Getting Remarried with Children: Effective Pre-Stepfamily Counseling
by Ron L. Deal, LMFT, LPC
(Accepted for publication in Marriage & Family: Marriage & Family: A Christian Journal, Volume 6, Issue 4, 2003, pp. 481-491. Used under author rights.)
Nearly one-third of US weddings today give birth to a stepfamily. By the year 2010 there will be more stepfamilies in America than any other type of family and it is predicted that one-half of Americans will have a steprelationship at some point in their lifetime (Larson, 1992). Yet, despite the prevalence of remarried couples and the unique struggles they face, counseling for pre-stepfamily couples is generally conducted in the same way as for those entering a first marriage. This article asserts that adequate pre-remarital counseling must be different in content and practice in order for it to prepare couples for the realities of stepfamily life.
Helping couples have a successful marriage begins before the wedding. Premarital counseling continues to be a regular part of ministry in most churches and Christian counseling centers in America. Additionally, marriage preparation courses and resources appear increasingly popular among couples considering marriage. Stahmann and Hiebert (1997) suggest that one purpose of premarital counseling is to help couples critically analyze their relationship so as to carefully discern whether marriage, and/or the timing of a planned marriage, is best. But premarital counseling or a premarital course that doesn’t require couples to ask difficult questions about the realistic challenges ahead will inadvertently give couples a false confidence about their marital future.
Nearly one-half of weddings in America today (46%) are remarriages for one or both of the individuals, but may not include children (Stahmann & Hiebert, 1997); 30% of weddings include children from previous relationships thus forming a stepfamily. Pre-stepfamily couples need careful guidance and instruction in stepfamily development and integration. It seems, however, that most pre-remarital counseling does very little either to address the complexities of stepfamily living or to equip couples with the skills and knowledge they need to navigate those complexities. In so doing, couples enter remarriage with a false confidence about their future. This paper asserts that pre-remarital counseling must be qualitatively different in content and practice from premarital (first marriage) counseling in order to aid a couple’s marital adjustment and long-term marital quality. (Throughout this paper, the terms pre-remarital and pre-stepfamily counseling will be used interchangeably even though not all remarital couples form stepfamilies.)
Pre-Stepfamily Couple Counseling
Elizabeth Einstein, a well-respected stepfamily author and trainer, stunned a group of ministers when she told them to make remarriage difficult for couples in their churches (1997). She didn’t make that statement on moral grounds, but was simply suggesting that remarriage—particularly when children are involved—is very challenging and that couples should count the cost and be highly educated about the process before getting married. A significant reason the remarriage divorce rate continues to be at least 60% is the presence of children and the strain that parent-child alliances and parental decision-making puts on the couple relationship. Indeed, the remarriage divorce rate for those with children is 50% higher than the remarriage divorce rate for couples without children (Hetherington, 2002). In first marriage homes we can apply the old adage, “As goes the marriage, so goes the family.” In stepfamilies, it is equally valid to say, “As goes the steprelationships, so goes the marriage and the family.” It is the counselor’s job to make sure couples are not blind-sided by the complexity children bring to the remarried relationship.
Pre-remarital Counseling Begins with What You Already Know
Most of what premarital counselors do to educate and equip first marriage couples should also be included in pre-stepfamily counseling. Common session themes include the covenantal marriage, differentiating from one’s family of origin, communication and conflict resolution skills, marital expectations, finances, and spirituality in marriage. Furthermore, many counselors make use of a premarital inventory, like PREPARE (Olson, Fournier, & Druckman, 1989), to enhance their couple relationship assessment and feedback. These same topics and assessment instruments can be used with pre-remarital couples (the PREPARE-MC is specifically designed for couples with children).
Beyond the standard topics of premarital counseling, effective pre-stepfamily counseling provides couples a window into the unique dynamics of stepfamilies. This, at a minimum, requires that counselors have studied stepfamilies in depth so they can in turn, present a realistic picture of stepfamily life to couples considering marriage. Stepfamilies are uniquely different from biological systems in a plethora of ways and such differences represent the major points of stress during stepfamily integration. Deal’s (2002) book The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family presents a comprehensive overview of the unique qualities of stepfamilies and is designed to aid counselors, stepfamilies, and those considering remarriage in handling the stress points of stepfamily integration. (Discussion questions at the end of each chapter for stepfamily couples and pre-remarital couples make it a valuable tool in counseling and educating stepfamilies.) Addressing the unique differences of stepfamilies will add a number of sessions to a counselor’s standard premarital counseling plan.
