101: What happens after divorce – and how it impacts children

This is the third episode in our series on parental relationships – and the lack thereof…  We started with episode 35, which was called “All Joy and No Fun,” where we learned how children can be one of the greatest joys of a parent’s life – but that all the daily chores and struggles can get on top of us and make parenting – both in terms of our relationship with our child and our spouse – something that isn’t necessarily much fun in the moment.  And if you missed that episode you might want to go back and check it out, because I walked you through a research-based idea I’ve been using to increase the amount of fun I have while I’m hanging out with my daughter, who was a toddler when I recorded that episode.

Then we took a turn for the worse in episode 36 and looked at the impact of divorce on children’s development, and we learned that it can have some negative impacts for some children, although the majority are pretty resilient and do make it through a divorce OK.  For the last episode in the long-delayed conclusion to this mini-series we’re going to take a look at what happens after divorce – things like single parenting and remarriage and stepfamilies, that can also have large impacts on children’s lives.  We’ll spend a good chunk of the show looking at things that stepfamilies can do to be more successful.

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Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. This is the third episode in our series on parental relationships – and the lack thereof… We started with episode 35, which was called “All Joy and No Fun,” where we learned how children can be one of the greatest joys of a parent’s life – but that all the daily chores and struggles can get on top of us and make parenting – both in terms of our relationship with our child and our spouse – something that isn’t necessarily much fun in the moment. And if you missed that episode you might want to go back and check it out, because I walked you through a research-based idea I’ve been using to increase the amount of fun I have while I’m hanging out with my daughter, who was a toddler when I recorded that episode.
Then we took a turn for the worse in episode 36 and looked at the impact of divorce on children’s development, and we learned that it can have some negative impacts for some children, although the majority are pretty resilient and do make it through a divorce OK. For the last episode in the long-delayed conclusion to this mini-series we’re going to take a look at what happens after divorce – things like single parenting and remarriage and stepfamilies, that can also have large impacts on children’s lives. We’ll spend a good chunk of the show looking at things that stepfamilies can do to be more successful.
So let’s start with the things we don’t understand very well, and I have to say I was pretty surprised by this one. The vast majority of divorcing mothers gain custody of their children; somewhere north of 80%, and there is actually a ton of conflicting evidence on the benefits – or lack of benefits – of contact with the child’s father after the divorce. Some researchers have theorized that the traditional visitation pattern of spending every other weekend with the father “created intense dissatisfaction among children, and especially young boys.” They found that children in mother-custody families often expressed profound feelings of deprivation and loss regarding the loss of contact with their fathers, and that this stress is mirrored by distress in fathers, who recognize their own greatly diminished role in their children’s lives after the divorce. The so-called “father absence hypothesis” has been used to describe the difficulties that may be primarily experienced by boys:
Boys need a regular, ongoing, positive relationship with their fathers in order to develop a valued sense of masculinity, internalize controls over behavior, achieve appropriate development of conscience, and perform up to their abilities academically…Failures in these developmental accomplishments are seen as being in large measure responsible for aggressive acting out behavior problems, poor academic work, and social isolation from peers.
Professor Joan Kelly, who has conducted a great deal of research on how children are affected by divorce, reviewed a lot of studies on children’s adaptation after divorce and found that predictable and frequent contact with the noncustodial parent has been repeatedly demonstrated to be associated with better adjustment unless the father is very poorly adjusted or extremely immature. This is particularly true for boys. Seems pretty cut-and-dried, right?
