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Remarriage and Combined Families

R. Lanier Britsch, Terrance D. Olson, Counseling: A Guide to Helping Others, vol. 2, 172-186. - April 22, 2007

Combined families, also referred to as blended, second, reconstituted, step, or rem (remarried) families, are those families where at least one, if not both, husband and wife have been married before and have had children. Remarriage resulting in combined families is an increasingly common phenomenon that affects millions of men, women, and children. More than 50 million remarried people are currently living in the United States, and in 1975 one in every four marriages involved someone who had been married before. In 1982, 41 percent of all marriages were remarriages for one or both partners.

Approximately one out of every five children under the age of eighteen currently lives in a single-parent family, and the best estimates from census data now predict that one out of every two children born in the 1980s will live in a single-parent family before the age of eighteen. Since approximately 80 percent of all persons remarry following a divorce or widowhood (especially younger ones who tend to still have children at home), most of these children will experience a combined family. Conservative estimates indicate that there are over fifteen million children living in combined families with stepparents and another four to five million children between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two who are living in and out of combined or blended families. It is further estimated that there are, at a minimum, twenty-five million husbands and wives who are stepmothers and stepfathers. Most of the increase in single- parent households is due to divorce. The percentage resulting from widowhood has remained about the same, but there has been a substantial increase in unwed parenthood.

The formerly marrieds come from all walks of life, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all religious affiliations, and all cultural and ethnic groups. According to Paul Glick and A.J. Norton, formerly marrieds tend to be young and in their twenties when they first reunite. The average age is twenty-seven for women and twenty-nine for men. Divorced persons tend to marry other divorced people. They gravitate toward partners whom they perceive to be quite different in character from their first spouse. Two other studies found that over 50 percent of remarried subjects said they were not at all attracted to the same kinds of persons they first married. Remarried individuals sought traits of warmth, maturity, and the capacity for commitment, as opposed to traits of attractiveness and wealth, which characterized their earlier choices. Jesse Bernard concluded that those who remarry often consider their first marriage as an "apprenticeship" and, as a result, bring a greater capacity for commitment and maturity to their second marriage.

Reasons for Remarriage

Around 80 percent of people who divorce remarry within three years. This suggests that while the first marriage relationship obviously was a disappointment or did not prove to be satisfactory for a permanent union, most people who divorce do not become disenchanted with marriage itself. Many widowed persons also remarry. The most frequently offered reasons for remarriage include the desire for companionship, satisfaction of emotional needs, and opportunities for legitimate sexual expression. Other reasons that are mentioned less frequently but still may play important roles in the decision for remarriage include seeking financial security, yielding to family pressure, and desiring to establish a two-parent home for the children. If divorced, some people also may want to prove that they can succeed; therefore, they try again. In addition, some people may want to prove that they are still attractive.

The seeking of security, both emotional and financial, is a primary factor in remarriage for both men and women. The desire to have greater financial security is especially common among women, whose financial resources are often limited. Data indicate that 80 to 85 percent of men do not provide financial support for their children following a divorce. Yielding to the desire to be relieved of the pressure of earning a living and being taken care of financially can become a paramount reason to remarry, especially for women. However, if one is willing to get married just to avoid work or the responsibility of single parenthood, one may enter hastily and carelessly into a relationship. A strong desire to escape an existing problem may mean that other serious considerations may be overlooked or their importance minimized.

While widowhood usually elicits sympathy or at least genuine concern from others, divorce is still accompanied by social stigma, although that is less true now than was true a few decades ago. Some people feel that being a divorced person in their church, neighborhood, community, or social set is a real liability. This creates pressure to remarry in order to reduce or, hopefully, eliminate the stigma. But getting married to escape from or to run away from a situation will probably not lead to success and is not a healthy reason for marriage.

Most of the above reasons for remarriage fall within the category of "seeking" and "getting." Serious consideration should also be given to remarriage as an opportunity to find fulfillment through giving. This is a healthy reason for marriage and remarriage, but one must consider it carefully.