However, given the limited number of sessions that ministers and counselors typically have with a couple, some of the aforementioned common topics of first marriage counseling may have to be abbreviated or left out when working with pre-stepfamily couples. It is my assertion that addressing the practical challenges of stepfamily living is more important to the couple’s long-term wellbeing than is addressing the elementary aspects of marriage. Therefore, intervention priorities will need to be determined so decisions can be made about how session time will be spent.
Plan to Work with Multiple Subsystems
In addition to couple sessions, it is highly advisable that pre-remarital counseling include sibling sessions (both biological and stepsibling) as well as various combinations of adults and children (biological parent-child; stepparent-child). Doing so allows the counselor to evaluate the expectations, adjustment issues, and concerns of each subsystem as it relates to the couple. The stepfamily, even a healthy one, is a collection of subsystems with varying degrees of bondedness. For example, stepparents are not as attached as biological parents to children and stepsiblings are less bonded with one another than blood siblings. Pre-stepfamily counseling should recognize this reality and organize sessions accordingly. The assumption that entire family sessions can magically bring people together is misguided. It is best, especially early in treatment, to honor the differing levels of attachment that exist by initially working with biological subsystems.
Subsystem sessions also allow counselors the opportunity to assess beliefs, boundaries, and interactional patterns within and between separate subsystems. For example, counselors can assess the level of loyalty conflict in children by asking the biological sibling subsystem, “How will your mom feel when you begin enjoying your stepmother-to-be?” The biological and future stepparent can then be coached in how this conflict may impact child responsiveness to the stepparent and what they can do about it. In addition, child and sibling sessions will need to assess and respond to issues of loss, developing new relationships, changes in living arrangements, between home loyalty conflicts, and how the child perceives the new stepparent’s role of authority.
Exactly how many sessions is spent with the couple versus those spent in combination with other subsystems is left to the counselors discretion. After two to three assessment sessions (conducting genograms, relationship history, and scoring a premarital inventory) decisions about how time will be spent in remaining sessions can be made. It may be that what’s needed most is time with the couple, or it’s possible that a number of sessions will be spent with the children and couple in differing combinations (see A Sample Session Format). No matter who attends, the goal of sessions is to prepare the couple and family for the realities of stepfamily living. Initially this involves helping them make the cognitive transition from dating to remarried life with children.
The Processes of Dating, Bonding, and Pre-Stepfamily Dynamics
The bonding process before remarriage is, unfortunately, more often about the past than the present. Persons trying to move beyond a difficult divorce, the shame of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or the death of a spouse and a 40-year marriage sometimes move indiscriminately into another relationship. Blinded by the pain of their past (and present), they attempt to “heal their wounds” with a new relationship. Stanley (2001) suggests that one goal of premarital counseling is fostering deliberation in the couple by slowing down their progression to marriage. This is a much-needed intervention for remarried couples. Many remarriages take place within two-three years of a relationship break-up and frequently have a courtship lasting less than six months. They need help slowing down so they can critically analyze both the quality of their relationship and the potential adjustments of a binuclear family.
Dating and Stepfamily Life
Dating is inconsistent with the realities of stepfamily life. This profound truth is something that must be brought to the attention of every pre-remarital couple. The desire to marry and move away from the past often leads couples to assume that the positive exchanges that take place during courtship between themselves and the children will continue following the wedding. However, significant psychological and emotional shifts between the couple and stepparent-stepchild subsystems frequently occur after the wedding that alter the stepfamily’s experience of one another (Browning, 2000). For example, future stepparents generally have limited contact with their future stepchildren during courtship because their focus is being with their dating partner; they instinctively know to keep a safe, non-intrusive distance with stepchildren. This brings about neutral or positive exchanges that easily lure both partners into a false confidence about how children are receiving the potential stepparent. After remarriage, it’s not uncommon for stepparents to believe they should take a more hands-on role with their stepchildren. As soon as they do, the stepchildren notice the difference and may resent the change.