But, it turns out, there’s a suite of literature just about as large as the literature saying that ongoing paternal involvement is critical to the child’s well-being, saying that ongoing paternal involvement is either irrelevant or may even have negative impacts on a child’s development. Researchers have found that the frequency of visitation by noncustodial fathers was related directly to the number of problem behaviors exhibited by children in school and to the likelihood of the child having to repeat a grade. Eleanor Maccoby, a reknowned psychologist, studied 552 children between the ages of 10 ½ and 18 years and, overall, found no evidence that sustaining a relationship with outside fathers made a difference in adolescent adjustment. Professor Maccoby did caution that the statistical technique she used could potentially conceal opposing trends, and that for some children living with their mothers contact with their fathers probably had a positive effect – but on the other side, there were probably others for whom it had a negative effect. But for the group as a whole, there was overall no effect one way or the other. Unfortunately, much of the literature that looks at noncustodial father visitation is methodologically flawed, as the researchers study only the amount of contact with the father rather than looking at larger issues that may be involved like ongoing arguments with the mother. As we saw in episode 36, conflict between the parents is a very important predictor of the child’s adjustment after the divorce, so if the child sees the father often but every time they see each other the father ends up fighting with the mother, then seeing the father more often is not a good thing, and if the researchers only ask about the frequency of contact – which many of them do – they’re going to completely miss this confounding effect. Children of separated parents have a greater likelihood of poor mental health than children from intact families, and this has been explained fully by exposure to parental conflict, the decline in socioeconomic status that tends to follow a divorce, parental mental health (which can also decline around the time of a divorce) and to a lesser extent by parenting practices. At least two sets of researchers have found that the quality of the relationship between the noncustodial father and child are significant variables in explaining the child’s adjustment after a divorce – things like warmth, affection, and appropriate parenting behaviors. One problem fathers face is that if they don’t see their children often, they are more likely to engage in permissive parenting behaviors – fathers can find it difficult to enforce rules if only have the children for two days every other weekend because they don’t want to spend those two days doing things that feel more like ‘fighting’ than ‘getting along.’ Permissive parenting is associated with poor child adjustment, though – children do need rules, even if they tell parents they don’t.
The other side of having a nonresident father, of course, is the single-parent mother – about 30% of children today live with a single unmarried parent. And the reason this is important to us is because children from one-parent families are about twice as likely to drop out of school as children from two parent families – the dropout rate found by the National Longitudinal Survey of Young Men and Women found a dropout rate of 29% for children from one-parent families, compared with 13% for children from two-parent families, and the difference is even more stark when you only use high school diplomas as an indicator of high school success and exclude GEDs. And for most children, the failure to graduate from high school is the culmination of a process that began long before. Children from one-parent families do worse to a statistically significant degree on four of five indicators that one set of researchers looked at related to school performance, including test scores, college expectations, GPA, and school attendance. The fact that the difference in grades and attendance persist even after the researchers adjust the results for test scores indicates that children from one-parent families are not as motivated to work hard in school from two-parent families.
The only variable that was not statistically significant was school attitude – children form one-parent families are just as likely to say they like school and want to go to college as children from two-parent families. This is particularly important because of the discrepancy between what the child WANTS to do and what the child EXPECTS to do – children from single-parent families want to go to college but they EXPECT to go at a lower rate, and they actually attend college by about five percentage points less than children from two-parent families. And why is this the case? Well, it turns out that the loss of income in single-parent families plays the most important role in explaining why children in these families have lower school achievement than children in two-parent families.
As a side note, the vast majority of the research we look at on this show is mostly relevant to white people, because researchers tend to study white people, but several of the studies I found on single parents looked at single black mothers and their young children. One of these was also a longitudinal study, meaning the researchers looked at the same children at ages 3-5 and then again at ages 5-8. This type of study design is unusual because it’s expensive and you have to wait a long time for the results, but it can be a good tool to help us really understand how children respond to something over a long period of time. The researchers created a model of factors that influence self-efficacy, which in more simple language means “the feeling that you’re doing something well,” in single black mothers. I’ll quote the results from their paper, since they explain a complex outcome quite succinctly:
“Mothers’ employment was related directly to higher self-efficacy, which in turn was associated with decreased depressive symptoms. However, although employment was not related indirectly to mother’s parenting or the child outcomes, its indirect association with depressive symptoms transmitted through self-efficacy was significant. Decreased depressive symptomology in mothers, moreover, was associated directly with a more positive relationship between mothers and nonresident fathers and indirectly through the latter with increased contact between nonresident fathers and their child, as expected. The more contact the nonresident fathers had with their child, the more adequate was the mother’s parenting in the home environment, which in turn predicted better child outcomes in early elementary school.”
Now we should note that we can’t be sure that each of these factors causes the following one; it’s possible that more efficacious mothers might be more likely to be employed, and when employed they are more likely to earn more wages which could be linked to reduced depressive symptoms. The researchers do suggest, though, that policymakers try to provide access to post-secondary education and also increase the minimum wage, so working mothers will not be poor. We should also reverse our usual caution that these findings may not be applicable to white people, but given that the results seem to generally parallel what we’ve found in research on white people it’s probably not too far off the mark.
