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Challenges Related to Remarriage and Stepfamily Life

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

 

Dear Fr. Charles,

I have concerns related to our faithful who remarry. This is especially true when the children are teens….It seems to me the problems that these remarried couples have are numerous….In an attempt to be more helpful to these couples, can you help me better understand what special problems remarried couples face?             

- Email Correspondent

I received this Email the other day from a brother priest. Since nearly 50% of all marriages involve at least one spouse who is remarrying, I thought some of the information I shared in our E-mail exchange would be of interest to other clergy as well as those who are preparing to remarry.    

Dear Father S,

Christ is in our midst.

You should have “concerns.” Remarriages fail at significantly higher rates when compared to first marriages. One primary reason why remarriages fail more often is because remarried couples are encumbered with a host of unique marital and stepfamily challenges that they are often ill-prepared and ill-equipped to handle. Here are some examples of what I mean.   

Not Enough Time to Adjust to Married Life. When couples remarry, after the honeymoon is over they literally hit the ground running. Suddenly, children’s needs from previous marriages, as well as a host of stepfamily challenges take precedence. These unique needs and challenges rob remarried couples of the time required to adjust to married life and cultivate oneness. Unless couples make a concerted effort to find time for one another, marital satisfaction suffers and, by extension, their stepfamilies also suffer.   

A Polarizing Effect.  Stepfamily architecture creates intense, highly polarized insider and outsider positions that make it much more difficult for these families to coalesce and form a new, stable family unit. For example, let’s suppose that a newly remarried couple which includes a husband who is Greek Orthodox, a wife who is nominally Episcopalian and her two children – both baptized in the Mormon Church – decide to worship in the Greek Orthodox partner’s church. Due to this family’s religious differences, this family will be faced with a host of challenges that can seriously compromise religious and spiritual development and undermine family unity. Some typical challenges this family might encounter are as follows:  (1) The children’s biological father might adamantly object to his children worshipping in the Greek Orthodox Church. (2) The children might feel as though they are betraying their father when attending the Greek Orthodox Church. (3) The children’s discomfort could prompt their mother to discontinue family worship in the Greek Orthodox Church. (4) The Greek Orthodox partner might interpret the biological father’s reaction as intrusive and insulting. (5) The Greek Orthodox father might feel betrayed and resent his wife for acquiescing to her ex-spouse’s complaints.

Children’s Losses and Loyalty Binds. Children encounter losses and conflicted loyalty binds when stepfamilies form. It is not uncommon for children – especially older children - to have mixed feelings when trying to form an intimate relationship with their biological parent’s new spouse. In these cases, children often report feeling as though they are betraying their biological mother or father when becoming closer to their parent’s new spouse. This dynamic creates lingering emotional distance between stepfamily members that is not easily bridged.   

Different Parenting Styles.  Differences related to parenting styles creates lingering, often unresolved, tension between remarried couples that undermines marital satisfaction while also undermining remarried couples’ efforts to parent the children in a consistent, effective, supportive manner. With regard to this challenge, the best outcome occurs when couples manage to find some common ground they can agree upon to help them parent the children. This generally occurs after remarried couples have expended considerable time and effort seeking compromise. Conversely, the worst outcome is when couples cannot find any middle ground. In these cases, protracted couple conflict lingers.

Shared Family Values.  Stepfamilies also encounter challenges in their efforts to establish shared family values and culture. A stepfamily that is comprised of some children who have been baptized and raised in a Greek Orthodox Church and others who have been raised in a Jewish home will likely encounter numerous unique challenges in their efforts to cultivate religious, cultural and family traditions that fit well with all family members.   

Family Boundaries.  Family boundaries tend to also be different in stepfamilies when compared to first-time married couples and their nuclear families. Boundaries in stepfamilies will often extend to include one or more other parents who affect everything from vacation planning to whether children have their homework assignments to whether children will get to go to church camp.

How Can the Church Help? 

Despite these and other challenges, I would argue that the church can be of assistance to remarried spouses, couples and the stepfamilies before and after they form. Here are some examples of how the Church can help.

An Orthodox Perspective of Marriage.  Clergy have a Christ-centered perspective of marriage that can serve to profoundly broaden and strengthen engaged and remarried couples’ perspectives of marriage. For example, when divorced persons desiring to remarry become intimately aware of Christ-like love, patience, kindness, forgiveness, these and other God-given, timeless strategies can prove indispensable to remarried couples in their efforts to cultivate marital oneness and family well-being.

Owning Our Past Mistakes.  Much of the existing literature related to remarriage indicates that many divorced persons fail to carefully examine the factors that caused their first marriage to end. As a result, many divorced persons end up reliving past mistakes when they remarry. In an effort to avoid this, divorced persons might consider consulting their priest to help them identify how their past mistakes contributed to the slip-slide toward marital meltdown and divorce. By guiding them to increased insight, forgiveness and repentance, divorced persons can be liberated from any residual guilt and shame they harbor related to the sins and mistakes they made in a former marriage.  

Collaboration with Professionals. If clergy are not personally equipped to help counsel and educate persons desiring remarriage, at minimum, they may be able to either collaborate with trusted professionals in their local community who have this expertise or simply choose to refer divorced persons to professionals who specialize in helping individuals and couples acquire a broader understanding of the inherent challenges they will encounter when they remarry. In either case, prior to remarriage, counseling can prove infinitely helpful to individuals, couples, children and adolescents in their efforts to adjust to stepfamily life.     

Conclusion

Obviously, the best remedy for what I have been discussing is for first-time married people to attend to their spouse’s and marital needs daily. However, when marriages fail, the second best approach is for divorced persons to prayerfully consider the many pitfalls and promises related to remarriage and stepfamily life prior to remarrying. A prayerful, faithful approach can prove indispensable to their efforts to protect and promote marital oneness and stepfamily unity and well-being.