35 Divorce, Repartnering, and Stepfamilies
Factors Affecting the Impact of Divorce
As you look at the consequences (both pro and con) of divorce and remarriage on children, keep these family functions in mind. Some negative consequences are a result of financial hardship rather than divorce per se (Drexler, 2005). Some positive consequences reflect improvements in meeting these functions. For instance, we have learned that a positive self-esteem comes in part from a belief in the self and one’s abilities rather than merely being complimented by others. In single-parent homes, children may be given more opportunity to discover their own abilities and gain independence that fosters self-esteem. If divorce leads to fighting between the parents and the child is included in these arguments, the self-esteem may suffer.
The impact of divorce on children depends on a number of factors. The degree of conflict prior to the divorce plays a role. If the divorce means a reduction in tensions, the child may feel relief. If the parents have kept their conflicts hidden, the announcement of a divorce can come as a shock and be met with enormous resentment. Another factor that has a great impact on the child concerns financial hardships they may suffer, especially if financial support is inadequate. Another difficult situation for children of divorce is the position they are put into if the parents continue to argue and fight-especially if they bring the children into those arguments. (70)
In roughly the first year following divorce, children may exhibit some of these short-term effects:
- Grief over losses suffered . The child will grieve the loss of the parent they no longer see as frequently. The child may also grieve about other family members that are no longer available. Grief sometimes comes in the form of sadness, but it can also be experienced as anger or withdrawal. Preschool-aged boys may act out aggressively while the same aged girls may become more quiet and withdrawn. Older children may feel depressed.
- Reduced Standard of Living . Very often, divorce means a change in the amount of money coming into the household. Children experience in new constraints on spending or entertainment. School-aged children, especially, may notice that they can no longer have toys, clothing or other items to which they’ve grown accustomed. Or it may mean that there is less eating out or being able to afford satellite television, and so on. The custodial parent may experience stress at not being able to rely on child support payments or having the same level of income as before. This can affect decisions regarding healthcare, vacations, rents, mortgages and other expenditures. And the stress can result in less happiness and relaxation in the home. The parent who has to take on more work may also be less available to the children.
- Adjusting to Transitions. Children may also have to adjust to other changes accompanying a divorce. The divorce might mean moving to a new home and changing schools or friends. It might mean leaving a neighborhood that has meant a lot to them as well.
Here are some effects that are found after the first year.
- Economic/Occupational Status. One of the most commonly cited long-term effects of divorce is that children of divorce may have lower levels of education or occupational status. This may be a consequence of lower income and resources for funding education rather than to divorce per se. In those households where economic hardship does not occur, there may be no impact on economic status (Drexler, 2005).
- Improved Relationships with the Custodial Parent (usually the mother): In the United States and Canada, children reside with the mother in 88 percent of single-parent households (Berk, 2007). Children from single-parent families talk to their mothers more often than children of two-parent families (McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994). Most children of divorce lead happy, well-adjusted lives and develop stronger, positive relationships with their custodial parent (Seccombe and Warner, 2004). In a study of college-age respondents, Arditti (1999) found that increasing closeness and a movement toward more democratic parenting styles was experienced. Others have also found that relationships between mothers and children become closer and stronger (Guttman, 1993) and suggest that greater equality and less rigid parenting is beneficial after divorce (Steward, Copeland, Chester, Malley, and Barenbaum, 1997).
- Greater emotional independence in sons. Drexler (2005) notes that sons who are raised by mothers only develop an emotional sensitivity to others that is beneficial in relationships.
- Feeling more anxious in their own love relationships. Children of divorce may feel more anxious about their own relationships as adults. This may reflect a fear of divorce if things go wrong, or it may be a result of setting higher expectations for their own relationships.
- Adjustment of the custodial parent. Furstenberg and Cherlin (1991) believe that the primary factor influencing the way that children adjust to divorce is the way the custodial parent adjusts to the divorce. If that parent is adjusting well, the children will benefit. This may explain a good deal of the variation we find in children of divorce. Adults going though divorce should consider good self-care as beneficial to the children-not as self-indulgent.