Another study of single mothers had a 73% African American sample because the researchers first included all families and then only looked at those below the federal poverty level, and 24% of people in poverty in the U.S. are black while only 9% are white. The study proposed that a different path to financial wellbeing might be to better enforce child support payments from noncustodial fathers, as this support is positively associated with child wellbeing indicators like behavioral adjustment, school readiness, educational attainment, and cognitive outcomes, and negatively associated with externalizing behavior problems. Even more interestingly, an additional dollar of child support has significantly larger effects on child well-being than other sources of family income, possibly because gaining money from other sources requires the mother to spend time away from the child, which child support payments do not, although some studies have found no relationship between fathers’ child support and mothers’ parenting. Overall, the research seems to point to support for policies that help low-income fathers to find stable jobs so they can contribute financially and emotionally to their children’s lives.
Before we get to looking at the stepfamily itself, we should note that the amount of time that the noncustodial parent spends with the child seems to decline dramatically over the first couple of years after the divorce. When divorced parents in Central Pennsylvania were surveyed within four years of the dissolution of their marriages, a substantial number reported that little or no contact occurred between the nonresident parent and child, with less than a fifth of the respondents saying that contact occurred as often as a few times a week, most saw the noncustodial parent once or twice a month or a few times during the year, and a fifth said that contact was even less frequent than that. Further, noncustodial parents reported doing very little actual decision-making about the child; the vast majority of decisions about the child were made by the custodial parent. This process of coparenting seems to be complicated by remarriage, and particularly when the noncustodial father remarries and the custodial mother does not. Unfortunately the researchers couldn’t tell the reason for the decline in engagement between noncustodial fathers and children was due to the father’s new family obligations, whether they acquired new children in their remarriage and lost interest in the children from their first marriage, whether they were overwhelmed by competing demands, or whether situational factors like moving further away from the child became a factor. The researchers speculated that custodial mothers might become more vigilant gatekeepers after their former husband established a new family. But occasionally, remarriage actually produced the opposite effect, increasing the interaction between the noncustodial father and the child, perhaps because tensions were reduced when new people got involved in the broader family structure, and fathers who hadn’t been great parents before might have married a partner who could help them in this regard. So the effects of remarriage on children aren’t simple or uniform – they very much depend on the family structure, the individuals involved, and the relationships between those individuals. And the permissive parenting by the noncustodial spouse that I mentioned earlier is exacerbated when the custodial parent remarries, perhaps because the noncustodial parent becomes more indulgent when their place in the household is filled by a surrogate.
One set of researchers noticed that the word “coparenting” might not be a very accurate descriptor of the kind of activities that divorced parents engage in, and that “parallel parenting” might be a better term – the divorced parents operate in tandem, segregating their activities as much as possible from one another. This has obvious disadvantages in terms of a lack of coordination between parents (and the potential for the child to exploit that lack of coordination), but the most obvious benefit is that it reduces conflict between the parents and as we have thoroughly explored by now, reducing conflict between the parents is a *good thing.* Remarriage didn’t seem to have much impact on the relationship between the parents; if things were already OK before the remarriage then they would probably continue to be so after the remarriage – most likely because the parents have so little to do with each other that the marriage of one or both has little bearing on their ongoing relationship or how they parent the child.
So let’s now move away from the divorce a bit, and talk about the impacts of remarriage on a child’s development, because there’s a LOT of research available on that. About 64% of divorced men and 52% of divorced women remarry, and 12% of all children under the age of 18 are living in two-parent step families.
The majority of the research on stepparents has focused on stepfathers, because over 80% of children from divorced families live with their mothers, and stepfathers do find themselves in a pretty tricky position. Stepfathers who have children of their own may feel as though they are abandoning their own children in favor of the stepchildren. This can lead to two main potential results – either the stepfather ends up resenting the stepchildren and may become psychologically or physically abusive toward them, or he becomes overly solicitous of everyone in the family, and the permissive parenting style associated with this approach doesn’t lead to great outcomes for the children, as we’ve discussed. These problems are also exacerbated by the fact that stepfathers are often entering a family unit where there are exceptionally close ties between the custodial mother and children, in which the children might have had to take on additional responsibilities related to running the household and being a confidant to the mother. The children may find it very difficult to step back into a more child-like role once the new stepfather “intrudes” on this relationship.
