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The Complexity of Stepfamily Marriage


It is estimated that stepfamilies will be the majority of family types early in the 21st century. This means most families will have the experience of being built from losses and of having a mixture of biologically related and non-biologically related members. It often means serious conflicts from past relationships intrude upon the current family life and legally required financial commitments drain the family’s resources. But statistics don’t convey the complexity of life within a stepfamily and, especially, the strain it places on the marriage.

Darlene and Jake. This was the second marriage for both Darlene and Jake. Darlene had no children from her first marriage. Jake had two adolescent children and a high conflict relationship with his first wife. Darlene was in her mid-30s at the time of this marriage, so they quickly had a child of their own. That led to a decision for Darlene to reduce her job to half time until their daughter was going to start school. But Jake had major financial responsibilities to his two sons, one of whom was starting college. It placed considerable strain on their finances.

But money was only a small part of the tension. Jake was embroiled in a chronic conflict with his former wife, particularly accusing her of trying to sabotage his relationship with his sons. They were told many negative stories about their father including accusations that he had cheated on their mother, was hiding income and not giving enough to the boys, and not being a caring parent (e.g., when he didn’t show up at an activity). Jake said these were lies but his efforts to talk to the boys and see them was constantly thwarted by their mother. This process sometimes resulted in months going by when the boys would not want anything to do with him, causing Jake incredible pain.

The impact on the marriage. Darlene knew about these issues but was still emotionally unprepared for the experience. She frequently perceived herself as not being the primary relationship in Jake’s life because he would put so much time and energy into trying to resurrect and maintain a relationship with his sons. Even Jake’s first wife took up so much of his attention that Darlene would end up feeling like she was fourth on Jake’s list of priorities (fifth when she added his job to the list). Darlene’s reaction was complicated by the fact that she had not been a parent until recently and had difficulty understanding the pain Jake was enduring. She often was angry that he seemed conciliatory and kept urging him to take tougher stands. But Jake insisted this only escalated the conflict and typically resulted in less contact with his boys.

Darlene had come to dislike the boys because of how they treated Jake and affected her life. She didn’t want to spend time with them, putting Jake into a no-win position by often having to appear to choose between his wife and his children. At the same time, Darlene frequently ended up doing things for the boys and felt that neither they nor Jake showed much appreciation for her “sacrifices.”

Jake was constantly feeling trapped and had clearly become depressed. His depression, in typical male form, showed primarily as anger. He became an increasingly unpleasant person to live with. Jake felt that no matter what he did someone was always mad at him. He particularly felt that his wife was not understanding or supportive.

What’s wrong with us? Jake and Darlene had lost touch with all the reasons that led them to marriage. Common interests, having fun together, and being able to talk like old friends from the moment they met had been the cornerstones of their relationship. But much of this was quickly lost in the complexity of the difficult stepfamily challenges. They were trapped by their pattern of seeing all these problems as the “fault” of the other. One of the first steps to positive change was to learn how common these issues were and to stop interpreting everything as a statement about their marriage. They joined the Stepfamily Association of America. This gave them access to recommended readings, and a local chapter. They attend workshops and met many couples going through the same process. They quickly learned that their problems were quite common and began to be less critical of each other’s behavior.

Solutions in these situations are often not matters of changing what is being done but of how it is being perceived. Jake cannot change his ex-wife’s behavior. He cannot change the court-dictated financial responsibilities. He has limited influence over the lives of his sons. The challenge for Jake and Darlene is two-fold: learn to be more supportive on the issues that cannot be changed; focus energy on making changes that will strengthen the current marriage.

One couple’s solution. Darlene and Jake decided to seek professional advice because they were so stuck in their patterns of marital interaction that they had lost the capacity to communicate without anger and blame. Marital therapy complimented their experience with the Stepfamily Association. Jake was able to see that he was so consumed by his issues from the first marriage that he wasn’t investing enough in his current marriage. He realized he was expecting Darlene to be supportive when her own needs weren’t being met and without the personal experience to truly understand these issues. He learned that he would actually have a better chance to salvage his relationship with his sons if he put more effort into his relationship with Darlene. That’s because once Darlene felt that she was really the most important person to Jake she not only could be more supportive to him but also could give more to the boys.

In fact, for the first time, when the boys came to visit, they actually experienced a sense of being part of a family, something they hadn’t experienced since their parents’ divorced. This proved to be a very powerful influence, especially since, unknown to Jake, they had interpreted his new marriage, and especially his new child, as an indication that they weren’t so important to their father anymore. There’s a moral here: everyone resists the intimacy of relationships because of the fear of the pain from losing those relationships. This is especially true for people who have experienced divorce because that pain is real and they don’t want to go through it again.

For Darlene, therapy helped her to realize that she had a particularly strong tendency to expect to be hurt in a close relationship because her father had died when she was young. She learned that even though she had loved Jake, she was always expecting to lose him. It took an extra dose of risk on her part to be really committed to this marriage, especially when Jake, in fact, had been so distracted by his issues. Jake’s increased awareness of this also helped him to be appreciative of how hard all this was for Darlene. He had been so absorbed in his problems that he had not given equal weight to his wife’s distress. In fact, he had continually failed to understand what she even had to be upset about.

But now things had changed. Progress came from making more time for their marriage, understanding the normalcy of their issues, and by rebuilding their ability to trust another person’s love, a trust that had been damaged even before they got married. Darlene and Jake were well on their way to a much happier marriage even though some of the stressful realities were still present.

dr. heller is a clinical psychologist, now retired, who specialized in providing services to children, families, and couples since 1968. he has written over 170 columns about parenting and marriage which are available on his website, http://www.drheller.com.

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Listed: November 10, 2008 8:08 am