Issues to Be Considered

If you are counseling someone who is considering remarriage, he should give the following issues careful attention. It is important that these questions be responded to as honestly and as objectively as possible. We often rationalize our decisions in order to obtain quick, easy, and emotionally desired situations and then discover that we must live with undesired consequences for months or years. The chances for a successful remarriage will be increased through serious, patient consideration of the following questions:

1. How successful and satisfying was your first (or other) marriage? Did satisfying, rewarding, and growth-promoting events outweigh disappointments and unresolved problems? Did earlier experiences contribute to personal growth and development, or did they contribute to feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, or guilt? If the experiences were primarily negative, did you learn enough from them so that you are capable of creating something better in a new relationship?

2. Are you basically a happy, positive, growing, productive person? Do you have something constructive to offer another person and a new relationship, or are you seeking marriage as an escape from an unhappy, unpleasant, and overwhelming situation?

3. If children are present in the home, will remarriage lead to a better situation for them? Have you taken them into consideration and discussed the pros and cons with them? (This will need to be adjusted to the age of the children). Are they sufficiently aware of the consequences of remarriage and the adjustments that would be required of them when combining families?

I recall one client who informed me that she was planning to get married after a three-week acquaintance with her prospective husband. When I suggested that was a very short period of time for testing a relationship and that further testing would be in order, she responded, "Well, I had him and his children over for dinner Sunday, and our children had a wonderful time playing together. They really enjoyed each other and want to be together." I suggested that sharing an afternoon of fun and games is very different from sharing a closet, dresser drawers, and a mother's time and love.

4. What will it take to blend children from separate families? Do you have the skill to establish more cooperation than competition among children from different families? Can you promote willing and harmonious sharing, helping, caring, and loving? These qualities are often difficult to achieve within an original blood-related family. It is not possible to project with complete accuracy what the results will be, but the question of the success and happiness of combined families and the impact that combining may have on each person involved should be raised and carefully considered.

5. How much commitment can be elicited from everyone concerned? The desire of a mother or a father or both may not be enough to accomplish the desired goals if children are not committed also. Is the degree of commitment between the two adults fairly equal or is it mostly one sided? If it appears at certain times that goals are not being achieved, how will the situation be handled, and how will both partners feel? Do those who will be involved have the skill and commitment to resolve conflicts in a productive way?

6. What are the risks involved, and what are the potential rewards? If remarriage is occurring after a divorce and it does not succeed to the degree you want and hope for, will you interpret it as "another failure"? If the marriage is reasonably satisfactory but the relationships between a child or children and a stepparent are disruptive and negative and children leave home earlier than otherwise would have been the case in order to escape from an unhappy home situation, will this result in regrets on your part?

7. Are you looking primarily for a marriage companion or for a parent for your children? Both roles must be given serious consideration; but if you are looking for an eternal relationship, perhaps it is appropriate to give greater weight to marriage companionship than to parenthood. This is a difficult issue because your potential partner's ability to perform both roles is desirable and must be carefully evaluated.

8. As you look at your past personal and married life, what "ghosts" will accompany you into a new marriage? Do you have numerous unresolved problems, or have you carefully considered them, resolved them, and put them into proper perspective? Have you discussed appropriate past problems with the potential marriage partner? Have you discussed these issues with a spiritual leader or a professional who can help you determine the state of your emotional and mental health and who can help you evaluate the degree to which you have resolved problems in a constructive, objective, and healthy manner?

It is easy to rationalize our thoughts so that we arrive at the answers we want. We can even interpret answers to prayers the way we want. All problems and issues do not have to be and probably never will be totally resolved. But being aware of problems and acknowledging the possibility of undesired events occurring is helpful. Anticipating the possibility of difficulties and having plans to constructively handle them is a great asset. It is when difficulties occur that we can link our faith with our works. But if we refuse to acknowledge the possibility of future problems, we may be surprised and overwhelmed when they come.

