Janet, a widow of three years, began dating Terence, a widower of two years, who fell head over heels in love with her. Their first marriages had been strong, and each felt the profound loss of a beloved partner. They each had children who would be part of the remarried family. As they began to anticipate a future together, Janet noted that Terence had not fully grieved the loss of his wife. “I can live with her memory but I cannot live in her shadow,” she told her counselor. A new marriage was not possible until the loss was fully grieved. She knew that living with an idealized ghost is a no- win situation. Janet was astutely aware she could never live up to an image, nor could she or would she want to replace the deceased spouse. Her own differentiated sense of self gave her a solid place to stand on her beliefs. She challenged Terence that he and his children had not sufficiently grieved their loss, and until they did, they could never make room for her. Also Janet’s younger son, Curt, had formed a special relationship with his mother since his older siblings were in college. After his father’s death, he had played an important role in his mother’s life and was not ready to relinquish it. Clearly, he was not ready for a relationship with a stepfather. Working these issues
out in therapy gave this couple the best chances to take their time until there was clear readiness for these two families to come together. Timing is everything.
In a divorce situation, a major chapter has ended, and each family must make numerous changes to separate from an old life and establish a new one. Similar to the grieving process accompanying death, there is also a grieving process of letting go of the past before one is able to embrace the future. After divorce, spouses are acutely aware of the pain of a broken covenant and the unfinished emotional business accompanying that relationship. The high divorce rates for second marriages are enough to keep people from entering a new covenant before they are ready. If the pain and grieving are denied or dismissed in the throes of a new romance, however, people may plunge into a new relationship before they are emotionally ready. This is a disastrous step because without insight and changed behavior, problems will only repeat.
Fortunately, many enter a second marriage after personal examination and understanding about the past relationship that ended in divorce. They have developed a differentiated self and can thus choose more carefully the second time around. Instead of repeating patterns, they have done the emotional work required to enter the new marriage with valued assets. In cases of both divorce and death, the following reminders are helpful for family members to keep in mind as they grieve their losses.
Second-Marriage Dynamics Modern cultural ideology and norms about stepfamilies can have a negative impact on relationships. The first five years of forming the new family are the most troublesome, and during this time the couple is at greatest risk for divorce. Therefore, it is important that the couple enter marriage with optimistic strength to face head-on the realities of forming a new family. Alert to second-marriage dynamics, they can avoid making common mistakes.
Knowing the value of and being skilled in communication and conflict resolution will put the couple on the right path of interpersonal relating. What both spouses have learned in the former relationship will pay off in second- marriage dividends. Such spouses are not foolhardy, approaching the marriage with blinders on, but are realistic and have their eyes wide open,
aware of what it takes to make marriage work. Prior planning regarding living arrangements (his, hers, or a new home), financial provisions, dealing with one or more ex-spouses, and extended-family visiting rights will help smooth a sometimes rugged path. In many ways, divorce prepares the newly formed relationship to deal with the economic aspects of the relationship in ways that first marriages are often unprepared for.
The marriage is the most fragile unit of the newly formed family and therefore must be protected through a covenant commitment that builds relationship security. It is particularly important that the new relationship develops a sense of “we-ness,” which forms the basis of the covenant. In other words, this new differentiated unity needs to form the core selves for the spouses. Each partner needs to be honest about their wounds and experiences in the previous marriage. Further, each partner needs to feel secure in the new relationship. As this new relational identity forms, other relationships will necessarily need to be modified. New partners will be introduced to relatives, and the family of origin will receive a new extended member. Additionally, new partners often immediately become parents, which creates a need to engage with the previous spouse and their extended family regarding child custody and child-rearing practices. The covenant identity of the new relationship functions as a base of operations for each partner in negotiating these new relationships.
Building a marriage grounded in sound biblical principles also renews enthusiasm. The couple is well beyond the romanticizing of younger days and brings both wisdom and knowledge to the family dynamic. Although living alone may have led to independent living, their desire and choice is to bring togetherness and separateness into a balanced interdependency.
Remarriage can be an incredible source of healing. Being accepted, cherished, and nurtured by one’s new spouse enhances connection and is reassuring. A new sexual relationship with a consistent partner, shared activities, and a meaningful life are a great contrast to the lonely days. Discovering a new couple identity and protecting it with all one’s might is well worth the effort. Reaching out for support from family and friends helps safeguard the sacredness of the new commitment.
