by Nancy Hoffmann R.N., L.P.C.
The Center for Marriage and Family Studies
In preparation for marriage, my fiancé and I sought Christian premarital counseling. We found a well-known Christian counselor in our area and went to five sessions. The usual pre-marital subjects were addressed – communication, sexual intimacy, financial agreement, conflict resolution, leisure activity and spiritual beliefs. With the full confidence of the therapist we left prepared and ready for our marriage – or so we thought.
After a beautiful ceremony and a relaxing honeymoon we came home to a storm that was in full power. In my naivety of stepfamily dynamics, I believed the barrage of difficulties stemmed from the labor of forming a stepfamily and had very little to do with our marriage. In reality, it had everything to do with our marriage. My husband was coming in with hurts from the past and guilt about the divorce. I was coming into marriage as a never married single woman with no children and high expectations. If our premarital counseling had focused on helping us understand our own personal struggles and the dynamics of stepfamily life, the first years of marriage may not have not been so difficult. At the very least, we would have had a clearer expectation of what remarriage should and does look like.
Today we have fought against the odds (60% of all remarriages end in divorce) and have a satisfying marital and family life. Personally and professionally, I am keenly invested in providing premarital counseling for those that are considering marriage.
Recently, I was in session with a couple that was dealing with issues related to the difficulty of stepfamily life. They had been married seven years and had made it through the worst years, but they were still encountering many struggles in their marriage and family life. I discussed the cycles a stepfamily goes through (see the article Don’t Go Nuclear) and how they were now entering another trying time as the children were emerging into adolescence. They stated after just one session that had they known the information earlier it would have helped them immensely in the beginning years. I asked this couple a simple question and received a powerful answer: "If they had known this information before they were married would they have still married each other?" Without hesitancy both of them said, "No" they wouldn’t have married or, at least, would have waited another couple of years. They went against the odds due to their commitment to God and to each other, but they had many hurtful moments and damaging years that could have been avoided if only they had received good pre-remarital counseling that educated them about the dynamics of remarriage along with the skills for a good and intimate relationship.
The first few years of remarriage are laced with turmoil brought on by the stress of forming a new family. Guilt from the past and the difficulties of developing new relationships decrease the newly married partners’ ability to relate to each other and parent effectively. The behaviors and feelings of individuals experiencing a new stepfamily vary greatly, but one certainty is that this period is a time of high stress. In research, it has been found that stress scores are highest for individuals who are in the first two years of forming a stepfamily. The researchers also found that there is an enormous gap between stress in a stepfamily and stress in an intact nuclear family. For example: Stress scores in women in new stepfamilies were three times higher than those for women in intact nuclear families and males’ scores were two times higher in stepfamilies. Given these statistics, it is not surprising that these high stress levels have an impact on behavior within the stepfamily. Children in stepfamilies are more likely to exhibit acting out behaviors and regression.
This is the time when marital relationship skills become casualties of the larger family war. Men and women seem to lose the ability to talk to one another. Conflict in marriage soars in new stepfamilies, mostly due to unrealistic expectations. Common expectations include: The "just us" expectation, the "instant love" expectation, the "better-than" expectation and the "egalitarian" expectation. Premarital counseling can address each of these expectations and allow the stepfamily to progress steadily in their process of forming family bonds.
Couples entering into or simply pondering a second marriage need to be aware of all this information. In Ron Deal’s article "Ten Things to Know Before You Remarry" many of the stepfamily dynamics are summarized. For every pastor or therapist who will have the responsibility of leading a couple through premarital counseling into remarriage, it is essential that he or she seek training in this area in order to be effective. This extra training is essential as a resource for the stepfamily and the remarriage community.
For those of you considering remarriage make sure you get pre-remarital counseling with someone that is well trained in the dynamics of stepfamilies – it could make a difference in the life of your marriage.
Nancy Hoffmann, L.P.C., R.N.
Nancy Hoffmann is a Licensed Professional Counselor with PeopleCARE counseling center, a division of The Center For Marriage and Family Studies at John Brown University. She specializes in working with women's issues, adolescents, remarriages and step-family issues. She enjoys conference speaking, and teaching groups addressing topics related to clinical experience. Nancy with her husband, Bob, is currently raising a stepfamily of four adolescent children. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.