People who remarry often dream or hope to heal former hurts through the new relationship. However the loss of a former spouse occurred, remarriage carries the expectation that the "new family will be just like the old one or better." People in remarriages hope that old problems will disappear. Seldom do they acknowledge that problems may continue or that new ones might arise. One of the most common myths is that if a person loves another person enough to marry him, he will also love the person's children.

Challenges Facing Combined Families

Remarriage covers a number of different types of marriages:

1. Divorced man/single woman.

2. Divorced man/widowed woman.

3. Divorced man/divorced woman.

4. Single man/divorced woman.

5. Single man/widowed woman.

6. Widowed man/single woman.

7. Widowed man/widowed woman.

8. Widowed man/divorced woman. Each previous marital status brings with it certain experiences and expectations and sometimes pain, guilt, remorse, anger, bonds, and attachments. Add to this the many combinations of involvement of children such as number, age, sex, relationship with other parents, and so on. The child of divorced parents who both remarry will have two biological parents; two stepparents; a range of possible combinations of biological siblings, step-siblings, and half-siblings; up to eight grandparents (even more if any grandparents are divorced and remarried); and any number of extended relatives through the new spouses of the biological parents. It is easy to see the complexity in combined families and the challenge of anticipating the kinds of problems or fulfillments that maybe encountered is overwhelming. The difficulty of trying to establish any single model is obvious, as Emily end John Visher point out:

When a number of persons of varying ages and stages of development suddenly come together from a variety of previous family and household backgrounds, each one already has ideas about how the television set should be used, where the dog sleeps, who prepares breakfast, how the laundry is folded, and how the hamburgers are cooked. The problem, of course, is that there is no agreement. Everyone brings different family traditions from their former family experiences--most of them given below conscious awareness until the startling experiences of trying to mind a parent who allows watching television before dinner or finding the dog sleeping at the foot of the bed.

In addition, family alliances form, with outsiders and insiders vying for positions because of the parent-child relationships that preceded the new couple's relationship. An only child may suddenly have three sisters. A biological parent may remain in memory if not in actuality. The children may be members of at least two households--going back and forth, experiencing culture shock. A stepfamily is a complex family with a large cast of characters--a family forest rather than a family tree.

Combining families requires a great deal of patience, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness on everyone's part. Children, especially, may be hesitant to offer loyalty and affection to a newcomer. They may feel they are being disloyal to a biological parent. They may feel caught in an uncomfortable situation, realizing that they should establish a warm, creative relationship with new siblings and a new parent, but they do not know how to do that while still trying to maintain previously existing bonds. Ambivalent feelings and unwelcomed behavior can be dealt with more effectively if they are acknowledged and understood. Children should be helped to understand this.

It is a mistake to expect a stepfamily to function as a normal family. It does not, and it cannot. What happens when one moves from the role of friend to that of spouse and stepparent was described by one stepparent as "like being plunked down, a stranger, in the middle of rural China, speaking the wrong language and yet torn all the while by too many people asking unanswerable questions."

When parents discipline their biological children, the children may not like the discipline or even the parents. However, when a stepparent disciplines a stepchild, the magnitude of these feelings is much greater. The stepchild may respond, "You are not my father!" or "You are not my mother!" or "You wouldn't do this to your own child!" Almost daily one is reminded that the relationship is "step" and not biological. A child may say, "I don't have to do this because you are not my mother!" or "If you were really my mother, you wouldn't make me do this!" or "Why did you have to come into our lives? Everything was fine until you came along." These feelings exist on the part of adults, too. A woman may say, "Well, I care about my stepchildren almost as if they were my own, and yet I resent them because they remind me of something I do not want to remember."

A spouse may feel that a new husband or wife in a remarriage is fine, but that the marriage is greatly complicated by children. Most remarried people report that right from the start things were much harder than they had anticipated. The tendency is to expect, to act, and to react as though the stepfamily were a biological family.

