Stepfamilies: Difficult Issues in Blending Families

Less than a year into a remarriage, Mark and Beth are seeing a marriage and family therapist to save their marriage. Both were married and divorced previously, but had high hopes that the remarriage would be better. Mark was married for 10 years and had two children who are in the custody of their mother but visit him every other weekend. Beth was married for seven years and has custody of an eight year-old daughter, Mary, who lives with them.

After a brief whirlwind romance and a short engagement period, they got married but things soon began to go sour. For one thing, Mark resented not being able to have his children in the home and having to be the stepfather to Mary, who dislikes him and refuses to accept his parenting. Beth resents Mark’s contact with his former wife and believes that she still loves Mark. Mark thinks that this is absurd and that he helps his former wife only for the sake of his children. He feels guilty for not being more present in their lives. Mark moved out of the home with Beth before therapy began and has since moved back. Both say they feel committed to each other, but see too many problems.

Like most couples who remarry, the process of forming the relationship varied from the first time around for Mark and Beth. This time there were children and former spouses to deal with. The courtship in remarriage is usually short, intense, and lacking enough couple time to determine if persons are really compatible.

The short courtship period is related to the presence of children. Divorced women who have custody of dependent children may feel a strong need to find a partner to help financially and in rearing children. Also age is a factor in remarriage in that older women are less likely to remarried, further increasing the probability of quick remarriages.

Some noted characteristics of stepfamilies include:
• Not all persons in the home are biologically related. Persons who are biologically related may form coalitions that exclude non-biological persons.
• Developing a cohesive family is problematic. Persons frequently feel alienated.
• Children feel displaced when a parent remarries. Children may not feel as important to their natural parent and become resistive to authority or begin to act out in other ways, such as fail in school. Research indicates that the risk factor for children of divorce and remarriage having behavioral, social, psychological, or academic problems is about 25% compared to 10% for children of intact families.
• Some persons in remarriages feel traumatized by divorce and conflicts in the first marriage which carry-over into the remarriage.
• Stepparents have little authority to parent stepchildren. Stepparents are not “real” parents, but unfortunately society does not provide them with help in how to be an involved “non-parent.”
• A good couple relationship in remarriage does not necessarily mean that children are happy and well-adjusted. Many people who get remarried begin with the idea that “I married her and not her child” but find that this is not enough to sustain the relationship.
• Children may have split loyalties between biological parents and stepparents. They may feel that becoming close to a stepparent is disloyal to their natural parent.
• Stepfamilies experience financial difficulties. Many money problems result from obligations left over from the first marriage. Child support payments to children of first families can drastically reduce available financial resources for the stepfamily.
• If former spouses have not resolved their issues or fight through messy custody battles, visitation rights, etc, they only perpetuate the conflicts of the first marriage and cause irreparable damage to their children and the remarriage.

Mark and Beth must begin a long and hard road to blend two families and create a supportive stepfamily. They have tried to blend their families too quickly. Researchers have found that it takes between four and seven years to establish a supportive stepfamily. Like many stepfamilies, Mark and Beth have tried to blend their families as quickly as possible resulting in children feeling angry and displaced and everyone disappointed and disillusioned. Such children are much more likely in adolescence to become disengaged from their families, resulting in a high risk for anti-social behavior.

Another problem faced by stepfamilies is that there is no ideal way for addressing the issues raised in stepfamilies. Stepfamilies are different from nuclear families which consist of two natural parents and their children. There is no blueprint of prescribed roles available for them to follow. Roles are assumed “instantly” at remarriage rather than taking years to evolve as in nuclear families.

Below are some ideas to help stepfamilies like Mark and Beth.
• Write a “stepfamily agreement” before remarriage. Previously married persons contemplating remarriage should think through all of the issues related to their marriage, talk them out, and write down their agreements about them. Persons do not simply resolve their issues because they are “in love.” This stepfamily agreement should include how you will parent and stepparent children, the type and frequency of contact with former spouses, etc.
• Decide about financial considerations before remarriage. Will the money be pooled or will there be “two pots?” How much money will be going out for the first family for child support?
• Resolve issues from the first marriage before remarrying. Remarriages have higher divorce rates than first marriages because of the added pressures and baggage from previous relationships.
• The first allegiance should be to one’s children. If they do not like the potential stepfather/mother, a remarriage should be delayed until these issues are worked out. If they cannot be resolved, it’s probably better for everyone for this remarriage not to take place.
• Build a strong marital bond in the remarriage. Generally spouses build a relationship before children are born and have several years for this bond to take place. Remarriage happen after children are present and building a strong bond will take much effort and time. Having time alone is extremely important.

About Dr. Roberts

Dr. Roberts has worked for the past 25 years in the field of Child and Family Development. He has a PhD in Child and Family Development with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. He also has an EdS degree in Counseling and the MDiv degree in Theology. He directed the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Appalachian State University, Chaired the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Long Beach State, and chaired the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Dr. Roberts is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Georgia and had his own practice before starting his long career in higher education. Dr. Roberts also holds the title of Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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