On the other hand, prior to marriage, future stepchildren may not believe that having fun with a parent’s dating partner is a betrayal of their noncustodial biological parent. That feeling may change significantly after the wedding, creating the need to remain distant and aloof.
One final example of how relationships change following the wedding involves the ex-spouse. A remarriage is often very painful for an ex-spouse, who may then turn toward less cooperative co-parenting or greater verbal pressure on the children to not accept, like, or love their new stepparent. All of these changes result in a shift toward greater stress and less cooperation in new steprelationships following the wedding. Couples should be made aware of these possibilities prior to marriage so they won’t be blindsided. Furthermore, pre-remarital counseling sessions with children and adults might tease out these possible transitions and process them in a safe environment so as to diminish their negative impact after marriage.
Help Clients Grieve the Past So They Can Embrace the Future
For most people, falling in love again is like another chance at life. The desire to feel whole and the need to see their family “complete” leads people to move toward remarriage with great hope. As has been mentioned, these desires coupled with the need to move beyond the pain of the past sometimes leads people into a “rebound relationship”. Counselors need to bring up previous losses to assess belayed grief and its impact both in mate selection and growing stepfamily attachments. Even when adults have sufficiently grieved their losses, processed how they contributed to a divorce, or dealt with the emptiness that comes with the death of a spouse, their children many times have not sufficiently grieved their losses.
Claudia, a 20-year old female, presented for treatment with a depressed and irritable mood. She noted that her mom and younger brother were both angry with her for being unhappy, picky, and short-tempered. She agreed that she didn’t like who she had become in recent weeks, but couldn’t explain the change. The first interview revealed three significant changes in her life that had contributed to the change in mood. First, her father had died three years before from an unexpected heart-attack. Second and more recent, her mother had just sold the family business after trying to keep it alive following the death of her husband. To Claudia, the sale felt like burying her father all over again, even though she knew it was the right thing to do. Third, her mother had begun dating and seemed to be moving toward marriage. Claudia liked the man her mother was courting, but he wasn’t her father, whom she missed greatly.
This case demonstrates a number of salient issues regarding loss and its impact on future steprelationships. First, remarriage is a gain for adults and, generally speaking, another loss for children. Adults must learn to slow down, consider their children’s feelings, and allow them to be sad instead of excited about new relationships. Second, loss tempers new relationships as persons fear replacing or betraying “old” family members with new ones. One byproduct of loss is the fear of more loss (Deal, 2002) including the fear of hurting another by replacing them with someone new, losing contact with a family member due to new stepfamily obligations, or experiencing more pain if new relationships were to sever. Furthermore, one byproduct of the fear of more loss is guardedness or anger (with new relationships). For example, children may remain angry and uncooperative with a stepparent or spouses may remain guarded while testing the commitment of their new partner. Stepparents may then interpret a child’s distance as rejection and respond with complaints to their spouse who, in turn, defends their child, resulting in marital tension. Again, let me point out that before marriage, the tentative nature of relationships doesn’t necessarily reveal the impending anger or guardedness to come. Pre-remarital counseling must help couples anticipate these feelings and proactively decide how they will respond.
Specific Interventions for Pre-Stepfamily Counseling
A number of unrealistic expectations that pre-stepfamily couples typically believe have been identified (Bray, 1998; Deal, 2002). Just a few will be examined here. It is the counselor’s objective to assess which of these unrealistic beliefs are in force, and educate the couple about the realities of stepfamily living.
Love will happen instantly between all family members. This, the most classic stepfamily unrealistic belief, is deeply embedded in the individual’s need to restore a complete family. When reflecting on why he chose to marry a second time, one client said, “I just wanted some normalcy in my life; I wanted to come home at the end of the day and see a family.” The problem with this belief is that it’s based on the biological model of family. “Normalcy” in a first-family results from a feeling of love and safety between family members. Love, security, safety, and trust in stepfamilies, is developed slowly over time. There is nothing “instant” about it.
Our children will feel as happy about the remarriage as we do. The truth is children will feel confused about the remarriage, both happy and angry (or sad), sometimes all at once. Parents who expect their children to be happy, never sad, about the remarriage frequently find themselves disappointed and in conflict with their children.