People are frequently surprised at the changes in the families before and after a marriage. Many women have indicated that they established a good relationship with the children of a prospective husband--they had long conversations and found that his children would share things with them they would not share with their father. Yet, after the marriage, something happened to this closeness; the children became more distant and seemed to feel that someone was taking the place of their mother. Such behavior is not easily understood by either generation. The challenge is even further complicated if some of the children are not living all the time with the family but visiting occasionally or on weekends. The wonderful, big family gatherings that one might have dreamed of just do not come about. Children may visit and want to have time with their parent but not the stepparent. The parent will probably feel sad about this and may even be critical of the stepparent for not being more successful in being able to establish a close, meaningful relationship with the children. The children may resent the parent, the stepparent, or both for creating this situation.

When possible, it is best for a combined family to start out in a new house. Too often, stepparents and their children move into the home previously lived in by the other adult and his or her children. It is difficult not to feel like a guest or an intruder for those who move in. It is also difficult for those who have previously been there not to resent changes that will be made--sharing things that have been private and feeling that someone else is taking over things or responsibilities that belong to a present family member or to a departed parent who no longer lives there.

In cases of divorce, noncustodial parents often complicate life. They justifiably may wonder whether a stepparent will move in and do a better job of parenting than he or she had done, especially since they may see their children so little. They may feel particularly helpless if they feel the new stepparent is not doing a good job with the children. It is difficult to accept the feeling that someone else is taking one's place. If children are living part of their lives in a second household, their loyalties will be divided. They may feel confused and frustrated. They may feel used if they have become pawns between their parents. Wise adults will do everything possible to avoid putting children into these difficult situations.

Children who spend part of their time in at least two households find they are confronted with different rules, regulations, traditions, and ways of doing things. They often become skillful in manipulating parents and in playing one against the other.

Preparing for Remarriage

If you or someone you are counseling is a formerly married person involved in a second or subsequent marriage, some of the following problems may be confronting you:

1. Discarding excess baggage. It is not unusual for people to carry into another marriage unresolved issues from an earlier marriage. These unresolved issues may be both conscious and unconscious. In more extreme cases it may be wise to seek professional help in an effort to understand and resolve as many past issues as possible. Unresolved issues frequently become hurdles to one's personal adjustment as well as relationships with others.

2. Establishing realistic expectations. Most people entering a first marriage do so with unrealistic expectations. After marriage, however, they review those expectations and adjust them appropriately. Failure to adjust one's expectations may result in great disappointment and sometimes may even precipitate a divorce. Likewise, people may enter a second marriage with unrealistic expectations. For example, they may expect a second or subsequent marriage to be like a first one or to be like a first family. But a combined family may never be like a first family. As a lay counselor, you should observe the person you are helping, and if his expectations seem to be seriously unrealistic, it may be wise to refer him to a professional who can provide guidance by reviewing what expectations are realistic for a combined family.

3. Being patient. It may take a long time--months or even years to achieve a healthy, creative relationship with stepchildren, especially in their teen years. This, of course, depends on the personalities involved, but trying to force a relationship too soon may complicate life considerably and may even postpone or prevent the relationship one is seeking. Children are often reluctant to allow someone to "take the place of" another parent. With older children, it may not be realistic to expect to become a second mother or a second father. A good friendship may be the most one can expect.

4. Integrating two or more family units. In a natural or first family the membership is well-defined, and family boundaries are clearly delineated. Family expectations, rules, roles, tasks, and goals are usually clear. In contrast, membership in a combined family is more complicated. There may be multiple relationships and bonds. Some members of the family may feel that they belong to two families or that they do not belong at all. For example, a combined family consists of two units that used to be single but are now joined. However, in a combined family there may still be a single family unit for the children, who maybe spending time with a single parent as well as with the new combined family. In addition, there may be two combined family units, where a child's biological parents have each remarried. The child's parents may not only be involved with a new spouse but still have certain bonds and ties, pleasant or unpleasant, with a former spouse. These multiple networks add stress, strain, and demands upon individuals and may be complicating factors in a combined family.

5. Adjusting to a newly acquired family. Suddenly acquiring a full-grown son or daughter or several of each may be a positive experience or an extremely difficult challenge. Suddenly becoming a grandparent by marriage presents new challenges, not only in relationships but also in self-concept. This is especially true if one's age is considerably younger than when he or she anticipated being in this stage of life. Becoming an instant mother-in-law or father-in-law may not be easy for one who is still psychologically and biologically in the stage of childbearing and preschool parenthood.

