Why so many stepfamilies?

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.

How significant a change is this? According to the Pew Research Center, in 1960, only 13% of spouses were in a subsequent or second marriage.

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.

Is serial monogamy a contributing factor?

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 co-habitating relationships by the age of 35. The next highest first-world nation with a similar statistic is Sweden at a dramatically lower 4.5.%

Marry… Divorce… Repeat

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.

Making stepfamilies work: the research

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.

The 3 styles of blended families

Bray’s research described 3 distinct styles of stepfamilies.

  • Matriarchal. In the matriarchal Stepfamily, the mother is the emotional hub of the family. She is self-possessed, dominant, and effective at managing her family… and she isn’t comfortable sharing parenting responsibilities with her new partner.
  • Neo-Traditional. In the neo-traditional blended family, the parents put a greater emphasis on the quality of the relationship than their own personal preferences. This was the healthiest style because of their focus on teamwork and family collaboration.
  • Romantic. This style of a stepfamily is the most prone to failure because expectations are unreasonably high, while resilience in the face of thwarted expectations is rather low. This style tends toward profound early disappointment and divorce.

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.

Making stepfamilies work through patience, humility, and skill-building

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.

  • Patience. First, it helps to develop an appreciation for the fact that relationship building between a step-parent and their spouse’s children takes time. There is no such thing as an instant felt sense of family with a step-parent.
  • Humility. Next, both spouses need to unpack prior relationship failures and appreciate their enduring vulnerabilities carefully.
  • Embrace New Skills. And finally, good couples therapy will help the couple to develop practical communication skills and manage the transition to becoming a functional stepfamily. It’s not all going to work out without you both stepping up to meet the challenge. Science-based couples therapy can help.

9 Tips for Making Stepfamilies Work

  • Parent as a Team. In addition to relationship skills to enhance your marriage, you may also require better skills for effective parenting. Bray’s research shows that adolescence frequently wreaks havoc in stepfamilies. Gottman’s research extends to children, and training in emotion coaching with your teens might be a good idea. Stepparents should not attempt to exercise parental prerogatives too quickly, but they should also not fade into the background either.
  • Understand that Conflict is Baked into the Wedding Cake. One basic idea for making stepfamilies work is to avoid romantic notions of happily ever after. Conflict is a healthy, if not welcome, part of all marriages, and yours is no exception. The only difference for you is that you have more areas of potential conflict and more personalities to soothe in a stepfamily. Science-based couples therapy will give you the skills that you will both need to fight fair and manage conflict.
  • Be Real. Understand that a successful blended family will require you to upgrade your skills. A blended family is not a return to the familiar past of previous relationships. It’s something entirely new. It’s going to take work and skill to manage and repair family relationships well. Money, child-rearing, handling former spouses… it can all tax your patience as well as your marital bond.
  • Cultivate Patience and Resilience. Biology makes it easy. Bio-families have an intrinsic sense of mutual belonging. But the research found that stepfamilies often don’t gel for years. Be patient. Allow yourselves time to come together and develop a sense of family. Establish rituals of connection to foster a sense of “we-ness."
  • Have Stress-Reducing Conversations. Have regular conversations about what matters to you. Focus on your goals as a couple as well as a family. Have daily stress-reducing discussions and regular Generative Conversations.
  • Don’t Become a Kid-Centric Household, But Appreciate the Predictable Stresses on Your Kids. Kids are developmentally challenged by divorce and remarriage. The more you quarrel with your ex, the more your kids will suffer. As a result, because kids
    are highly reactive, they often control the family discourse. And when they are unhappy, they will let you know it. The bottom line is that we have decades of research that shows that children of divorce are twice as likely to act-out academically, socially, and behaviorally. Spending time together as a couple as well as a family will help.
  • Preserving Your Marriage is Protecting the Emotional Health of your Children as Adults. Adults whose parents divorced but didn’t remarry are almost twice as likely to divorce than adults whose parents never divorced. But they are 91% more likely to divorce if their parents divorced and remarried. This is probably due to the high failure rate of second marriages. Research shows that the marry…divorce..repeat pattern impairs whatever capacity our children have for resilient intimacy. It also leaves them apprehensive about marriage as adults. If your marriage is suffering, get help as soon as possible from a science-based couples therapist.
  • Get Used to Being in the Middle of Conflicting Expectations.  If you frequently fight with your ex, your kids will be impacted. But if you’re too friendly and familiar with your ex, your new spouse may feel a bit insecure. Your new partner’s insecurities will also be aggravated by the fact that your kids won’t see them as “real” parents. The bond will never be the same as with the original family.
  • Cultivate Mental Toughness and a Sense of “We-ness.”Gottman’s research on stepfamilies showed that making stepfamilies work is a function of making the marriage work. A healthy marriage is the bedrock of a successful stepfamily.

Accept reality

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.

Do you need good couples coaching? Step it up!

Originally published April 19, 2019.

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Daniel Dashnaw

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 couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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