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Frequently Asked Questions about Stepfamilies

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Question: "I have concerns about remarrying people when the children are at this age. We process ecclesiastical divorce requests because people are getting on with their lives, the Church chooses not to place an obstacle in their path, and priests lack the knowledge to discern how to deal with these cases so that the family, however broken, is considered, not just the person who wants to get remarried.

Generally, I feel these second or third marriages should not be allowed until the kids are, for lack of a better term and definition, out of the house (i.e. emotionally stable enough to deal with another woman or man in the picture). But when are children emotionally stable enough?

How have you handle remarriage when the person approaching for a second or third marriage has teenage children?

Thank you, Fr. Charles, and may God bless your work with many healthy and productive years.

Sincerely,

Fr. S."

Answer: Christ is in our midst.

You should be concerned. Second marriages fail at significantly higher rates when compared to first marriages. One primary reason to account for the higher divorce rates has a great deal to do with the fact that a significant number of second marriages include children. As a result, when people with children from a previous marriage enter into wedlock with another divorced person with children they do not simply marry a spouse. They also typically inherit a host of unique stepfamily challenges that they are ill-prepared and ill-equipped to handle. Here are some examples of what I mean.

1.    When compared to first-time marriages and their families, the architecture of a stepfamily is very complex. Moreover, along with the complexity inherent in these marital and family constellations come more challenges.

2.    Stepfamily architecture can and often does creates intense, highly polarized insider and outsider positions which prevent these types of families from coalescing and forming a new family. For example, let’s suppose that a stepfamily chooses to worship in a Greek Orthodox Church. Children who have not been baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church are likely to have a difficult time fitting in.  Based on results from the research I’ve conducted, these children, together with the non-Greek Orthodox partner, often report feeling like outsiders when they attend our services. This can potentially have a polarizing effect on these types of families.

3.    Children in stepfamilies also encounter losses and loyalty binds. For example, it is not uncommon for children to have mixed feelings when trying to form an intimate relationship with their biological parent’s new spouse. In these cases, children often feel as though they are betraying their biological mom or dad if they form a relationship with their parent’s new spouse. This is especially true of older children like the adolescents that you’ve alluded to in your message.

4.    Parenting challenges also abound. For example, spouses in second marriages often report encountering numerous parenting challenges when their spouses’ children come to visit. These challenges prompt many non-biological spouses to feel like outsiders. Many biological parents also indicate that they cannot tolerate their new spouse disciplining their biological children. In addition, spouses in second marriages may espouse different parenting styles and philosophies that make it difficult for them to discipline both spouses’ biological children consistently and effectively.

5.    Stepfamilies also encounter challenges in establishing shared family values and culture. For example, when some children have been baptized and raised in a Greek Orthodox Church and others have been baptized and raised in an Hispanic Catholic family such families will encounter numerous unique challenges in their efforts cultivate religious and spiritual individual, couple and family well-being.

6.    Family boundaries also tend to be different in stepfamilies. For example, beyond the nuclear family, boundaries generally will extend to include at least one other parent who affects everything from vacation planning to whether children have their homework assignments.

Despite these and other challenges, I would argue and maintain that our faithful who have been divorced and desire to remarry should be permitted to do so. And while you are correct in observing that most pastors are ill-equipped to understand the unique challenges that stepfamilies encounter, I would also maintain that a well intentioned, Christ-centered pastor has many tools, assets and knowledge at his disposal that can be helpful to persons who desire to remarry. Here are some examples of what I mean.

1.    To begin with, pastors have an Orthodox perspective of marriage that can serve to profoundly inform and strengthen a divorced person’s perspective of marriage.

2.    Much of the existing literature related to remarriage indicates that most divorced persons who remarry have never done a careful, retrospective review of the factors that caused their first marriage to fail. In this respect, pastors can help divorced persons not only identify the factors that led to the demise of their first marriage. They can also help them understand how they personally contributed to the failure of their previous marriage(s).  Through a pastoral process leading to insight, forgiveness and repentance, divorced persons can be educated and liberated from any residual shame and guilt they harbor related to their previous failed marriage(s).

3.    Pastors can also help educate persons better understand the promises and pitfalls that are part and parcel of remarriage and stepfamily life.

4.    If pastors do not feel equipped to help educate persons desiring remarriage, at minimum, they can refer divorced persons desiring to remarry to trusted professionals in their area who specialize in helping individuals, couples and potential members of future stepfamilies acquire a broader understanding of the inherent challenges they may encounter in a second marriage and in a stepfamily. Such professionals are also equipped to help children and adolescents who are having adjustments problems work through their fears and emotions.

Hopefully, what I’ve written helps. If you need more information related to the family that you’ve written about, don’t hesitate to call me at 845-565-5641. I will do my best to be of additional assistance. 

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