Challenges of Blended and Step “Remarried” Families

This article is part of a special series focusing on common challenges faced by Australian families.

Other articles in this series include:

  1. Challenges of Single-parent Families Due to Death or Separation
  2. Challenges of Same-Sex Couple Families
  3. Challenges of Families Who Experience Domestic Violence
  4. Family Issues When There is Disability, Illness, or Serious Injury
  5. Challenges of Families with a Parent Working Away From Home Base

In the last section of the article “Challenges of Single-parent Families Due to Death or Separation” we discussed the formation of a single-parent family as a result of the death of a family member. If that lone-parent family were to make another change and join forces with a second lone-parent family (or in some cases, just add in a spouse), function one (see “Challenges of Single-parent Families Due to Death or Separation” for further information regarding the functions of the family) of family formation and membership is wildly in need of re-examination, as now there is not only the re-defining of family based on the fact that someone is missing, but in addition, the ongoing need to negotiate inclusion with new people coming in.

The “blending” of a re-marriage means that the old norms, rules, and ways of gaining acceptance are now null and void. Blended and step family members generally do not realise this at the outset, wanting to re-create the biological family of origin (the children’s desire), or the first marriage (the spouses’ unconscious wish).

They cannot. In remarriages, there are at least three types of “emotional baggage” that members carry into the new situation, complicating the dynamics. These are unresolved issues from:

  • The families of origin of the spouses (to do with their parents and siblings),
  • The first marriage
  • The process of separation, divorce or death and the period between marriages (Carter and McGoldrick, 2005).

To the extent that either or both of the spouses may expect the other to take away this baggage, the remarriage is headed for trouble. The more the spouses can each work with their own emotional issues with people from the past, the more successful the new union is likely to be. Remarriage has perhaps more subtle challenges than almost any other family form, yet they are challenges worth studying and meeting. One-third of marriages registered in Australia have at least one partner who was previously married (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006a), yet there are an equal or greater number of newly-formed stepfamilies which are cohabiting (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2002). This means that more than half of the new couples forming families today are creating stepfamilies. By 2010, the stepfamily will be the most prevalent family type (Bernstein, 1989).

The challenges which remarried families face arise from the following dynamics…

New roles and responsibilities which are ambiguous, conflicting and usually complex

Children of step and blended families often have their position within the family changed. Where earlier a child was the “baby” of the family, now they might be older than all of their step-siblings. The stepparent role is equally difficult to come to grips with, let alone negotiate with the step-children. Children may suddenly find that they are being discouraged from seeing their non-custodial biological parent, or told that they must answer to a new “parent” whom they didn’t even know until recently.

All the children need to learn rules for how to “behave” in the new situation. Rules and consequences for breaking them are different than before as the family works out how to integrate two different systems of behaviour and discipline. Often stepparents start out thinking that they need to be able to discipline the step-children just as if they were their own, but the step-children rebel at that idea! Research has shown that family (re-) formation works better if the stepparent can work on becoming “friends” with the step-children early on, leaving issues of discipline to the biological parent. It seems to take about two years for stepfathers, for example, to be able to co-manage their children with their wives, but general blending takes much longer (Blended Family Research and Statistics, n.d).

Also, mothers and stepmothers may have conflicting role expectations which see them competing with each other for an authoritative voice in childrearing practices (Carter and McGoldrick, 2005). The more positively the custodial parent can manage the situation, however, the better the adjustment of the children will be.

No-win stepparent roles

Stepmothers are known to be particularly unhappy with their new husband, and ambivalent about their new parenting role, when the husband is the non-custodial parent of children who only come to visit. In such cases, the stepmother does not have much opportunity to become emotionally attached to the children, and their visits are experienced as a disruption which exploits her. She also has to accept that her husband’s co-parenting role is conducted much more with the ex-spouse than with herself.

A stepfather, for his part, often gets put into a double bind: called upon by the mother to help discipline her kids, but then criticised for the way he does that. Stepparents of both sexes frequently “overtry” to make the relationship work (their motivation possibly springing from unresolved issues in their past relationships). When the children do not respond positively, it is easy to become discouraged and feel like giving up.

Remarriages are said to need between three and five years to genuinely integrate the two families into one working unit, but many second-time-around spouses do not stay in the marriage long enough for that, with the majority of second marriages which dissolve doing so by five to six years (Blended Family Research and Statistics, n.d.).

Throughout the time of developing the stepparent-stepchild relationship, the children want to see their non-custodial biological parent. Although some remarried partners believe that it is better to forget about the past and get on with developing the new relationships, the children’s link to their biological parent is deeply significant, even if it was a rocky relationship. Thus family systems experts suggest that polite but low-dose relationships with the ex-spouse and the ex-spouse’s new marital partner work best (Dahl, Cowgill, & Asmundson, 1987).

Complicated, unclear boundaries in the family system

Where are the boundaries in a newly-blended family situation? Do the younger step-siblings get to play the teenager’s drums like the biological siblings do? Does the 17-year-old who used to have an 11:00 curfew now get to stay out until midnight if her younger stepbrother has always been allowed to do so? If people are staying in the same house, but now there are more people, do children have to give up their own space to make things work? How is time now allocated, and who gets to call themselves a family member? And what happens when people who did not know each other before the remarriage are suddenly supposed to call each other siblings? Teens may be aware of sudden incest taboos. In terms of stepparents, whose needs have primacy: the stepparent’s or the children’s? There is often competition, with stepparents failing to realise that they are at another level of the family hierarchy, and do not need to compete with the children.