One researcher who looked at the clinical literature on stepfathers compiled a list of the problem areas that are most commonly cited as being (1) issues of authority and discipline with stepchildren, (2) uncertainty about whether and how much affection to demonstrate with stepchildren; (3) concerns regarding the possibility of inappropriate sexual attraction between the stepfather and stepchildren; (4) questions of financial responsibility; (5) issues surrounding the loyalty of children to the noncustodial father; and (6) stress generated by confusion about difference in family names. But the overall picture painted by the literature is decidedly mixed – some studies report externalizing behavior problems like acting out and aggressive behavior in children whose mothers have recently remarried, some report essentially no differences in adjustment between children in stepfamilies, single parent families, and intact families, and at least one study found that children in a blended family have higher levels of psychosocial adjustment than children in one-parent families.
Stepfamilies tend to have higher incomes than single-parent families, although less income than intact families, and you might be surprised to learn that children in step families do just as poorly academically and psychologically, on average, as children in single-mother families. This is because money is not the only deficit created by family disruption, and that marriage doesn’t solve all of the single-mothers’ problems. While remarriage increases the family’s income it creates new strains and uncertainties, and often requires moving house, which undermines the child’s connections to neighbors, friends, and perhaps even their school.
So if the overall picture of how children adjust to stepfamilies is not at all clear, what can we learn from the research? Well, we can begin to understand what kinds of children adjust well to stepfamilies and which ones have more trouble.
E. Mavis Hetherington, the well-respected professor who spent decades studying divorce, found that while both boys and girls exhibited acting out behavior for the first couple of years after a remarriage, after that, boys appeared to benefit from the presence of a stepfather while girls continued to demonstrate problem behavior even after two years. She is also one of the first researchers who distinguished between the different types of strategies that stepfathers use to overcome an initially difficult relationship with their stepchildren. She found that with remarriages that occurred when children were preadolescents, the best method of gaining acceptance of the stepfather seemed to be one in which the stepfather attempted to build a close relationship with the child, often by self-disclosing and searching for common interests and experiences in spite of the aversive behavior they encountered from their children, supported the mother’s discipline, but initially did not attempt to independently control or discipline the child and only gradually became more authoritative.
But the picture was completely different when the remarriage occurred during adolescence, when immediate authoritative parenting by the stepfather led to more positive outcomes for the children. And if the stepfather is able to create a good relationship with the child then that relationship is eventually able to buffer the effects of a hostile or neglecting mother on the development of externalizing behavior (like acting out) in adolescents.
In general, though, authoritative parenting on the part of the custodial mother, the non-custodial father, and the stepfather were related to less externalizing behavior (which is more often seen in boys), fewer symptoms of internal pathology (which is more often seen in girls), and greater academic and social competence in children. As we’ve discussed a number of times on the show, the term “authoritative parenting” was defined by Professor Diana Baumrind, and is characterized by warmth, low coerciveness, high monitoring, firm but responsive control, and expectations for mature and responsible for behavior on the part of the child. This style is generally agreed by researchers to be the most effective parenting style especially for white children, and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent for children who aren’t white, and whose parents come from different cultural backgrounds that favor other types of relationships.