Tips for Taking Care of the Self during Divorce
Here are some effects that are found after the first year:
- Take care of your own mental health. Don’t be a martyr. Do what is necessary to heal.
- Allow children to grieve and express their feelings without becoming defensive. Give the child the freedom to express feelings and be supportive and neutral as they voice their emotions over the loss.
- Try to have an amicable relationship with the ex-spouse and keep the children’s best interests in mind.
- Do not put-down or badmouth the ex-spouse. This puts the child in a very uncomfortable position. You don’t have to hide the truth from them either, but they will uncover the truth on their own. Be neutral. Children want to love their parents, regardless of the circumstances.
- Focus on establishing a comfortable, consistent healthy environment for the children as they adjust. (70)
Dating as a single parent can pose certain challenges. Time and money are considerations. A single mother may not have time for dating and may not have the money needed for child-care while she is out. Children can also resent a parent taking time away to date. Parents may struggle with whether or not to introduce a date to the children or to demonstrate affection in front of the children. When a dating relationship becomes serious, a boyfriend or girlfriend might expect the parent to prove their concern for them above the children. This puts a parent in a very uncomfortable situation. Sometimes, this vying for attention does not occur until the couple begins to consider sharing a long-term relationship.
Repartnering refers to forming new, intimate relationships after divorce. This includes dating, cohabitation, and remarriage.
Parental Considerations about Cohabitation
Having time, money and resources to date can be difficult. And having privacy for a dating relationship can also be problematic. Divorced parents may cohabit as a result. Cohabitation involves living together in a sexually intimate relationship without being married. This can be difficult for children to adjust to because cohabiting relationships in the United States tend to be short-lived. About 50 percent last less than 2 years (Brown, 2000). The child who starts a relationship with the parent’s live-in partner may have to sever this relationship later. And even in long-term cohabiting relationships, once it’s over, continued contact with the child is rare. Further, young children are at a greater risk of being abused by a non-biological male living in the home than if the biological father was still in the home.
Is Remarriage More Difficult than Divorce?
The remarriage of a parent may be a more difficult adjustment for a child than the divorce of a parent (Seccombe & Warner, 2004). Parents and children typically have different ideas of how the stepparent should act. Parents and stepparents are more likely to see the stepparent’s role as that of parent. A more democratic style of parenting may become more authoritarian after a parent remarries. And biological parents are more likely to continue to be involved with their children jointly when neither parent has remarried. They are least likely to jointly be involved if the father has remarried and the mother has not. (70)
Characteristics of Stepfamilies
About 60 percent of divorced parents remarry within a few years (Berk, 2007). Largely due to high rates of divorce and remarriage, we have seen the number of stepfamilies in America grow considerably in the last 20 years although rates of remarriage are declining (Seccombe & Warner, 2004). Stepfamilies are not new. In the 1700-1800s there were many stepfamilies, but they were created because someone died and remarried. Most stepfamilies today are a result of divorce and remarriage.
And such origins lead to new considerations. Stepfamilies are different from intact families and more complex in a number of ways that can pose unique challenges to those who seek to form successful stepfamily relationships (Visher & Visher, 1985). Stepfamilies are also known as blended families and stepchildren as “bonus children” by social scientists interested in emphasizing the positive qualities of these families.
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- Stepfamilies have a biological parent outside the stepfamily and a same sex adult in the family as natural parent. This can lead to animosity on part of a rejecting child. This can also lead to confusion on part of stepparent as to what their role is within the family.
- Child may be a part of two households, each with different rules.
