The Step Couple Relationship

Gordon & Carri Taylor

When we remarried and entered into “stepfamily-land” there was much confusion about the couples’ relationship. The unspoken thought was that it was going to be just like a first marriage, even though we were very much aware that we were both bringing children to this new relationship. Confusion set in, as the children became the main focus, parenting style collisions surfaced, ex-spouses didn’t vanish off the planet, but in fact they remained a very present force to be reckoned with. We didn’t just marry each other, we married an extended family system with tentacles extending into places we were and were not aware of.

This confusion prompted us to do some research and even more thinking, because we both wanted our second marriage to be successful. We were aware that we were statistically, a high-risk couple. Research points to the fact of higher divorce rates for second and subsequent marriages. Also that the remarried couple has 3x the stress that a first married couple has.

At first it seemed like we had to put our marriage relationship “on hold” to give the time and energy to all the explosions that happened in this “open-door, multiple household” system. Time together over dinner or on walks was spent strategizing our battle plan, not basking in the “romance” of our new found love.

To survive we had to work together and support one another in not only developing the new relationships - our marriage, our stepkids, new extended family members (in-laws); but also in continuing to nurture and nourish the pre-existing relationships we brought with us – biological children (no matter what age or where they resided), ex-spouses and the previous extended family members (out-laws).

About five years down the road (we have a total of over 30 years together now), we came to the conclusion that our marriage relationship hadn’t really been put “on hold,” but it had grown and been strengthened through adversity – as long as we fought together for our stepfamily, instead of fighting and blaming each other because things weren’t how we thought they would be!

We finally came up with a concept that works for our understanding and is helping other step-couples understand their territory. PRIMARY vs. FOUNDATIONAL. The following are the definitions of these terms.

PRIMARY: First in time or origin.
FOUNDATIONAL: That on which something (the marriage relationship and family) is founded and by it is supported and sustained.

In first marriages, both principles are present in the couple relationship and are established simultaneously. The marriage relationship is established first (PRIMARY) and also supports and sustains all relationships and interpersonal dynamics that take place (FOUNDATIONAL). God’s Ideal!

The Stages of the (intact/nuclear) Family Life Cycle.

McGoldrick and Carter

  1. Leaving home: Single young adults. Accepting responsibility for self.
  2. Marriage: The new couple. Commitment to a new system.
  3. Families with young children. Accepting new members into the system.
  4. Families with adolescents. Increasing of family boundaries, children’s independence, and grandparents’ frailties.
  5. Launching children and moving on. Accepting exits from and entries into the family system.
  6. Families in later life. Shifting of generational roles.

In second and subsequent marriages things are different. The couple relationship is still FOUNDATIONAL, because without it there would be no stepfamily. It supports and sustains the newly developing stepfamily and everyone in it, maybe even ex-spouses. However, the children brought into this remarriage are the PRIMARY relationship. These relationships pre-exist the couple relationship. Our children were present before we even knew one another existed!

A first marriage is primary and foundational. A second marriage is foundational and secondary – especially to the children whose fantasy may be to have mom and dad back together. Does this negate the importance of the remarried couple’s relationship? Not in the least! It does mean that most of the time the couple must strengthen their relationship while ministering to the needs of the children (no matter what age) and supporting the biological parent as he/she deals with their children and even an ex-spouse.

Without understanding this concept; competition, jealousy, and resentment get in the way of building a stepfamily that can end up reestablishing a child’s trust in marriage and family, while reducing the viability of divorce. To do this and more, the remarriage must first remain intact to lend stability to all the lives that have been disrupted.

These comments may open a plethora of questions about the remarried relationship and parenting in the stepfamily. The main premise still remains valid; there is a major difference between the first marriage couple relationship and a subsequent remarriage couple relationship.

Remarried Family Formation: A Developmental Outline

Remarried Family Formation: A Developmental Outline

  1. Entering the new relationship
    • Task: Recovery from loss of first marriage (emotional divorce)
  2. Conceptualizing and planning the new marriage and family.
    • Task: Accepting one’s own fears and those of a new spouse and children, about remarriage and forming a stepfamily.
    • Task: Accepting the need for time and patience for adjustment to the complexity and ambiguity of:
      1. Multiple new roles
      2. Boundaries: space, time, membership and authority, Affective issues: guilt, loyalty conflicts, desire for mutuality, And irresolvable past hurts.
  3. Remarriage and reconstitution of the family.
    • Task: Final resolution of attachment to previous spouse (forgiveness) And the ideal of an “intact” family.
    • Acceptance of a different model of family with permeable boundaries.

When these differences are not dealt with it’s usually because of unrealistic expectations. Which in turn set the couple and family up for even more trauma than remarriage and stepfamily development normally bring.

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