The attempts to create affinity between the stepfather and the stepchild are necessary but not sufficient by themselves in building a close relationship. While the stepfather can and should do things like engage in the child’s favorite activities, help them with homework, and financially support them, the stepfather isn’t in total control over the outcome. Stepchildren need to see those actions, realize the positive intentions behind those actions, and in some cases work through what they may perceive as problems regarding loyalty to various parents and also competing messages from both parents and siblings before they can reach judgments about the stepparent and how the child will respond. Children may need help with these tasks – things like the custodial mother commenting on the effort that the stepfather is making and making the connection between this effort and the stepfather’s underlying positive intentions. Even so, some stepchildren will still reject the stepfather, or will simply choose to coexist in the same household, it seems as though the path that the relationship takes has a lot to do with what the various parties believe about the stepparent function. Some researchers surveyed parents, stepparents, and children, and found that while nearly half of the parents and stepparents labeled both the ideal and actual role of stepparents to be that of a parent (rather than a friend), there was no consensus among parents, stepparents, and children about how the stepparent should and actually does function. Stepchildren indicate that they prefer the stepparent function as more of a friend, which I suppose isn’t really surprising when a child’s goal might be to remove potential sources of control over them. While children do benefit from an authoritative relationship with parents, the children themselves would probably prefer a relationship with fewer limits and less control. There is also evidence that the perceived quality of the marriage between the custodial mother and stepfather is positively related to the perceived quality of both the stepparent-child relationship and the parent-child relationship. But, unfortunately, we don’t have much of an indication of causation here – it is definitely possible that having an unhappy marriage between the custodial mother and stepfather could cause ineffective parenting which leads to the poor relationship with the child, but it’s equally possible that poor relationships with the child can create marital stress.
We also shouldn’t neglect the custodial mother’s role in creating the new family. Our culture typically perceives conflict as a negative attribute and that ideal families don’t experience conflict, and mothers may feel as though one of their major roles in the family is to prevent and mediate conflict. Mothers do need to be aware that they cannot both completely recreate the nuclear family with two active parents AND maintain total control over their child’s discipline; these goals are too contradictory to be successful, especially when the mothers are also stepmothers themselves. Although mothers often feel as though it’s inappropriate for their new partner to discipline their child, they thought that disciplining their own stepchildren was perfectly appropriate for their role as a stepmother, perhaps due to societal expectations about a woman’s role in childrearing. These conflicting roles can be very difficult for mothers to deal with, and there is considerable evidence that mothers in stepfamilies have higher rates of depression and alcoholism than women not in stepfamilies, although again we don’t know which part of this is the cause and which is the effect. Divorced women may see themselves in very much of a protective role over their children, which can hamper the ability of the stepfather to be an effective parent to the child. This protective role might be especially important when the custodial mother and child have been “together alone,” although that’s not to say that a quick remarriage is better, since the custodial mother and father might not have enough trust between them for the mother to let go of these protective behaviors.
We also know that a substantial number of remarriages don’t succeed, and children are exposed to disruption again when this occurs. Approximately 1 in 10 children will undergo two or more family disruptions before reaching the age of 16, with 50% of divorces happening by about the fifth year in a blended family compared to the 7th year in the original marriage. There seems to be some agreement that the family is either going to ‘make it or break it’ within the first four years. Very little is known about how the process of dissolution of former step-relationships impacts the formation of subsequent ones. One paper on this topic quoted a child named Nina who described her stepparents as follows: “I adore Jim. I despised Bill. Greta was great. Laura I did like; I disagreed with her on a lot of stuff, but I did really get along with her. And Babette just isn’t a pleasant person.” While a child may relate to each stepparent as an individual, there may also be carryover effects from the previous relationships that can impact a new stepparent’s ability to form a bond with the child. The odds of the child’s own family problems increases the more transitions they go through. Children who experience one or two transitions (a divorce and subsequent remarriage count as two transitions) have about a 70-80% increase in their own likelihood of divorce later on, while children who experience three or more family structure transitions are over 140% more likely to end their own marriages when they’re older. Since one fifth of young people entering marriage age at the beginning of the 21st century will have experienced three transitions, it is significant that multiple transitions have such a large effect on the chances of divorce.
