Ron L. Deal, M.MFT.
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When was the last time you taught a marriage education course specifically for remarried or stepfamily couples? Have you added specific information for stepfamilies to your current marriage education program? Nearly 40% of all weddings are remarriages for at least one of the partners; in 2008, one-third of all individuals who were going through a divorce were actually redivorcing, that is, divorcing from a second or subsequent spouse. With a 10-25% higher divorce rate than first-marriage couples, perhaps it is time that we make our marriage education programs more relevant to remarried couples and stepfamilies.
Even though marriage education and marital therapy has the stated goal of strengthening all marriages, in truth we rarely practice it. For years we have had solid research to suggest that the history and context of remarriage makes it distinctively different than first marriage. While some dyadic and external factors are similar as in first-marriage, others are different. Very different. For example, remarriages are usually embedded in a complex stepfamily system that often sabotages the dyadic-focused interventions of most marriage enrichment programs. Stepcouple enrichment requires a triadic (if not quadratic) and multi-systemic educational model that examines the intersection of parenting, stepparenting, co-parenting between homes, grief reactions, loyalty conflicts, and marital dynamics. This understanding was again confirmed through research conducted by the Couple Checkup Research Team headed by the distinguished marital researcher David Olson, Ph.D. The team including Peter Larson, Ph.D., Amy Olson-Sigg, M.A., and myself conducted two studies of over 100,000 married and remarried couples (each study was of 50,000 couples) and published two books summarizing our findings. The Couple Checkup and The Remarriage Checkup report on the top strengths of each marital situation and what predicted high quality, satisfying relationships versus poor ones. Our research confirmed that first marriage and remarriage couples do have many dyadic similarities, but that some of the top predictors of success are different, as are the stumbling blocks. Seven of the top 12 stumbling blocks for remarried couples (issues on which couples disagree significantly), for example, are related to former relationship dissolution, fear of another breakup, or the complexity of their stepfamily. Remarriage poses challenges for couples that first-marriage couples don’t face in the same way. It is my assertion, then, that generic couple enrichment programs are helpful for remarrieds, but not sufficient to address their relational complexities.
But again, this understanding of stepfamily complexity as it relates to the health of the marital dyad isn’t new. Yet despite our awareness, redivorce prevention is only occasionally mentioned in the marriage education movement and literature, is rarely the focus of keynote presentations at marriage and family conferences, and receives very little attention in the media (even though we are fascinated with the remarriage train wrecks of celebrities like Larry King and Sandra Bullock).
Recently I heard one family speaker refer to remarriage as a “niche” aspect of family education. How can it be a “niche” when there are 35 million remarried adults in America, an additional 36 million adults who are divorced or widowed and wondering about remarriage, and 100 million people who have a steprelationship because they or someone in their extended family got remarried? How can remarriage be sidelined as something only specialists should undertake? Shouldn’t remarriage education be mainstreamed, especially since over 60% of remarriages end in divorce (and about two-thirds of stepfamily couples divorce)?
Insights from the Experts
Over the past few months I interviewed a number of marriage experts about why remarriage is not a higher priority in the marriage education field. I’ve specialized in remarriage and stepfamily education for nearly 15 years now and have published a number of books and video resources on the subject. I can’t help but see it everywhere I go. “So, why don’t other educators see it?” I wondered with the experts. Or if they are aware, why don’t they teach on it more often?
The following is a summary of my informal interviews with marriage education experts like Bill Doherty, Gary Chapman, Diane Sollee, Elizabeth Marquardt, David Blankenhorn, David Olson, Scott Browning, Kurt Bruner, and others. Some of them specialize in marriage education in faith-based contexts, others in community or government based settings, but they all shared the same goal: strengthening marriage and preventing divorce. The interview process was not intended to be scientific; just a friendly conversation to gain wisdom and perspective. With their permission I offer this summary of their comments so we as a movement can chew on their insights. (For ease of communication, comments are shared with a collective voice instead of identifying the individual speaking each time). In some cases I have added my commentary to their viewpoints.
Given the Number of Remarriages and Their High Divorce Rate, Why Isn’t Preventing Redivorce a Distinctively Clear Priority for the Marriage Education Field?
- Academics like theoretical models that apply in a general manner. General models are more teachable and testable. Some academics have, however, provided research evidence that demonstrates the differences between first marriage and stepfamilies. Still, general theoretical models seem more appealing and marketable to educators.
