Although the research presented above paints a grim picture, single-parent families offer strengths as well. One of Tom’s most diligent clients was a single mother trying to raise her son. Gabriella brought her son Juan into treatment after increasing anger outbursts at school and home. Juan was especially angry at his day care counselors and was slowly becoming angrier and angrier at his mother and teachers. Prior to becoming so angry, Juan described himself as wanting to be a good boy again, and he wanted to love his mom and dad. One of the main issues was that Juan’s dad began making and breaking promises after he divorced Juan’s mother. Juan had a hard time understanding and dealing with these broken promises. Further, Gabriella was trying to earn enough money to live on, and she was also trying to support Juan’s education. During therapy, we implemented more proactive strategies like setting boundaries with Juan’s father. We also processed Juan’s anger and grief over the divorce. We practiced identifying patterns and relationship triangles to increase Juan’s insight into his anger triggers. We also implemented a school strategy where Gabriella would take the initiative
in reaching out to Juan’s teachers regularly for progress reports. We also praised Gabriella and Juan’s resilience and strengths at coping with a very difficult situation. Juan was able to see how well his mom supported him, and he learned how to regulate his emotions and respond in a more appropriate manner.
Family Values and Valuing Families: A Christian Response The reality is that more and more children are growing up in single-parent families. This is partly due to the decreasing number of individuals getting married before having children and to the prevalence of divorce and separation. As we have been describing, the effects of single-parent families are challenging for children especially. A biblical ethic of family must include the mandate that each member in society is to be cared for—that truly none must be left behind. The radical redefinition of family by Jesus leaves no room for an ethic that allows Christians to draw the line at caring only for their own families. This is a reversal of Cain’s refusal to be his “brother’s keeper” in Genesis 4:9. We are in fact called to care for our brothers and sisters. The Christian community should be a resource for those in need, especially for children in single-parent households that may be struggling with tangible needs.
A disturbing finding by Marquardt (2005) is that children found the church to be less than helpful in the divorce process. For those children attending church at the time their parents divorced, two-thirds said that no one, neither clergy nor congregational members, reached out to help.
Kristen Harknett (2006, 171) has identified private safety nets—“the potential to draw upon family and friends for material or emotional support if needed”—as a major advantage that some single mothers have over others. She found that single mothers who do not have such safety nets are more prone to depression and lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. The Christian community can serve as a safety net for single-parent homes and make a significant difference to these families.
Many families are doing well, even after the disruption that occurs as a result of divorce, death, or abandonment. When both custodial and noncustodial parents take seriously their covenant with their children, there will be great reward for all concerned. Extended-family members and church community members can take the role of mentor and empower children from
single-parent families. Other resources in the larger community can bring needed support, such as Big Brother/Big Sister programs, after-school activities (sports, music, art), church youth groups, and tutoring services. Welfare agencies at the local, state, and federal level can also offer substantial help that can make a difference in the lives of those family members.
Complex Families in Contemporary Society
We can no longer assume that a family consists of two parents and their children. Family types now include single parents living with their children full- or part-time; stepfamilies with his, hers, and their children full- or part- time; foster families; cohabiting couples with children; married or cohabiting couples without children; households of singles and married people with or without children; multigenerational family structures; and same-sex marriages/partnerships. Holding a narrow definition of family undermines the importance of these families. In this chapter, we examine the complex dynamics that occur in newly formed families and note the important qualities that keep them resilient. Diverse conditions (individual differences, quality of relationships among members, family environments, unique stressors, cultural and religious beliefs) affect the success or the failure of these families to thrive.
In our postmodern era, newly formed families face unique challenges. The ability to adopt creative living arrangements that meet the needs of each family and its members is the key to successful integration. Postmodern family life resembles a theme park. There are many different attractions available, and they are all competing for the attention of each family member.
Embracing differences, irregularity, and diversity necessitates permeable boundaries. Making room for each family member and his or her significant relationships (coming in and going out) challenges the structure of these families. Adapting to the changing needs of the members is quite a balancing act. Establishing family identity in the midst of making space for noncustodial parents and extended-family members and friends is not an easy task. Increased family forms introduce increased stress among family members.