Patricia Papernow, a clinician who wrote a book that contains one of the more developed models of blended families that is actually much better referenced than the average self-help guide, describes a Stepfamily Cycle with seven stages, three early stages, two in the middle, and two later ones. In the early stages the family is primarily divided along biological lines; in the Fantasy Stage, the first of the early stages, the adults in the family are trying to heal the pain created by divorce or death. Formerly single parents feel some relief that there’s someone they can share the burden with, while recently divorced parents might hope for a better parent than the previous spouse. In the Immersion Stage, the reality of the stepfamily becomes known, especially to the parent outside of the biological parent-child relationship. The stepparent may feel jealousy, resentment, confusion, and inadequacy, which may be perceived by the biological parent as a lack of commitment to the family. Both parents feel that something is amiss but can’t put their finger on what it is, and each one concludes ‘it must be me.’ In the Awareness stage, family members make sense out of the confusion as they name their uncomfortable feelings and see that it isn’t just them being neurotic; they’re feeling jealous because they’re an outsider. They begin to give up their fantasies of the instant family and set their minds to the work they need to do. In the Action Stage, family members negotiate new agreements about how the family will work, and things become a bit easier now everyone understand their role in the family and they can move away from continual power struggles. In the two later stages, structural solidification occurs – in the Contact Stage the family finally gets a honeymoon period and begins to function easily. The parents now have the primary relationship and parent-child relationships are subordinate to that. It’s only in this stage that a clearly defined stepparent role emerges. In the Resolution Stage, the family has solid and reliable step relationships. Things don’t seem quite as hard. The stepparent may become an ‘intimate outsider’- close enough to be a confidante but outside enough to provide support and mentoring on topics the child doesn’t want to share with a parent, like sex, career choices, drugs, relationships, and remaining distress about the divorce. Dr. Papenow says that she expects some families to complete the entire cycle in about 4 years, with 7 years being about average. Some families may stay in the early stages longer than 4 years, and a few for as many as 12 years. The main characteristic that seems to define whether a family will move quickly through the cycle or get stuck in the early stages is support from either within or outside the couple – someone to talk to who can understand the experience.
Dr. Papenow draws on a really helpful model from the Gestalt Institute to explain how interactions can happen within stepfamilies, but it also applies to other interactions as well. The Gestalt Experience Cycle (everything’s a cycle, huh?) starts with sensation, where the person feels “something is happening but I don’t know what it is yet.” The person moves to awareness by paying attention to those sensations, naming them, and gathering data on what might be happening (e.g. How am I feeling? What happened that might have made me feel this way?”). The goal of this phase is to organize your awareness so a need that the person can try to satisfy emerges, but this can be blocked if the phase is interrupted by depression that keeps the person stuck in the sensation phase, or if the person makes value judgements like “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” or consistently fails to name sensations correctly (like thinking “I’m uncomfortable so I must be hungry”). It’s common for people in stepfamilies to get stuck in the awareness phase because there’s so much potential for mixed signals – for example, if the biological parent sees the stepparent’s jealousy and interprets this as selfishness, then the stepparent doesn’t get the support they need to move to the next stage, or when family members don’t express their true feelings and needs, or if they demean or discount each other. They might talk endlessly about their feelings but never move on. If the person *does* move to the next stage, which is mobilization, the person gets ready to do something about their awareness, which they do in the action stage. But if you skip the early stages and jump right to action then you find yourself in trouble – like the stepparent who starts to discipline the stepchild without taking the time to build awareness of this individual child’s needs, culture, and history. If awareness is distorted, inaccurate, or incomplete, the action that follows is less likely to meet the other person’s real needs. If the stepchild is rejecting the stepmother’s efforts to create a relationship, the stepmother might try harder, only to experience even greater rejection – which causes the stepmother to just give up. If the stepmother instead responds by trying to learn something new about the child or how to interact with them, or just step back and take some time while getting support from the spouse or friends, is more likely to be successful in the end.
When the action is based on solid awareness the Contact stage is reached, either internally with part of oneself, or externally with someone else or a thing – the family may say “yes, let’s do that!”. This may also include facing what is not possible – like acknowledging that a stepparent may never love your child as much as you do, or just agreeing “we’re going to have to let this one go.” But if you jump too quickly into contact, you appear to be joining together around an idea but in reality this only meets the needs of a subset of family members, like just the biologically related members.
In the resolution stage the process winds down; we talk about what we achieved and what was missing, and what we learned – the family creates new stories about their shared experiences, and make plans to do things differently when they don’t go well. And in the final withdrawal stage a finishing point of this experience occurs so a new experience can emerge. The withdrawal stage doesn’t have to be the end of a macro issue like building a relationship with a new family member; it can just be the end of a vacation, or coming together at the end of the day, or working through a child’s tantrum. The finishing allows them to move away from solving the same problem over and over again, but to learn from each other and the family’s new experiences to improve the family’s functioning.
