framed family rituals as “intentional” efforts designed to build and connect the family members into a more cohesive group. He urged the smaller daily rituals that slowly but surely reinforce the strengthening cohesion. In the formative months and years of the stepfamily, rituals play an important role in building family cohesion. This is why it is important to travel together, eat out, celebrate birthdays and holidays, and spend time exploring activities and events that work well for most of the family. For some, family reunions become a hit and are continued for as long as they continue to be desirable. Over time, if certain family members miss a reunion or decide to no longer attend, then it’s totally acceptable to hold them for those who desire to be a part of the tradition.

It is common to have unresolved issues from past marriages and family systems which inhibit current efforts to maintain stepfamily cohesion. In this case, if an adult son or daughter and their family disaffiliate, it is wise to continue gathering. It is a myth that a stepfamily (or any family) can only be as happy as the least happy member. The weakest link in the family chain should not set the tone for the entire family system’s bond and friendship. Make such matters the focus of family discussion while together. Allow members to express their honest feelings. Make sure and share your own in return. There is a really good chance that some will like most gatherings while a few may dislike them.

Bobby McFerrin sang a song that can also provide a theme for stepfamily formation “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” (1988). At times, stepparents feel compelled to work out the finest degree of family troubles in stepfamilies and may become overly occupied in this regard. Perhaps, they sense the vulnerability the stepfamily faces from the complexity involved. Most family members enjoy rewarding and positive interactions. Be careful to keep the “happy” in the process of building the family system.

Couples who unite in both verbal and written forms of expression often find themselves leading the family in a more united manner. Consider starting each New Year with a family plan. Include in it five goals for the family that can be met by December 31st. Also include one word that might be the buzzword for these goals. For example, in a family that enjoys meals and food, they might set goals to eat five dinners out of seven together each week, eat out once per month, have a sharing time during the meal where a family member shares a best or worst for the day, have friends over for dinner at least once per month, and finally, eat out at a very unusual restaurant while on the family vacation. The buzzword might simply be “dinner,” “chow time,” or “table.” It would be a word that is central to the goals of the family.

SEXUAL BOUNDARIES

One other adjustment needs to be mentioned. Stepfamilies need strong boundaries. When the stepsiblings are young, sexual exploration or interactions may occur. It is both negligent and criminal to ignore these or fail to intervene. When a child has been sexually molested, he or she may be reactive. Sexual reactivity is a propensity among children to act in sexual ways as a result of having been sexually abused. They learn sexual ways from the abuse yet may or may not know that these sexual ways are inappropriate. Many sexually abused children will act out with children younger than themselves. Some may act out regardless of age difference or even role differences, meaning they may act out with adults or other children. Stepfamilies must intervene and do whatever is required to mediate sexual reactivity.

Local clinics and mental health providers may prove to be a valuable resource. If a crime is unreported, it may well need to be. This is the problem inherent to family sexual abuses-secrets. Stepfamilies must have clear sexual boundaries, especially since the biological factor or blood relative factor is not present, meaning the common resistance to sexual activity among blood-related family members is not there among nonblood-related stepsiblings. Focus on privacy, modesty, dignity, respect for self and others, and have very candid private and family discussions that bring secrets into the open and take the mystery out of sex.

Stepfamilies can be, and typically are, happy families. But, rarely does that happiness arrive without concerted efforts to make it a happy family. Strength comes in the persistent struggle against the forces of complexity, ambiguity, and missing family history. Even though couples give an amazing effort to create a functional stepfamily system, many stepchildren leave home with unresolved issues with either the parent or stepparent. If this happens to you, then so what? In the long-term it is the husband and wife who will spend their entire lives together, not the parents and children. If children are younger than 18 and living with a parent and step-parent, then do your best to meet their needs. Invite them to take joint responsibility for their happiness and the family’s cohesion. Facilitate entertainment, positive memories, and rituals. If at the end of the day, your 18 year-old child or stepchild leaves home with issues of having been raised in a stepfamily, then accept your best effort, be happy as a couple, and move forward with your lives together.

  1. retrieved 29 April, 2010 from Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths: Provisional Data for 2008 http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr57/nvsr57_19.pdf
  2. retrieved 29 April, 2010 “Marriage and Cohabitation in the United States:…Cycle 6 of the National Survey of Family Growth,” published in 2002 reported key findings about marriage trends in the US from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db19.htm#marital
  3. retrieved 29 April, 2010 from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_028.pdf
  4. retrieved 29 April, 2010 from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_028.pdf
  5. retrieved 29 April, 2010 from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/unmarry.htm
  6. retrieved 29 April, 2010 from First Marriage Dissolution, Divorce, and Remarriage: United States Matthew D. Bramlett, Ph.D., and William D. Mosher, Ph.D., Division of Vital Statistics No. 323, May 31, 2001 http://www.cdc.go/nchs/data/ad/ad323.pdf
  7. retrieved 29 April, 2010 from Survey of Income and Program participation Wave 2 as reported at http://www.census.gov/prod/2005pubs/p70-97.pdf
  8. see Hammond and Muller, 1992, “The Later-life divorce, another look.” J. of Divorce and Remarriage, 17. _ 135-50; and Hammond et al, 2008 “Resource variations and marital status among later-life elderly,” J. of Applied and Clinical Sociology, Vol 2, No 1, Spring 47-60
  9. See Holmes and Rahe, Stress Scale
  10. See Paul Bohannon’s levels of divorce
  11. Retrieved 13 May, 2010 from http://www.consumer-rankings.com/Dating/?c=4&e=r&ch=1&ad=3773827780&sc=search&kw=online%20dating&ag =1339548640&cr=14362201 gclid=COGJlt_dz6ECFQxZbAodxkyMKQ
  12. Retrieved 13 May, 2010 from http://dating.about.com/od/datingresearch/qt/datinggrowth.htm
  13. The Social Demography of Internet Dating in the United States.Citation Only Available By: Sautter, Jessica M.; Tippett, Rebecca M.; Morgan, S. Philip. Social Science Quarterly (Blackwell Publishing Limited), Jun2010, Vol. 91 Issue 2, p554-575, 22p; DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2010.00707.x
  14. Wang, C-C. & Chang, Y-T. (2010). Cyber relationship motives: Scale development and validation.
  15. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 38(3), 289-300.
  16. retrieved 3 May, 2010 from Living Arrangements of Children: 2004 taken from the SIPP survey http://www.census.gov/prod/2008pubs/p70-114.pdf
  17. retrieved 3 May, 2010 from Living Arrangements of Children: 2004 taken from the SIPP survey http://www.census.gov/prod/2008pubs/p70-114.pdf, Table 1. Children by Presence and Type of Parent(s) and Race and Hispanic Origin: 2004
  18. retrieved 3 May, 2010 from Living Arrangements of Children: 2004 taken from the SIPP survey http://www.census.gov/prod/2008pubs/p70-114.pdf, Table 3
  19. © 2010 Ron J. Hammond
  20. See Olson, D. H. (1976). Bridging research theory and application: The triple threat in science. In D. H. Olson (8d..), Treating Relationships. Lake Mills, IA: Graphic and Olson, D. H. (1986). Circumplex model VII: Validation studies and FACES III. Family Process2, 5, 337-351.)
  21. see http://www.stepfamily.org/ or http://www.stepfamilies.info/ or http://www.stepfamily.net/ or http://www.thestepfamilylife.com/).
  22. Quill Publishing, ISBN 0-380-73205-x

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Marriage, Intimate Relationships and Families by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book