By Mike McManus
Perhaps half of all marriages involve one partner who was previously married. If children are involved, 70% of stepfamilies will divorce, putting everyone through another trauma.
However, four of five of these marriages can be saved.
Why do so many of these marriages fail? “Putting together or integrating a stepfamily is one of the most difficult tasks for any family in America today. Integrating involves combining two unique family styles, various personalities and preferences, differing traditions, pasts and loyalties,” writes Ron Deal, in his must-read book on this subject, “The Smart Step-Family.”
“Yet most people make the decision to bring two families together without consulting the instructions (God’s Word)…Blinded with a well-intentioned ignorance, couples march down the aisle a second or third time, only to discover that the building process is much more difficult than they anticipated – and the rewards are few and far between, especially at the beginning,” Deal writes.
All children in stepfamilies suffered a major loss when their parents divorced. Usually they get little help with their emotional struggle because parents are immersed in their own emotions.
In time, however, the children form a deep bond with the parent whom they live with. They almost become “pals,” who enjoy sharing their lives together.
However, if either parent re-marries, the child experiences a new kind of grief – the loss of an intimate relationship between parent and child. “I liked having Dad to myself when I go over there. We weren’t alone the entire weekend,” said Amy.
Two years later her mother remarried, and Amy experienced grief all over again –“the loss of the relationship she had developed with her parents. While the divorce was extremely traumatic for Amy, their remarriages were equally difficult. She had adapted to the divorce by becoming close friends with each of her parents. Now each of them had someone else and did not need her for emotional support anymore,” writes Rev. Dick Dunn in his book “Willing to Try Again: Steps Toward Blending a Family,” another excellent book.
The frequent reaction of children is open hostility: “I don‘t want a new Mom,” she says to her stepmother. “You’re the wicked stepmother!”
That can drive the stepmom right out of that marriage.
Alternatively, the biological parent often fails to see or understand the hostility of their child toward the new spouse. They tend to think their spouse is not being considerate.
The issue is compounded when both spouses bring children into the marriage. That multiplies the potential for conflict – between the children as well as between the children and stepparents, and between husband and wife over the children.
The first answer is to stop calling these families “blended families,” when in fact they are not blending but in seemingly perpetual conflict. The euphemism is misleading.
The most important solution is for a church to create a Stepfamily Support Group, the first of which was created by Dick Dunn, a Methodist pastor. In such a group, couples immediately realize “It’s not us. It’s the situation.” Each person understands that it is not a matter that “My spouse needs to change.” Rather, both realize, “We have a problem that we can work on together. Our struggles are normal because stepfamilies are different.”
Dunn tells of a couple who came to their group after they had already separated and filed for divorce. “As we listened to them talk and describe their situation, there was frequent laughter and smiles because every one of us had been there. Frequently, someone would say, “Sounds normal to me. You’re not crazy. You live in a stepfamily.” That very week the couple moved back together. They figured if these people can make it, so could they.
Dunn wrote a manual on how to create a Stepfamily Support Group. First, select five couples, at least four of whom need it to save their marriages. This Planning Team should be couples married less than four years and be willing to meet six times over two-three months. “It will be one of the most exciting things they have ever done,” he writes.
He outlines what should happen at each meeting, the first of which begins with a prayer to God admitting “that we do not know what we are doing. But we see a need for a ministry with stepfamilies. Show us the way.”
A kit to create a Stepfamily Support Group includes the Manual, “Willing To Try Again,” a chapter of which is read by couples before each meeting, plus a CD by Dunn, available here. Results: His Stepfamily Support Groups saved 80% of these marriages, instead of losing 70%.