Difficulties arise in blended families when different family members, or the sub-units of the new family, operate in different ways – so maybe one part of the family is made up of introverts that like to be in the awareness stage for a long time, while another part is energetic and mobilizes quickly and seems to steamroll the introverts. The contact stage is unlikely to be satisfying and if no resolution happens where the family problem-solves on how to meet everyone’s needs, they will continue to repeat the pattern.
Dr. Papenow advises a few steps to support newly blended families – in the early stages of the Gestalt Experience Cycle it’s important for the parents should find support, either within or outside the family, which may include professional support if you feel you need it, but do be sure that the person you choose has experience dealing with stepfamily dynamics. Each parent should spend one-on-one time with each child, and also come together as a family regularly to discuss family issues. And don’t neglect intimate time for the couple as well – both to discuss the family by truly listening to each other and also just to have fun, since the couple relationship may be deprioritized in a blended family, which can strain the relationship and may be a cause of the faster divorce rate in blended families. Try not to fight in front of the children, and especially not about them, and not about the ex-spouse. And plan ahead for family events like vacations and holidays that are likely to be sources of disagreements.
In the middle Mobilization and Action stages, you can do exercises like listing activities that pairs of family members have in common, and choosing to spend time deepening their relationship through that activity. Talk through an issue that you’ve recently resolved and discuss how the different family members felt about it – what they thought went well, and what could be done differently to make the process work better.
In the later stages, celebrate the intimate outsider role that begins to develop between the stepparent and stepchild. Also celebrate your many successful Contact stages – where the family feels ‘whole’ and there’s a distinct sense of ‘us.’ But do expect a new round of awareness of losses as the child moves into adulthood, moving through milestones like graduations, weddings, and new parenthood.
It is important to say that families are messy, and any one family may not move through the stages exactly as Papenow described them. You might find yourself cycling within the stages, or not being able to move on for a while and then experiencing a breakthrough, or maybe even regressing a bit. Some families may move quickly to a high degree of closeness while others take longer and never achieve the same degree of intimacy. Some families may start out more close and lose intimacy over time, while others might stagnate with a low degree of closeness and never make much progress. Of course, all of these functions to try to make the family work are set against a backdrop where the child – and maybe even the biological parent – feels a sense of loss over the divorce, and there’s pressure to accept new people as “family,” and jealousy between stepsiblings as well as potential new half siblings, which makes the process that much more difficult. If by the second year the family still feels like a battlefield, and by the third year tensions are still unresolved then by year four it may become obvious that there is no sense of family membership or solidarity, and instead loyalty conflicts are solidifying, and family members physically or emotionally disengage.
Being a stepmother can be an especially difficult role, possibly partly because of the cultural stereotypes we have about motherhood being the primary role for women and yet stepmothers being evil and cruel and unreasonable and lacking in positive traits like patience, caring, and dependability. Some research indicates that stepfamilies suffering the most stress are those where stepchildren live with stepmothers but frequently visit their biological mother, possibly because both women are trying to parent the child. There may also be implicit or explicit criticism of the biological mother which the child may find it very difficult to accept, even if the biological mother is abusive or unfit in some other way. Even children who understand this and feel negatively about their mother may be guilt-ridden by these feelings, which impedes their relationship with their stepmother. In an admittedly small study of 22 stepmothers, many of them said that while they loved their husbands, they were unsure that the remarriage was worth the stress. This can be especially difficult where the stepmother has a high need for control, which can lead her to jump into the Action part of Dr. Papenow’s model without fully being aware of the child’s needs. But ‘backing off’ from this control tends to cause them to back off from emotional investment as well, and if the father has trouble assuming the primary parent role, the child may find themself without a parent willing to set needed boundaries. Stepfathers may have an easier time integrating into stepfamily life, perhaps because they are less likely to discipline the child which results in less conflict.
