Couples therapy researchers are acutely focused on the challenge of making stepfamilies work.
Stepfamilies in the USA are as typical as they are complicated. 40% of married couples with children in the USA today are stepfamilies (Karney, Garvan, & Thomas, 2003).
It’s estimated that nearly 114 million Americans have some sort of a family step-relationship. 40% of all weddings in 2019 will result in the formation of a new stepfamily. Stepfamilies are everywhere.
Today’s rate is triple that number.
Of all new marriages in 2019, 40% are remarriages. Half is a remarriage for one partner, and the other half is a remarriage for both partners.
13% of American adults are step-parents (29-30 million). 15% of all American men are stepdads (16.5 million), and 12% of women are stepmoms (14 million).
Please note that this data does not include families with adult stepchildren. If we add women with adult stepchildren, we came close to doubling that number to somewhere between 22-36 million. Ditto for Stepfathers.
40% of children in the USA today are born out of wedlock. And almost 60% of these new parents already have at least one child from a prior relationship.
In other words, the majority of children being born out of wedlock with single parents are pretty much also born into stepfamilies (Carlson & Furstenberg, 2006).
Why do couples therapists have a keen interest in stepfamilies? Here’s the problem. 67% of second Marriages in the USA fail.
Americans initiate and terminate relationships quickly. They marry and divorce with more velocity than any other Western country. American sensibilities around serial monogamy differ dramatically from European nations.
For example, 10% of American women have had three or more divorces, marriages, or cohabitating relationships by the age of 35. The next highest first-world nation with a similar statistic is Sweden at a dramatically lower 4.5.%
16% of persons born after 1970 will marry, divorce, remarry, and get divorced again. This uniquely American pattern is impacting our children directly.
By age 15, nearly a third of all children in the United States will have had more than one father-figure.
Why is this a problem? Because when these children experience their mothers engage in turnstile relationships, it degrades their overall academic, social, emotional and psychological resilience.
The issue of serial monogamy is escalating.
A third of all the parents who divorced in 2008 are divorcing their new partners once again. Serial, turnstile monogamy is the new normal in American life (Cherlin, 2009).
Consequently, making a stepfamily work is a core concern for a science-based couples therapist.
James Bray is a clinical psychologist and researcher who has made significant contributions to the study of the modern American stepfamily. In his book Stepfamilies, he argues that the key to making stepfamilies work is having a vibrant, stable marital bond.
The Gottman Institute’s research confirms Dr. Bray’s findings. Clearly, the most significant variable in making stepfamilies work is a healthy, loving marriage.
Stepfamilies is a helpful guidebook for stepfamilies based on solid research from a 10-year longitudinal study.
As a clinical psychologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Bray often did therapy with stepfamilies and was concerned that nearly 70% of second marriages fail.
The National Institutes of Health financially backed his research project (as they did Dr. Gottman’s research). They wanted to help discover the best practice for making stepfamilies work better.
Bray recruited 200 Texas families that were mostly working or middle class and white. They all had a biological mother and a stepfather.
Dr. Bray found each blended family had its particular unique struggle. But there were, generally speaking, three styles and three life stages that predicted whether the family would function reasonably well.
Bray’s research described 3 distinct styles of stepfamilies.
Bray’s research shows that all 3 styles have their good days and bad. There is a predictable arc to stepfamily dynamics.
The first 24 months are fraught with peril for the typical stepfamily. The children are sorting out a new person in their home, while the shadow of the absent biological parent and the previous relationships looms large.
Often after the initial 2 year adjustment period, a time of relative calm and stability is established. Compromises and adjustments are worked out. A family routine emerges.
However, adolescence can often be a profound stressor. Behavioral issues arise, and step-parents often wield discipline too quickly and too heavy a hand. These dynamics often bring step-parents and bio-parents into bickering and open conflict.
Science-based couples therapy can help blended families navigate the predictable pitfalls. Dr. Bray’s research describes 3 critical areas of growth for making stepfamilies work.
Couples in a stepfamily need to accept certain realities. The step-parent dynamic will typically differ from the bio-parent dynamic.
Sometimes grudging respect and mutual accommodation are the best you can hope for between a stepchild and their step-parent.
In time, family dynamics will improve to the degree that you work at it.
Model resilience, excellent communication, and emotional intelligence for your kids. There is a long game here that will impact your legacy far into the future.
Making stepfamilies work means understanding that what you both do echoes today through time and informs tomorrow.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and passive aggressive behavior patterns.
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