Our rapidly changing technological society impresses on us the need to be proactive in keeping all families functioning at an effective level. When the multifaceted interests, abilities, gifts, and talents represented by each member become resources for the good of the whole, the family has achieved a greater goal.
A View from Trinitarian Theology The changing nature of newly formed family structures does not change the interaction principles introduced in our trinitarian theology. Identity is the core feature of the family, and it is the core feature of differentiation in Christ. Our security as a child of God through Christ forms the basis for our being (identity) and doing (relating). In the postmodern world, reciprocal relationships may be more complex; however, they are more essential. Foundational to all interactions, regardless of the family structure, are the biblical relationship principles of covenant (establishing trust, belonging, and security); grace (living in a constant state of acceptance and forgiveness); empowerment (building one another up to reach God-given potential); mutual interdependence (differentiated unity); and intimacy (communicating in ways that establish deep connections and intimate sharing among members).
As our identity in Christ forms the core of our identity, we are able to make covenants with our partners and children. The main vehicle or mode of living out our identity in Christ is our value base. This base leads us to form covenantal relations typified by grace, empowerment, and intimacy. The ultimate goal is to authentically reflect our identity in Christ via our relationships for doxological purposes. In other words, we glorify God by relating authentically—in congruence with our identity. Diversity and distinction are exemplified in the Trinity. Further, the doctrine of the image of God evidences God’s desire for diversity. It begins with the created order— manifold expressions of flora and fauna—and it culminates with humanity —“male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26–28). Both fathers and mothers must remain faithful in their covenant commitment to their children even when the spousal covenant has been broken. Every family member prioritizes the best interest of other members. The interdependence of working together for the good of the whole strengthens newly formed families.
Interdependence means that new family members must learn to depend on one another and work together. They will experience the benefits and blessings when they feel part of and responsible for working toward a well- functioning family. Indeed, grace (acceptance and forgiveness) must abound during the process of coming together and then living together. Mutual empowerment will become a primary focus as family members show respect for differentiation as well as engage in cooperative efforts for the good of the whole family. Interdependence will be achieved when each member contributes rather than focusing on individual rights. Because all members have an important place and purpose in the family, each one reaps the benefits of intimate connection.
Newly Formed Couple Although an estimated 80 percent of people who divorce eventually remarry, the timing of remarriage is often delayed due to postdivorce cohabitation, especially with multipartnered forms of cohabitation (Xu, Bartkowski, and Dalton 2011). Although these marriages have a slightly greater risk of dissolution than do first marriages (Bramlett and Mosher 2001), being remarried seems to bring restoration and renewal to most. Linda Waite’s research (Waite et al. 2002) indicates that those who divorce or are widowed regain many of marriage’s benefits when they remarry. Although parental remarriage can be difficult and even catastrophic for some children, most divorced men and women hope to be in a committed relationship with a spouse who loves, values, and supports their children.
An increasingly common pattern is for divorced persons to move into a cohabiting relationship either instead of or before a second marriage. Johnson, Anderson, and Aducci (2011) use commitment theory to explain why some choose to remarry rather than cohabit. They found that those who value interpersonal dedication move toward remarriage, while those who adhere to constraint commitment (feeling “stuck in” rather than valuing the relationship) choose cohabitation.
Second-marriage transition is a unique challenge for newly married spouses, and many are ill prepared to meet it. Trust is often a casualty of divorce, and individuals looking to enter into new relationships after a divorce are often wary. Building trust is more difficult in second marriages due to hurt that often lingers from dissolved first marriages. Those in second
marriages often identify lack of trust in their first marriage as an issue that prompts them to increase trust while dating and establish trust in their remarriage. The fundamental truth is that the newly formed marriage is the most fragile relationship, yet the most important link, in forming the new family. The newly married couple may feel shaky in light of several external factors that have an immediate impact on them. Yet being prepared for the reality of joining their two families means they must honestly anticipate the common challenges and stand solidly together as they enter this new phase of life.
Dealing with Loss and Grief
Fear is often a by-product of loss. Anger is often a by-product of fear. Take time to talk about the losses. Take time to grieve the losses. Don’t shortchange the process—take all the time needed.