Blending is the goal of this stepfamily. The term “blended family” is more descriptive of an unrealistic expectation than it is of what actually happens. In fact, that’s why I choose to use the term “stepfamily.” Most stepfamilies don’t blend—and if they do, someone usually gets creamed in the process (pun intended). First-families are “blended” due to the depth of their blood bonds. Stepfamilies “integrate,” like a casserole with distinct ingredients—some of which come into close contact and others don’t. Taken as a whole, it tastes good, but it is anything but blended. It is the counselor’s objective to help couples lower their expectations and find contentment with different levels of attachment between family members. The paradox they need to be aware of is this: nothing slows bonding like pressuring messages to blend.
Educate Them About the Stepfamily Journey
The process of integrating a stepfamily takes time, like a long journey. The biblical analogy I use is the journey taken by Moses and the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage to the Promised Land. The trip was filled with uncertainty, grumbling and complaining, and fear. But in the end, the Lord led them through. Stepfamilies must understand that their journey will likely also bring uncertainty, fear, and discouragement (with the desire to “return to Egypt”). They also need to know that a sea of opposition stands between them and the ‘Promised Land’ of marital strength and stepfamily integration. Encouraging them to trust God to provide a path through the sea and equipping them with tools to survive the journey is another goal of pre-stepfamily counseling. Psychoeducation with stepfamilies in therapy is an effective form of intervention (Deal, in press). Pre-remarital education interventions can also be effective as they help couples to anticipate their challenges and know how to cope.
Stepfamily development takes time. Research confirms that the average stepfamily needs 5-7 years before stress returns to a normal range, family functioning improves, and a sense of identity has formed (Hetherington & Kelley, 2002; Papernow, 1993). Furthermore, the family may not even begin to operate or feel like a family until the end of the second or third year (Bray, 1998). Clinical experience suggests that pre-stepfamily couples have a hard time understanding this due to the positive exchanges they’ve already experienced (as previously discussed). Couples need to see that the journey can have surprising complexities that slow the integration progress. They also need to be challenged to persevere and remain dedicated to a gradual integration.
I accomplish this with a metaphor answering the question, “How do you cook a stepfamily?” The answer: with a crockpot. A blender is quick (but painful), a food processor is rapid (it also chops someone up), and a microwave is instantaneous (but love doesn’t happen quickly). A crockpot cooks slowly (many years) and with low heat (intentionality). This analogy helps couples relax and trust the process, rather than grow increasingly disillusioned about the remarriage when progress seems nonexistent or too slow.
Specifically, teach stepparents how to bond with stepchildren. Biological parents and stepparents expect and desire greater closeness, affection, and authority with stepchildren much more quickly than children do (Fine, 1997). This creates a “microwave” attempt to cook the family quickly bringing resistance and conflict first in adult-child relationships and second in the marriage. Stepparents should be advised to adopt a “baby-sitter” or “coach” relationship with stepchildren early in the integration process and gradually move into authority over time (more later). This allows the stepparent to build relationship with children and monitor their activities (Bray, 1998). Monitoring involves knowing their daily routine, where they are, who they are with, and what extracurricular activities they are involved in, but does not include being intimate with the child’s emotional life. Stepparents can also build relationship by taking interest in the child’s interests, sharing talents and skills, and sharing worship and faith matters with the child. Over time, stepparents build relationship, trust, and a shared history that lays the foundation for authority, moral instruction, and discipline.
How much time is needed to build a bonded relationship with children will depend on a number of factors including: age of child, previous family experiences, relationship with noncustodial parent, child’s temperament/personality, parenting style variations, and child’s overall stepfamily satisfaction level (Fine, 1999). It can be difficult to predict how the bonding process will progress, so stepparents should be advised to let their stepchildren set the pace and respond in kind. If a child is open and welcoming of a stepparent’s affection, then by all means give it. If a child is cautious and hesitant, a stepparent should respect the needed distance until further connections can be negotiated.
Challenges to Developing Marital Oneness
As was previously mentioned, pre-stepfamily couples have all the relational skill needs of first marriage couples. They need communication and conflict resolution skills training (this need is tremendous due to the unusually high levels of conflict in the first 3-5 years of remarriage), training in spiritual roles, companionship, decision-making, and finances (stepfamily financial patterns vary greatly from those in first-families). However, two unique barriers exist in stepfamily couples that hinder couple oneness (Deal, 2002).