The question of family integration

Myriad issues beg for resolution under the umbrella of boundaries. The capacity of the new family to integrate, for example, is highest when extended family members approve of the marriage (Duberman, 1975), but often there are conflicts among extended kin, and it is difficult to manage so many relationships, when one considers not only the extended family of the biological parents, but also that of the stepparents (Furstenberg and Cherlin, 1991). Family integration is also more likely to occur the longer the remarried unit has together. It is similarly harder when adolescents are part of the unit: logical, because their task as teens is to individuate: to separate from the family unit, not become more a part of it. The age having the most difficulty with integration seems to be that of ages 11 -13. Finally, integration happens more easily if the remarried partners have a child together (Kemp et al, 2012).

The matter of money

We have mentioned before and it bears repeating that traditional gender roles don’t work well in the case of blended and stepfamilies. Finances are a chief area of conflict for remarried families, and the reason for this is that families tend to assume (usually unconsciously) that the traditional roles of the sexes will continue. This ignores both contemporary economic reality (i.e., that both parents may be working) and also the reality that one or both of the partners may enter the remarriage with significant financial obligations from the first marriage.

Partners who do not pay alimony or child support can cause huge problems in post-divorce families. New wives often complain that a man contributes much more to the welfare of his children, who don’t live with him, than his stepchildren, who do (a bigger issue when she is not receiving child support payments). In fact, that same man may be in the unenviable position of having to decide whether he supports his biological children or his stepchildren, as the paycheque may not stretch to both. Generally, children do lose out financially when their parents remarry; children from intact (first marriage) families tend to receive more from their parents (White, 1992).

Ambiguity of emotional issues: wishing for resolution

Remarried families are about intensity. There were generally intense conflicted feelings – or the denial of those – in the families at the time of the deaths or divorce that caused the families to become lone-parent ones prior to the remarriage. One or both spouses may have had guilty feelings about their children or former spouse. It may have been too hard to face the conflicted feelings at the time, resulting in denial. The deep desperation for the new situation to work has led many blended or step families to continue the injunction: “You must love the other children as much as your own.” In truth, many step families never achieve loving the step siblings or children. If they do get there, however, it is likely to be far down the track: as noted above, three to five years, not three to five weeks.

Some research suggests that it is easier for remarried families to succeed if they have come together after death rather than divorce (Duberman, 1975). While this appeals intuitively on the grounds that a “ghost” cannot interfere with current family proceedings, the tendency is to idealise someone who died prematurely. Various collusions exist within a blended or stepfamily (the so-called “triangles”), but they are harder to recognise when they involve a dead person. One mistake remarried partners make is to present the new stepparent as a “replacement” for the dead parent. The older the children are, the less this is accepted (Carter and McGoldrick, 2005).
As support person, you may be able to help ease resistance against the slow process of integration by suggesting to the biological parent that he refers to “my wife/husband” (not your anything).

Pseudomutuality or fusion tendencies

Given that going through a separation is so painful, many families, still hurting and humiliated from the loss, make the determination, “This time I won’t rock the boat; this time I must make it work.” In so doing, they squash down the doubt, conflicts, and differences that they should deal with, creating a situation of pseudomutuality. This stance can be maintained for some time, but ultimately the needs will re-surface of a person who squashes down their feelings for the sake of “harmony”.

Even when conflicts and coming-together issues are seriously worked on without repressing them, it still takes years for remarried family members to get a sense of belonging, perhaps more with adolescents (Kemp et al, 2012). We must emphasise the fragility of a blended or stepfamily. Remarried people do not wait as long to leave a bad situation as they did the first time around, separating – if they are going to – by the five to six year mark as opposed to nine years on average for first-time married partners (Blended Family Research and Statistics, n.d.), so any tendencies towards fusion or pseudomutuality must be addressed early on, while there is still time to work things through.

Conflicts of loyalty

Children may feel put into a no-win situation. They are made to feel guilty if they don’t love the new stepparent. They fear that they will hurt or anger one parent by withholding love from the stepparent. But if they do love the stepparent, they are disloyal and will hurt or lose the love of the other parent. These feelings can be intensified if there is much guilt induction as a general dynamic in the family.

As with single-parent families, a number of issues beg to be addressed and compassionately resolved if the new family unit is to have a chance at staying together with a modicum of happiness. Parents’ life in their new romantic bubble means that their children’s experience and needs are often neglected as the parents try to manage two life-cycle activities simultaneously – courtship and parenting – which are usually sequential in first marriages. Because people want “normalcy”, they tend to think of the remarriage as an “event” rather than the fairly lengthy process that it is.

The unclear boundaries and multiple loyalties are hard to deal with, so there is often pressure to cut the non-custodial parental relationship out of the picture in order to create clarity in the remaining relationships. Although about 70 per cent of remarriages fail (Blended Family Research and Statistics, n.d.), they can and do succeed. If you are supporting a family in this situation, your knowledge of these dynamics will alert you to ways to help your supported family avoid those dark statistics.

This article was adapted from AIPC’s MHSS Specialty Course “Supporting Challenged Families”. For more information, visit


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