A solid marriage is at the foundation of a successful stepfamily. In a stepfamily, however, bonds between a parent and child have preceded those of the marriage. Consequently, remarried couples need to make a special effort to care for their relationship. There are several things that pose challenges to the development of a successful remarriage.
Challenges Common to Many Remarried Couples
- Relationships with Ex-Spouses. The presence of a former spouse, and his or her occasional intrusion into the family, can create tension in the marriage. If the previous marriage was ended amid hate, anger, and resentment, these emotions can hinder the formation of a trusting new bond unless properly addressed. If an emotional attachment remains with the ex-spouse, this attachment will likely hinder progress of the new relationship.
- The Same Old Bad Habits. Individuals may carry into the new remarriage negative patterns of relating that led to the downfall of the previous relationship. For example, they may have had the habit of withdrawing from conflict rather than talking about an issue, which kept them from addressing and solving problems in the previous marriage. Unless such a problem is faced and fixed, it still has power to negatively affect the current marriage.
- Denial of Conflict. Remarried couples want to succeed at their marriage. Sometimes these desires are so intense that couples deny there are problems in their remarriage. They may have difficulty facing the possibility of problems and the potential of divorce in their remarriage. Unless they face the reality, couples may fail to address problems when they are manageable.
- Problems with In-Laws. The extended kin network provides a vital source of emotional and practical support to families of all kinds. However, in a stepfamily setting, if current and former in-laws have difficulty accepting the remarriage, they may undermine the new relationship by behaving in rejecting ways toward the new spouse. This may place increased strain on their marriage, especially if the couple values ongoing contact with the expanded family.
Additional Challenges for Remarried Couples with Children
- Instant Parent. For couples bringing children to the remarriage, parental responsibilities are immediate. Because the newly married couple is happy and hopeful about the new family, they often expect that everyone else should be too. While there may be much optimism, the new parental role can bring potential conflict in the family that can spill over into the marriage. For instance, if a stepfather exercises his parental authority too soon with his stepchildren, the biological parent may be caught in the middle between defending her new husband and protecting her own children. In addition, she may differ with the approach to parenting taken by the "instant" parent.
- No Opportunity to Build the Marriage Prior to Having Children. Since the couple has immediate parenting responsibilities, they lose the opportunity to build the foundation of a successful marriage independently of children. These parenting demands occupy a lot of attention in a stepfamily, and if remarried couples are not wise, private time important for the vitality of their relationship will slip away.
- Intrusion of the Nonresidential Parent. The nonresidential parent may resent the stepparent and may do things which sabotage the new relationship. For example, a nonresidential father may choose to withhold child support payments. In response, the stepfather may pressure his wife to restrict visitation. Unpleasant conflicts such as these may place additional strain on the marriage.
- Pre-existing Parent-Child Relationships. Parent-child bonds precede the new marriage. These bonds may be drawn so tightly that they may resist the entry of a new stepparent. A stepparent may feel like an outsider and develop resentment that in turn negatively affects the marriage.
- Stepparent-Stepchild Relationships. The stepparent role is often a most difficult one. Not only must stepparents watch themselves with their new step-offspring, they must also operate toward the stepchildren in ways that please their new spouse. Conflicts over discipline can spell trouble for remarriages.
- Finances. Although financial difficulties arise in remarriages without children, they can be especially challenging when children are involved. And it's not over how much as often as over for whom the money should be spent. For example, a husband may have a dual responsibility of providing for his biological children from a previous marriage as well as meeting the financial needs of his stepchildren. Negotiating how much goes to whom can create conflict. Resentments can arise when one family sees money they need or could use going to another family.
Building a Solid Couple Bond
It takes a lot of time and energy to make the stepfamily household run smoothly. In the process, remarried couples may place their own relationship on the back burner. Here are some suggestions for helping to build a strong couple bond.
- Accept the couple relationship as the primary long-term relationship. Realize that for the good of the marriage, the children, and the stepfamily unit, no relationship takes precedence over your marriage relationship. It is the couple relationship that helps the household run smoothly.
- Take time to work on any problem areas. Problem areas might include conflict, bad habits carried over from the previous marriage, or poor communication skills. Keep the ex-spouse from interfering with your marriage or family relationships. If problems are more challenging than you can handle on your own, get help. Take a marriage enrichment program or seek counseling from a competent and trusted professional.
- Plan time to be alone together. Couples who grow together make time for their relationship. Spend time to learn one thing about your spouse's life that day, have a stress-reducing conversation at the end of each workday, do something every day to show genuine affection and appreciation, and have a weekly date. During special fun times together, make it a point not to discuss family matters. Just focus on the two of you.
- Decide on general household rules together. For example, hold a family council and decide as a family who does what household chores. Invite the participation of all family members, but the couple should maintain final authority.
- Support one another with the children. Allow your spouse to discipline children without interference. If you do disagree about how a situation was handled, take that matter up together privately. Don't disagree in front of the children on disciplinary matters but present a united front.
- Expect and accept different parent-child, stepparent-stepchild relationships . For example, a stepparent should not feel offended or left out if a stepchild prefers to seek the advice of his or her biological parent on an important matter. Different levels of comfort and depth of involvement in relationships are normal. Of course, certain things like being respectful to one parent or child and rude to others are not to be accepted.
- Work out financial matters together. Whether you use a common-pot, two-pot, or even three-pot financial arrangement, make sure you decide these issues as a couple. Neither spouse should follow an independent course of action. Work out a financial arrangement that you both feel good about. For more information on dealing with financial issues in stepfamilies, check out the book by Patricia Estess titled "Money Advice for your Successful Remarriage."
Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Fitzpatrick, J., Williamson, S., Duncan, S. F., & Smith, T. (1989). The remarried family: Meeting the challenge (Publications 607A-H). Auburn, AL: Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.
- Visher, J. S., & Visher, E, B. (1999). How to win as a stepfamily. New York: Routledge.