6. Handling financial matters. In a second marriage, each partner has already established financial status. Presumably, each has a source of income, and each has habits of dealing with money that maybe quite unlike the habits of the other. Patterns regarding who pays the bills, whether or not there will be allowances for spending money, and dealing with childrens' financial matters may be difficult to resolve. Expecting financial support from an ex-spouse, or assuming financial responsibilities for "someone else's" children also present difficulties.

If someone has come to you for help in considering the issue of remarriage, as you review these concerns it is important that you create safe and trusting conditions so that the person will be relatively free to discuss issues with you. Be understanding, warm, and objective. Be very cautious in giving advice. Try to help the person think through issues. Raise questions to find out whether he has actually thought about them or not; and, if so, encourage him to be as honest and objective as possible. You may be helpful in raising questions he has not yet considered. It may be possible for you to help him see an issue or a question in a new light. Avoid being trapped into making a decision for him.

The New Family System

Families do not exist in a vacuum. The cultural myths and expectations that surround combined families complicate the period of transition and integration, which, to quote one stepmother, "does not take months it takes years." When a newborn baby arrives in a first marriage, it comes with no expectations of what its world will be like. The parents have time to gradually combine their own family traditions and ways of doing things into a pattern that is taken for granted by all family members. But in combined families, each family member brings a legacy of traditions and a set of definite ideas about such diverse things as how holidays are celebrated and how children are disciplined. Both children and adults hold to the familiar customs of their former households. They find it hard to make adjustments, and many combined family members face feelings of bewilderment, frustration, hostility, and failure. Negotiation and concern for others is necessary in all families, but it is particularly important in combined families.

Family happiness is possible, but it takes time, effort, and skill. Family councils or family meetings where each person can express his feelings and feel that he is accepted and that his ideas are freely discussed can be helpful to the family that is trying to work out acceptable regulations and traditions. Families can even find that the very task of combining traditions from the past or of creating new patterns for special occasions can be exciting, interesting, and rewarding. This is possible when members feel excited about change rather than upset by it.

Many individuals who have combined families agree that it was well worth the efforts that were involved. For them, remarriage brought increased happiness. In fact, some found it so rewarding that they wished their second marriage had been their first so that they could have enjoyed it longer.

Approximately 40 percent of second marriages end in divorce in the first four years. If a couple who remarry have children from their previous marriages, the likelihood that the marriage will end in divorce is increased. The second marriage can be successful, but it requires even greater skill, patience, and effort than the first marriage. The family members must avoid comparing a second spouse with a first one, or a second mother or father with a first. In addition, they must prepare for marital happiness. There are courses, books, manuals, seminars, and workshops to help people prepare for marriage, for childbirth, for parenthood. However, there are many problems involved in combining families that are different from and do not exist in first marriages and first families. Couples who are unprepared for the combined family adventure are the most likely to face disappointment and struggle. It is best to face the new challenge with eyes wide open, with a deep commitment to seek appropriate help, and with the determination to do what is necessary in order to succeed.

As we better understand combined families and accept the fact that combined families are not like biological families, we can offer better help. We must accept combined families as legitimate kinship units. To the degree that we are able to do that, we can help those in combined families to achieve rewarding and deeply satisfying relationships.

Resources

If you are living in a combined family or if you are counseling someone who is, the following may be useful sources of help:

1. Your bishop. If he is not able to give you the help you need, he will probably tee in a position to make intelligent referrals.

2. LDS Social Services or similar social agencies in your community.

3. The Stepfamily Association of America (900 Welch Road, Suite 400, Palo Alto, CA 94304). This organization publishes a quarterly newsletter, Stepfamily Bulletin, for those who are interested in step relationships. This association also sends book lists and reprints to its members, provides training workshops for professionals, helps chapters and state divisions form mutual support networks, and is engaged in community education.

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