There are two different schools of thought on how much all of this impacts children. Researchers in the Transition school of thought say that children are reluctant to accept a new parental figure, struggle with step-sibling rivalries, are more likely to live in a household with an unstable marriage, and thus children from stepfamilies will not fare as well academically or psychologically as their peers in intact families, and they will do no better and perhaps worse than children from comparable single-parent families. On the flip-side, the Resiliency school of thought says that living in a stepfamily doesn’t mean that a child faces disadvantages across the board, and children in remarried families are likely to do better than children in single-parent families. Dr. William Jeynes at Cal State University Long Beach did a meta-analysis of 61 studies that collectively looked at more than 370,000 children. He separated studies that used high-quality statistical controls from those that didn’t, to remove that as a confounding factor. He concluded that “remarriage generally exerts a downward pressure on academic achievement and psychological adjustment,” and this effect was visible whether or not sophisticated controls were used. Children in remarried families did do slightly better than children from single-parent families, although these differences tended to be statistically insignificant. We should be cautious, though, not to think that the children in *every* remarriage are doomed. A meta-analysis addresses overall trends, but it’s individual factors that impact the individual child’s experiences. In general, if a child has a positive relationship with their biological parent they are more likely to view their stepparents positively as well, and this positive relationship with the stepparent can further benefit the child.

Before we wrap up, I want to acknowledge that we’ve focused primarily on families that consist of a custodial mother and a stepfather because these are the most common types of repartnered families. But I do want to acknowledge that other kinds of repartnered families exist. There is much less research available on custodial moms repartnering with stepmothers, and custodial dads repartnering with stepfathers. These relationships are especially complex due to societal expectations about a woman’s or man’s role in a family relationship. One study recounted a lesbian couple’s when the woman who had previously been childless had only just ‘come out’ to her own parents. The new grandparents didn’t have time to accept their daughter’s lesbianism before they were introduced to the idea of also becoming grandparents, and the grandparents found it very difficult to accept their daughter’s lesbianism and their new grandchildren at the same time. Among a variety of respondents to a survey, the majority of extended families – on both sides – indicated no desire to view the stepmother as a parent of equal stature with the child’s biological mother. Because the legalization of gay marriage is a relatively recent development, I’d expect a great deal more research on this topic over the next few years as we try to understand things like how different legal ties to children influence parenting strategies and how same-sex stepparents forge relationships with their new stepchildren.
So, in conclusion, we can say that the literature shows that children whose parents divorce tend, as a group, to show poorer psychosocial adjustment than children from intact families and that these differences persist into adulthood. But there is a great deal of variability in the level of adjustment among these children, and most of them do still fall within normal ranges on measures of psychosocial adjustment and it is likely not the divorce and remarriage per se that causes these outcomes but rather parenting skill, conflict, and numbers of transitions that are bigger factors than family structure. The psychological adjustment of the custodial mother is a key predictor of the child’s postdivorce adjustment. The custodial mother may develop an exceptionally close and protective relationship with the child, which both parties may find it difficult to let go of when a stepfather enters the picture. Stepfathers are often viewed as intruders into this relationship, and children become resentful and jealous, which may be manifested in externalized, acting out behavior in boys and internalized, depressive behavior in girls. Teachers, especially, may be more likely to notice this externalizing pathology in boys because it is disruptive in class and initiates a series of actions that may ultimately get the boy referred for treatment. The girl’s behavior doesn’t cause as much trouble and so may never get noticed or treated. The literature suggests that these difficulties tend to abate after a few years in the case of boys, but persist for longer periods among girls, although I should note that not all boys will experience externalizing behavior and girls internalizing behavior, and some girls will adjust more quickly than boys.
We also learned that stepfathers should consider using different strategies to overcome this resistance depending on the age of the child – with a preadolescent child, a supportive, nondisciplinary relationship is likely to be most effective, but if the child is an adolescent already then an immediately authoritative relationship may achieve better outcomes. Perhaps the biggest thing to take away from this episode is that remarrying parents shouldn’t expect blended families to work like nuclear families, because this can lead to frustration and anger as the parents get through the fantasy stage and realize that blending a family is *really hard.* The child’s feelings of loss and resentment and guilt at betraying the nonresident biological parent, and bad-mouthing of any parent by any other parent, a lack of understanding between new family members, ongoing custody and other legal battles, difficulties agreeing to a child care schedule, financial difficulties and difficulties discussing financies, and the like can all combine to create frustration after frustration in the family. But if you approach it in a really conscious way and if the parents are really committed to listening and trying to understand each other and the children and work through problems with a commitment to learning and doing better and making the family work, then there’s a good chance that you’ll experience better than average outcomes and create a successful family unit.

Thanks for listening – if you’d like to find the references for today’s episode you can do so at yourparentingmojo.com/remarriage.

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About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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