- The outcomes for children in remarried families (stepfamilies) are poor. Research clearly reveals that children in stepfamilies do not fair better than children in single-parent homes. The addition of a stepparent does not improve the academic, social, behavioral, or psychological outcomes for children and may even make them worse. This has led some social policy experts to admittedly side-step remarriage education in their concerted effort to encourage more first-marriage households even though they perceive preventing redivorce as a legitimate endeavor.
- We assume that marriage education applies the same to all marriages. This is based in the assumption that all marriages are “created the same” and have the same educational needs. The public has a blind spot about the unique challenges of remarriage—and so do marriage professionals.
- We underestimate the magnitude of redivorce. The statistics on the prevalence of remarriage and redivorce in the US are simply unknown to many professionals and the media. The subject is not given much attention because for some it is out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
- Most marriage training takes place in churches and other houses of worship; church leaders are slow to embrace remarriage and stepfamily education. The history of marriage education is deeply rooted in faith-based contexts and continues to thrive there. A number of observations regarding remarriage education were noted:
- The percentage of stepfamilies in places of worship is generally less than in the general population making them invisible to many faith leaders. Having said that, it is notable that about 30% of church-based marriage conference attendees are remarried; this is a surprise to many church leaders.
- Theological struggles related to marriage, divorce, and remarriage prohibit some churches from embracing stepfamily ministry.
- Most marriage educators are in a first-marriage and simply aren’t aware of the complex dynamics of remarriage or stepfamily living. We are blinded to a degree by our own life experience.
- Some well-known marriage educators and researchers are themselves remarried, but they don’t frequently talk about it. In a culture that lacks role-models of healthy remarriages, it is ironic that some of the best examples are experts who refrain from transparency, sometimes to hide their past for fear of professional scrutiny. Some struggle in having to say, “Do as I say, not as I did.” I ask, would it completely negate a researcher’s findings or a speaker’s insights if they themselves have been divorced? Surely there is a way for remarried professionals to humbly uphold the “second chance” nature of their remarriages.
- Public opinion about stepfamilies is mixed, if not generally negative. Couples in stepfamilies sometimes hide their past in order to avoid negative stereotypes and criticism. This makes the demand for remarriage education low even though the need is high.
- Presentations are already set. Some marriage educators admit that once they settle into a presentation and content, they don’t think about adding specific information for remarried couples and/or stepfamilies.
What Can Be Done?
So, what will it take to increase the number and frequency of marriage education programs for remarried couples? For practitioners perhaps all is required is the decision to begin speaking to the needs of remarried couples on a regular basis.
- Read a book or attend a workshop on remarriage within the next year.
- In your general marriage education courses, include remarriage “side-bars” that speak to remarried couples or raise awareness about the unique dynamics of stepfamilies. You don’t have to be an expert to add this component to your training.
- Offer practical tips in your community publications or media interviews.
- Teach course materials designed specifically for remarriage and stepfamilies. Find programs at: www.SmartMarriages.com; www.AMFMonline.com; www.Stepfamilies.info and www.SmartStepfamilies.com.
Public policy makers, professors, and ministry leaders can educate those who implement marriage education programs within their domain.
· Share this report with teachers so they can begin to consider the merits of remarriage education.
· Require that students read/study remarriage research and information on stepfamily therapy.
· Write your own Call to Action and distribute it to your religious group or denomination, constituents, or policy recipients.
· Ask that the professional organizations of which you are a member plan workshops or publications on remarriage/stepfamilies.
There is much to be done to stem the tide of redivorce. Let’s get serious about it.
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Ron L. Deal, M.MFT. is President of Smart Stepfamilies, a conference speaker and trainer, and author of the Smart Stepfamily Library Series including The Smart Stepfamily (book and DVD curriculum), The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Remarriage Checkup (with Dr. David Olson) which is based on the largest study of remarriage strengths ever conducted. He is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 20 years experience in marriage and family education. Find resources for couples and professionals at www.RonDeal.org.
Personal Communication, Wendy Manning, Jan 2010, National Center for Family and Marriage Research, Bowling Green State University, based on the 2008 American Communities Survey.
 See for example, Stepfamily Relationships: Development, Dynamics, and Interventions by L.H. Ganong & M. Coleman, 2004, New York: Kluwer; or Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade by James H. Bray and J. Kelly, 1998, New York: Broadway Books.
 Susan D. Stewart (2007), Brave New Stepfamilies: Diverse Paths Toward Stepfamily Living. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, p. 67-73.
 Input from Ken Canfield, Ph.D. about attendees at the Love and Respect conferences, Dennis Rainey about the Weekend to Remember conferences, and myself concerning my Couple Checkup Conferences.