The Centre must remain centred

the importance of the marriage relationship in a stepfamily

As previously mentioned, it is important to recognise both the centrality and the vulnerability of the new marriage relationship in a stepfamily. It is both the most pivotal and also the most fragile component of the new stepfamily. There's a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, the biological relationships in the family (often parent/ child and/or siblings) usually pre-date the marriage relationship. They have a longer history and previous shared experiences of which the new spouse has not been a part. Even going through the grief of the ending of the previous marriage/family is a shared experience and very bonding. Additionally, sharing genetic and biological factors are obviously potentially very bonding and familiar.

Stepfamilies who thrive both recognise these issues as well as the need to foster intentionally the marriage bond and also work to thicken the area of shared experience between non-blood related members (Pasley, Rhodden, Visher & Visher, 1996). These findings seem to support research in other areas where studies indicate that while many remarried couples self-report as feeling more compatible with their second spouse, the divorce rates in second marriages are much higher (Rutter 1994). However, these divorces seem to have less links to conventional marital issues and a greater connection to poor resolution of children's grief issues and low household integration (Rutter 1994). Further, that these divorces seem to occur most commonly in the first five years of marriage during the mobility stage, after this period up to eighty percent of remarriages succeed indicating a higher success rate than first married couples (Rutter 1994). Therefore, successful stepfamilies seem to be the ones that are not anticipating instant love or bonding and remain actively curious for information on what will make their family work and are mindful of how their family is functioning at each stage of development while not afraid to seek help when problems arise (Cottrill 2012; Pasley, Rhodden, Visher & Visher 1996).

So bearing in mind that remarried couples who are able to last five or more years together enjoy a reduced divorce rate, it's important to recognise the very real challenges to developing a solid marriage bond of a new marriage in a stepfamily. Some of these challenges can include either a real or perceived presence of the former spouse in the new marital home. They can also include time pressures on the couple to prioritise their relationship because of either 'instant parenting' or parenting biological and non-biological children. These issues all essentially come down to establishing boundaries around the marital relationship in the midst of a complex web of fluid and unclear relationships.

The remarried couples need to be mindful of both the fragility and significance of their marriage to the overall functioning of the stepfamily system and take conscious and intentional actions to protect, cultivate and centre their relationship. An important component of that is the way of dealing with the presence of the former spouse. This needs to be clearly articulated by the new couple both in terms of how will they will work with the former spouse, especially around parenting issues but also how they will we have boundaries between this former spouse and the new marriage. Also, decisions about parenting, yours, mine and our children need to be clearly articulated and worked through together. Intentional and clear communication is vital in any marriage, however in a remarried couple it is literally the lifeblood of not only the marriage but the overall success of the whole family. I like to the think of the remarried couple's relationship as the hub of the stepfamily wheel. It is the vital and central point of connection for all other relationships. Therefore, this central relationship must be prioritised over all other relationships and considered the point of which all other relationship radiate out of and determine their direction. As the centre of the family wheel remains centred the whole system is balanced, stabilised and finds its place. It is not selfish to carve out time, money, energy and resources to keep the marriage relationship strong. Quite the opposite is the truth. By investing in the vitality in the marriage of the stepfamily is about protecting the vitality and well-being of all the relationships in the family and enables the couple to be the key leaders the stepfamily needs.

Pasley K, Rhodden L, Visher E.B, & Visher J.S, (1996) Successful stepfamily therapy: client's perspective, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy Vol 22, No. 3 3434357, (online)  0606.1996.tb00210.x/abstract
[Accessed June 20, 2012]

Rutter, V (2012) Lessons from Stepfamilies, Psychology Today

Posted on 19 November 2014

Marcia Watts

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