Parent-Child Allegiance and the New Couple. During the single-parent years preceding the new couple’s courtship, a parent usually forms a close bond with their children. If the biological parent is unwilling to sacrifice some closeness with their children in order to place their new spouse into a place of priority, a rivalry between the stepparent and stepchildren will begin that leads to repetitive conflict and resentment. Moving the marital relationship to a place of priority does not mean abandoning the children, nor does it mean that the couple will never make sacrifices on behalf of the children (just as biological parents don’t deprive their children when nurturing their marriage). However, any change in parent-child closeness resurrects feelings of loss and pain from the previous family divorce or parental death. This tends to bring about parental over-protectiveness by the biological parent and great fear from children as they feel their parent move a step away.
Couples should be informed of this dynamic and helped to develop a transition plan. For example, this could involve conscious sacrifices by a stepparent to allow their spouse exclusive time with their children in order to help stepchildren not feel abandoned. This is balanced by a conscious decision by the biological parent to place their spouse in a place of honor before the children by insisting on a regular date night or a nightly 10-minute “couple time” following dinner. In effect, biological parents and stepparents should seek to balance time that honors both the children and the spouse, rather than give in to a seemingly “either/or” decision. During the integration years, not everyone will feel that they are getting everything they want from the biological parent; living with that anxiety until the crockpot warms all the relationships is a challenge for every stepfamily couple.
Managing the Ghosts of Marriage Past. Someone is being haunted by the “ghost of marriage past” when painful experiences from previous relationships result in negative interpretations of present behavioral exchanges (Deal, 2002). These ghosts may stem from one’s family of origin, previous marriage(s), or significant dating relationships. Negative interpretations usually lead to overreactions to a spouse’s behavior, which in turn escalates when the spouse defends himself or herself from what feels like an unjust accusation or attribution.
When dating, partners tend to minimize negative interpretations only to grow resentful of them in marriage. Pre-remarital preparation, then, includes wondering what ghosts have already revealed themselves during courtship and processing how they can be managed. The goal is to raise each person’s awareness as to what ghosts might be haunting them and help them to behave more out of proactive choice than reactive pain.
Enhancing the Parental Team
As in first-families, unity of the parental team is the foundation to effective behavioral management and training of the children. Therefore, pre-stepfamily preparation must help couples to function as a cooperative team, find agreement on a household system of rules and consequences, and plan how to respond to the relational needs of their children. Cross-system parent-child coalitions will short-circuit parental unity bringing about marital conflict and division. In addition to a household standard of rules and conduct (rules must be the same for children from different parents), the following model of parent and stepparent roles is generally the most effective model for the parental subsystem.
Parent and Stepparent Roles. “Early in remarriage, the most successful stepparent-stepchild relationships are those where the stepparent focuses first on the development of a warm friendly interaction style with the stepchild. Once a foundation of mutual respect and affection is established, stepparents who then attempt to assume a disciplinarian role are less likely to meet with resentment from the stepchild” (Pasley, Dollahite, & Ihinger-Tallman, 2000, p.2). As the stepparent-stepchild relationship develops over time, power and authority increases for the stepparent. The parental unit should be taught to see the evolving nature of the stepparent’s role in the family and consider which of the following roles is most appropriate for the stepparent given their current level of parental status (Gamache, 2000). A general prescription is that stepparents start with the baby-sitter role and progress slowly (often over a period of years) to the others.
The baby-sitter role: Baby-sitters have power to manage children only if parents give them power. Biological parents must pass power to stepparents shortly after remarriage so that children will understand that stepparents are not acting on their own authority, but the parent's authority (Visher & Visher, 1998). They might say, "I know Sarah is not your mother. However, when I am not here, she will be enforcing the rules we have all agreed on. I expect you to be courteous and respect her as you would a teacher or coach."
Parents and stepparents negotiate rules together behind closed doors and must seek unity in their decisions. The biological parent then communicates the rules to the children with the stepparent standing in support. If a rule is broken, as far as the children are concerned it is the parent's rule, not the stepparent's. If a consequence is to be enforced by the stepparent, to the children it is the parent's consequence. Baby-sitting stepparents are extensions of biological parents.