Newly Formed Family
The terms blended, binuclear, reconstituted, and stepfamilies are used in the literature to refer to homes in which children from a previous marriage reside. Although we often refer to newly formed families as a way to acknowledge a variety of families (foster, cohabiting, etc.), here we use reconstituted and stepfamilies interchangeably as terms that have developed over the years. Connie Ahrons (Ahrons and Rodgers 1987) coined the term binuclear to give a positive view of being part of a reconstituted family. Such a family has two nuclei, both of which are essential to the progress of the family as a whole and the well-being of the children.
Regardless of the terms we use, a major challenge facing newly formed families concerns ambiguity of status. A history of shared experiences that maintained the first families is missing. The boundaries of reconstituted families must be more permeable to include everyone invested and involved in the lives of family members. Adding to the complexity of ambiguity of status is the fact that parental authority and economic responsibilities shared by two households open up emotional battles of divided loyalties and affection. On the other side, second spouses may use this ambiguity to engage in triangulation by attempting to connect with the child or children against the ex-spouse. It is in the best interest of the children that parents do not use them as pawns in a continuing effort to sabotage the other biological parent. Even though family members yearn for less ambiguity, it is a condition that needs to be accepted and lived with.
Ideas for Newly Formed Families
Discover an identity of your own as a family. Create holidays and traditions unique to this family. Plan fun times/vacations/activities together. Experience faith practices and worship as a family event.
The lack of clearly defined norms regarding newly acquired relationships can be daunting. Children can feel torn when living with a stepmother or a stepfather while their biological mother or father lives elsewhere. Moreover, ambiguity is also an issue for the former wife and her current husband (or a
former husband and his current wife), children’s grandparents, and family friends with whom close ties have been established.
In research designed to identify resilience in remarried families, Greeff and DuToit (2009) found the following eight factors associated with resilience: supportive family relationships, affirming and supportive communication, a sense of control over outcomes in life, activities and routines that help the family to spend time together, a strong marriage relationship, support from family and friends, redefining stressful events and acquiring social support, and spirituality and religion within the family. Further, stepfamily cohesiveness, expressiveness, and harmony are associated with higher levels of relationship satisfaction. Stepfamily functioning plays a stronger role than stepparent-stepchild relationship quality in determining relationship satisfaction (Ganong et al., “Stepfathers’ Affinity Seeking,” 2019).
The task is to build a newly formed family with a distinct history that includes fresh traditions, rituals, and experiences that become unique to them. In the process of living together, the family creates an identity that becomes a shared blessing.
Unrealistic Expectations Another source of difficulty in any newly formed family is unrealistic expectations. It is important to keep in mind the differences between first marriages and families and repartnered marriages and stepfamilies. There are five main dimensions of difference (Papernow 2018). First, insider/outsider positions are emotionally intense and long lasting. That is, individual roles are maintained, and they are highly emotional. For example, fathers and mothers remain as parents, but they may remarry and bring in other sets of in-laws that remain part of the stepfamily. Second, children in stepfamilies struggle with loss and change, and their loyalty to each parent is frequently strained during the divorce and remarriage. Remarriage may bring up unresolved issues from the divorce, and children will also need to engage with the parent’s new partner. These transitions may bring out many unconscious conflicts, which may affect their relationships with new family members. Third is consistent parenting, which will be discussed below. Fourth, stepfamilies must build a new family culture while respectfully navigating previously established cultures. In other words, stepfamilies need
to establish a unique identity. Finally, other parents outside the household (ex-spouses) are part of the family, meaning that the parenting system includes the biological parents and stepparents.
A natural source of difficulty is the tendency for stepchildren to be more tolerant of the mistakes of their natural parents than of the mistakes of the stepparents. Most likely, history with their biological parent gives them more familiarity and confidence in that relationship. Of course, the child may also have sustained serious damage by a biological parent, which keeps that child skeptical and distant. But, in general, society conditions children to trust their own parents, and therefore they will quite naturally be more suspicious, overcautious, and even resentful of the stepparent or foster parent.
Unrealistic Expectations about Stepfamilies and Foster Families
Our stepfamily/foster family will function just like our first family. There will be instant love among all family members. Everything will quickly fall into place; adjustments will be easy. The children will be as happy about the remarriage/new family as we are. The stepchildren/foster children want a relationship and will be easy to get along with.