By James H. Bray, Ph.D., John Kelly
Dozens of studies, including our own, have shown that the principal challenge of stepfamily life is building an emotionally satisfying marriage.
What makes this the paramount challenge for couples like the Goldsmiths is the changing nature of marriage-or, perhaps more accurately, the change in the reasons that people marry. Unlike men and women in earlier generations-who married for a variety of practical reasons, chiefly financial security-today people marry out of a desire for personal fulfillment: for happiness. This motivation is as active for men and women entering a second marriage as it is for those entering a first, and it accounts for a correlation we saw again and again in the study.
Marital satisfaction almost always determines stepfamily stability. If satisfaction is high, tolerance for the normal tumult and conflict of stepfamily life is correspondingly high. If satisfaction is low, tolerance for conflict is so low that often the stepfamily dissolves in divorce.
In a recent book, psychologist and family therapist Patricia Popenow describes the qualities that make a marriage satisfying. Her list includes shared values, shared rituals and gestures, a common problem-solving style, a similar way of looking at the world, and also the small daily acts of self-sacrifice that signal an individual's willingness to put "we" above "me." Dr. Popenow calls this group of characteristics the middle ground of a marriage, and she finds that this middle ground operates on two levels, both of which enrich the husband and wife.
On a practical level, a middle ground works like an instruction manual. Without consulting one another, the couple knows what should be done about a child, a bill, an annoying relative, or the guest list for Thanksgiving dinner. On an emotional level, the middle ground is the cement that holds a marriage together, makes it cohesive. The middle ground is the place where the husband and wife exist not as "you" and "I" but as "us."
New studies have supported Dr. Popenow's viewpoint. A thick, rich middle ground of shared values, beliefs, and personal styles is indeed what makes a marriage a successful, practical, and emotional partnership.
One reason for this is pride of joint authorship. Writer Pat Conroy once observed that every marriage constitutes its own unique civilization; the shared values and feelings, the similar way of looking at things, and the small acts of sacrifice that make up the marital middle ground are the symbols, language, and currency of Conroy's marital civilization. Thus, the couple that creates them is creating something truly unique, something distinctive to them and them alone-something that no two other people in the world could have created.
Additionally, a middle ground functions as a zone of comfort. It is the place in the marriage where each partner can go for companionship, understanding, solace, and laughter; the place where each partner can escape the constraints of individualism, can be something larger-something more important and meaningful-than simply "me."
The middle ground plays one other vital role in a marriage-it acts as a stabilizer. The enormous investment of time, effort, and personal commitment needed to construct a middle ground makes a couple think twice and then a third time before proceeding to a divorce court.
Typically, in a nuclear family, the middle ground of a marriage-shared habits, feelings, and outlook-is created in the leisurely, relatively stress-free period between wedding and parenthood. Thus, when the baby arrives, husband and wife already have in place an anchor-an incentive-to keep them together: something that makes the disruptions and dislocations created by the new child worth enduring During the dating period, people like Sarah and Jeffrey are able to do some construction work on their eventual middle ground. But a marital middle ground is so called because most of its construction must take place after-and inside-the marriage. And typically, in a stepfamily, the only interval between marriage and parenthood is the minute it takes the brand-new bride and groom to turn around and receive the congratulations of their children
What distinguishes Neotraditional couples from the two other stepfamily types is the way they use the four tasks of stepfamily creation to build a marital middle ground. In the course of developing an appropriate parenting role for the stepfather, separating a second marriage from a first marriage for the spouses who were previously married, managing change, and dealing with a nonresidential parent, Neotraditionalists forge shared values and a shared worldview-a clear "us."
The Connection between Marriage and Parenting
One key finding to emerge from our study was about the connection between the parenting task and the state of the marriage in a stepfamily. To put it baldly: Unless a couple succeeds at the parenting task-unless they find a comfortable parenting role for the stepfather-the marriage, and thus their stepfamily, is likely to falter Moreover, the reason for the connection highlights a key difference between nuclear and stepfamilies.
In a nuclear family, a troubled child has relatively little impact on a marriage, but a troubled marriage greatly affects a child, usually because marital problems interfere with good parenting, making a parent less sensitive to the youngster's needs. While a troubled child has less impact on the marriage, in a stepfamily, the interaction between marriage and parenting flows in the opposite direction. The state of the marriage has relatively little effect on a child because children generally have a limited emotional investment in a parent's second marriage. However, the child's emotional state has an enormous impact on the emotional state of a stepfamily marriage. The reason: Children who are unhappy misbehave, act out, are rude and surly; not only does such behavior makes life unpleasant for everyone, but eventually the unhappy child begins to divide the stepparent, who is discomfited and increasingly critical of the child, from the biological parent, who is defensive and increasingly annoyed at her spouse's criticisms of her child.
Among the steps a couple must take to solve the parenting task, two are particularly critical, and the failure of a couple to take them places their new marriage at risk. Indeed, in looking closely at the couples who divorced during the course of the project, we found that a full 50 percent of them had mishandled one or both of these steps
The first step is really a decision: when to integrate the new stepfather into the child's life. We found that many of our men, usually with a wife's encouragement, assumed an active parenting role too early in the marriage and thus fell into the trap of presuming an intimacy and authority that was still unearned.
This is the Good Father syndrome, and often its victims are left understandably baffled and hurt Here they are, truly behaving like a good parent: giving a child time and attention, direction and guidance; yet all they receive for their efforts is a spectrum of behaviors that increase in unpleasantness from reticence, to surliness, to outright rejection, with the rejection stage usually being characterized by slamming doors, loud shouting, and painful insults.
Initially my colleagues and I also were baffled by the Good Father syndrome. We routinely videotaped our stepparents and stepchildren interacting. During the first phase of the study I remember my growing dismay as I screened these tapes. I was seeing some remarkable examples of sensitive parenting, examples that, according to all the parenting texts, should have evoked delight and interest and engagement in a child. Yet, clearly, the stepchildren I was watching were reluctant and itchy.
Eventually the riddle of these children's unresponsiveness was solved. The answer lay in the child's initial wariness of intimacy-an inbuilt go-slow mechanism. We discovered that, during the first year or two of stepfamily life, the amount of intimacy or authority a child is psychologically prepared to accept from a stepfather is akin to the amount of intimacy or authority a child is prepared to accept from a coach, or camp counselor, or other friendly adult.
Fairly early in the project we noticed that Neotraditional families were more successful than our other families in integrating a new stepfather into the child's life. But, as with the Good Father syndrome, it took us a while to understand why. The answer was, in large part, realism. Neotraditional men were realistic enough to intuit what we social scientists needed months of study to discover: The child does not want a new parent.
In Neotraditional homes, the decision on how soon to integrate the man was always a mutual one-the result of a discussion where spousal differences were aired and resolved through compromise and concession. As we shall see in a moment, Neotraditionalists usually opted to foster an intimate father-child bond, the kind characteristic of a well-functioning nuclear family.