Complex stepfamilies, where both parents bring children to the stepfamily, still negotiate rules together, but each takes the lead role with their own children. Simultaneously they are the primary parent to their children and the "baby-sitter" to the other's children. It is important to note that this arrangement will not work if the couple does not adopt consistent rules. They cannot afford to have one set of rules for his kids and another standard for hers. Consistency without favoritism is key.
The stepparent/"baby-sitter" system maintains the pre-stepfamily parenting arrangement with the biological parent acting as the primary nurturer and disciplinarian. Most critically, it allows the stepparent time and emotional space to focus on relationship development with the stepchildren. Still, many stepparents complain that this model prohibits them from having power with the children. Actually, I would argue, it gives them power they otherwise would not have. The babysitter role doesn't mean that they don't have any say about rules or consequences. Their say simply occurs behind closed doors. Before a parent communicates rules to her children, she and the stepfather must be in agreement. So initially stepparent power and influence comes in the negotiation process.
But what if the biological parent is protective of the children and sabotages the stepparent’s input? Biological parents do have difficulty adjusting their parenting to make room for the stepparent's influence. Parents may have many established rules and rituals, especially if they had a number of single-parent years before the remarriage. Upon remarriage, they may have a difficult time opening their parenting style up to criticism or input from the stepparent. Nevertheless, the process of integrating a stepfamily demands that couples find ways of talking, listening, negotiating, and deciding on rules. Initially they should strive for few changes. This can be particularly difficult for structured, rule-oriented stepparents who marry flexible, permissive parents. However, stability for the children should be sought; stepparents may have to make adjustments until new bonds are developed. Over time, changes in rules and rituals may be necessary.
- The "uncle/aunt" role: After a moderate relationship has developed, stepparents can move into the "uncle or aunt" stepparenting role. An aunt is not a full-fledged parent, but carries power through her extended family kinship. Stepparents can gradually gain a basic level of respect that allows children to accept them as extended family members by marriage. Stepparents can become more authoritative: clearly communicating limits and encouraging family discussion of rules. Furthermore, as personal bonds deepen, shows of affection and appreciation can become more common. One-on-one activities can become more frequent as personal connections increase.
- The "parent" or stepparent role: Eventually, some stepparents will gain "parental" status with some stepchildren. Younger children, who have a large window of attachment, tend to grant stepparents parental status much more quickly than adolescents do. It is quite common to be considered a baby-sitter by an older child, an aunt by a middle child, and a parent by the youngest child. This ambiguity can be confusing so be sure to help parents and stepparents develop into a solid parenting team.
Helping Children Make Adjustments
Reminding parents and stepparents during pre-stepfamily counseling to be sensitive to the children and listen to their point of view facilitates child adjustment after remarriage. It reduces the child’s need to resort to negative behavior to communicate their concerns. A position of openness balanced by gentle firmness and discipline is needed. The use of a medallion, specifically designed to honor and include children in the remarriage wedding ceremony, can be a tremendous ritual of connection, identity, and reassurance to children as the stepfamily begins (available at www.familymedallion.com).
Children will feel both positive and negative about a parent’s remarriage. It will complicate their life even further and bring about more out-of-control feelings. Yet, it can also bring about financial stability and emotional security.
Encourage pre-stepfamily couples to maintain their “touch-points” rituals after marriage. These points of connection and reassurance of love are important in all families, but especially to children during the uncertain transition to a new stepfamily. In addition, early on adults can help children adjust by compartmentalizing their time with them, allowing biological parents special “mini-family” time while stepparents and their children do the same. Entire stepfamily together-time should be centered around common interests (activities that all subsystems enjoy) so there is little grumbling and complaining. Other diverging interests may eventually combine, but only when children feel a growing sense of family identity (which can take years).
One family tool that may help some children adjust is the use of family meetings (Deal, 2002). A regular time set aside for proactive conversation, decision-making, planning, or problem-solving can be taught and modeled during a pre-stepfamily counseling session. The family can then decide when and how often they will begin meeting before or after the wedding.
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Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.