Let’s say a divorced woman with children marries a divorced guy. He has the best intentions when it comes to her children, but the kids come to her complaining about how he disciplines them. She approaches her husband and asks him to deal with them another way. She feels guilty, he feels like an outsider, and the newly made stepfamily begins a slow ruin.
It’s a common equation these days, families being rearranged and reshaped, and usually all orchestrated out of love. However, the statistical truth is that the divorce rate among remarriages is 10 to 15 percent higher than that of a first-time marriage.
“It’s clear that people remarry because they’ve fallen in love with someone, but they divorce because they cannot deal with the complexities of the stepfamily,” says Ron L. Deal, founder of Successful Stepfamilies and author of several books, including The Smart Stepfamily and The Smart Stepmom. “Couples get blindsided by that, but the good news is that remarriages can be just as close and intimate and lasting as first marriages.”
Ron’s counseling background began in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and includes more than 20 years in family ministry and marriage enrichment. Over the course of being involved with hundreds of families and their varying relationships, he found that stepfamilies could do well if given proper guidance and help. Ron and his wife, with their three boys, moved to Amarillo nearly four years ago and he currently counsels in a small practice where helping stepfamilies is his specialty.
Six years ago, Ron was contacted by Dr. David Olsen, a nationally recognized marital researcher in Minneapolis, to partner with him on a project analyzing data from the largest study ever done on remarriages. The study involved 50,000 couples – 100,000 people who were divorced and forming stepfamilies – focusing on what predicts healthy remarriages and what predicts those who are unsuccessful. The results have been published in their recently released co-authored book, The Remarriage Checkup.
“Our study validated the belief that we’ve had for a long time that the remarriage is not just about the couples’ relationship. It is as much about the family, stepfamily, the step-parenting and the ex-spouses,” he says. “There’s a reason why the remarriage divorce rate is higher. It’s because of their past, their fears about a breakup, and complications that come from living in a stepfamily.”
Many couples don’t realize that the remarriage is interdependent on the health of the stepfamily and that the struggles they face are unique to each family. Instead of a family tree, stepfamilies are more like a forest with additional sets of parents, grandparents, and extended families, ex-friends, new friends, and all of the traditions, experiences and expectations that go along with them. A couple may have a great relationship between the two of them but because parenting each other’s children and navigating the intersection with former family members is more complex than they anticipated, the stepfamily as a whole can suffer.
When offering advice on how to form a healthy, lasting stepfamily, Ron often uses this analogy:
“How do you cook a stepfamily? Not with a blender because someone always gets creamed. Instead, you cook a family with a Crockpot. It’s a slow process, taking years to create integration and a family identity,” he says. “Some warm up to others more quickly, and some take more time. Relationships today may not be what you want them to be, but that’s because they’re still cooking.”
While fear and jealousy are the predominant emotions that can hinder the success of a remarriage, and understandably so, Ron encourages couples to keep a positive, yet realistic perspective.
“Continue to choose love. The greatest thing I’ve learned from stepfamilies is the power in choosing love,” he says. “When you’re a stepfamily, you have the opportunity to choose a connection that far exceeds just being born into a family. You might have to say to yourself, ‘We are still a family even though we’re not as close as I’d like us to be, but we’re still cooking.’ It’s only when a couple gives up and re-divorces that the family stops cooking.”
The Remarriage Checkup is not only a review of the study previously mentioned, but it’s also one chapter after another focusing on the specific and proven strengths of a happy, healthy remarriage and subsequent stepfamily. Each ends with tangible advice and an exercise for couples to do together. Just like your car, and even your physical health, every marriage needs a regularly scheduled checkup.
“There is a short list of a few things that couples and ex-spouses can do to dramatically improve the chances of the remarriage and stepfamily lasting,” says Ron. “Harmony and passion really can exist, and the more understanding you have, the better off you’ll be.”
The Deal on Remarriage and Stepfamilies
Notes from The Remarriage Checkup
• The dating experience of a couple is not predicative of what the marriage will be like. Sometimes things change with the ex-spouse after the remarriage takes place. Study and learn as much as possible about stepfamily living so when the challenges arise, you stand a better chance of managing them.
• Children are about a year behind the couple, which means that if the couple is ready to get married, your children need another year. It’s not an exact time table, so just go slow.
• Cohabitation blurs the boundaries of every relationship involved in a remarriage and formation of a stepfamily. It is not an accurate picture of what life will be like.
• Be very intentional during the dating process. You’re obviously going to meet the other person’s children, but it is only after becoming engaged and moving towards marriage that you should start developing a bonded relationship them. There is a hazard in bringing people around children five years old and under, because if the relationship doesn’t work out, that becomes a serious loss for them.
• Never underestimate the importance of fun, which is on the list of what predicts remarriage success. Be diligent about enjoying time together. After all, that’s how you fell in love in the first place.
• Some things you just need to let go, and that’s often the case when dealing with difficult ex-spouses. There are things you can do to manage the stress of it, but chances are she or he won’t go away or suddenly change for the better.
• One of the best gifts you can give your children is the permission to like and respect – even love – their stepparent.
For more information on building a healthy stepfamily and remarriage, log on to Successful Stepfamilies.