- Members may not be as sure that others care and may require more demonstrations of affection for reassurance. For example, stepparents expect more gratitude and acknowledgment from the stepchild than they would with a biological child. Stepchildren experience more uncertainty/insecurity in their relationship with the parent and fear the parents will see them as sources of tension. And stepparents may feel guilty for a lack of feelings they may initially have toward their partner’s children. Children who are required to respond to the parent’s new mate as though they were the child’s “real” parent often react with hostility, rebellion, or withdrawal. Especially if there has not been time for the relationship to develop.
- Stepfamilies are born of loss. Members may have lost a home, a neighborhood, family members or at least their dream of how they thought life would be. These losses must be acknowledged and mourned. Remarriage quickly after a divorce makes expressing grief more difficult. Family members are looking for signs that all is well at the same time that members are experiencing grief over losses.
- Stepfamilies are structurally more complex. There are lots of triangles and lots of ways to divide and conquer the new couple.
- Sexual attractions are more common in stepfamilies. Members have not grown up together and sexual attractions need to be understood, and controlled. Also a new couple may need to tone down sexual displays when around the children (can bring on jealousy, etc.) until there is greater acceptance of the new partner.
Sociologist Andrew Cherlin suggests that one reason people remarry is because divorce is so socially awkward. There are no clear guidelines for family or friends, how to treat divorcees, etc. As a result, people remarry to avoid this “displacement.” The problem is that remarriage is similarly ill-defined. This is reflected in the lack of language to support the institution of remarriage. What does one call their stepparent? Who is included when thinking of “the family”? For couples with joint custody, where is “home”? And there are few guidelines about how ex-spouses and new spouses or other kin should interact. This is especially an issue when children are involved.
In light of this incompleteness, here are some tips for those in stepfamilies. Most of these tips are focused on the stepparent. These come from an article entitled “The Ten Commandments of Step parenting” by Turnbull and Turnbull.
Tips for Stepfamilies
- Provide neutral territory. If there is a way to do so, relocate the new family in a new, more neutral home. Houses have histories and there are many memories attached to family homes. This territoriality can cause resentments.
- Don’t try to fit a preconceived role. Stepparents need to realize that they cannot just walk into a situation and expect to fill a role. They need to stay in tuned with what works in this new family rather than being dogmatic about their new role.
- Set limits and enforce them. Don’t allow children to take advantage of the parent’s guilt or adjustment by trying to gain special privileges as a result of the change. Limits provide security, especially if they are reasonable limits.
- Allow an outlet for feelings by the children for their natural parent. This tip is for the natural parent. Avoid the temptation to “encourage” the child to go against your ex-spouse. Instead, remain neutral when comments are made.
- Expect ambivalence, not instant love. Stepparents need to realize that their acceptance has to be earned, and sometimes it is long in coming. The relationship has to be given time to grow. Trust has to be established. One day they may be loved, the next, hated. Adjustment takes time. (70)
Developmental Stages of Stepfamilies
Stepfamilies go through periods of adjustments and developmental stages that take about 7 years for completion (Papernow, 1993). The early stages of stepfamily adjustment include periods of fantasy in which members may hope for immediate acceptance. This is followed by the immersion stage in which children have to adjust to their parent’s date being transformed into a new stepfather or stepmother. This acceptance can be accompanied by a sense of betrayal toward the natural parent on the part of the children. The awareness stage involves members beginning to become aware of how they feel in the family and taking steps to map out their territory. Children may begin to feel as if they’ve been set aside for other family members and the couple may begin to focus their attention toward one another. Biological parents may feel resentful.
The middle stages include mobilization, in which family members begin to recognize their differences. Stepparents may be less interested in pleasing family members and more interested in taking a stand and being respected as family members. Children may start to voice their frustrations at being pulled in different directions by biological and stepparents. The next step is that of taking action. Now step-couples and stepparents begin to reorganize the family based on more realistic expectations and understandings of how members feel.
The later stages include contact between stepfamily members that is more intimate and genuine. A clearer role for the stepparent emerges. Finally, the stepfamily seems to have more security and stability than ever before. (70)