Remarriage causes stress for kids.

10 12 2008

Ladies, I’ve come across some research you have to know about. In fact there is so much in it that I will do several posts on the issues raised in the study. Stepfamily researcher and author Constance Ahrons published a study last year called Family Ties After Divorce: Long-Term Implications for Children in the journal Family Process. Click on the link if you’d like read the entire paper.

“Drawing on the data from the longitudinal Binuclear Family Study, 173 grown children were interviewed 20 years after their parents’ divorce. This article addresses two basic questions: (1) What impact does the relationship between parents have on their children 20 years after the divorce? and (2) When a parent remarries or cohabits, how does it impact a child’s sense of family?”

This passage struck me as particularly powerful because it relates directly to our role as stepmoms:

“Over the course of 20 years, most of the children experienced the remarriage of one or both parents, and one third of this sample remembered the remarriage as more stressful than the divorce. Of those who experienced the remarriage of both of their parents, two thirds reported that their father’s remarriage was more stressful than their mother’s.”

Two-thirds!!!!! This is deeply distressing. Why do these children find Stepmom and Dad’s marriage so stressful? And what can we stepmoms do to ease this transition not only for ourselves but for the children we take on in our remarriages?

Here are the findings Constance reports:

“When a parent remarries or cohabits, how does it impact a child’s sense of family? Twenty years after their parents’ divorce, most of the adult children had experienced the remarriage of at least one parent. Of the 89 families in this analysis, at least one remarriage occurred in 95% of them; 72% (n = 64) of the mothers and 87% (n = 77) of the fathers had remarried at least one time. In 64% (n = 56) of the families, both parents had remarried. In only 4 families had neither parent remarried. More fathers than mothers remarried, and they remarried more quickly after the divorce. In this sample, 24%, 60%, and 70% of the fathers had remarried at 1, 3, and 5 years postdivorce, whereas fewer mothers had remarried in each of the times, 12%, 38%, and 49%, respectively.

Remarriage represents another dramatic change in the divorced family’s reorganization, and children vary in their responses to this change. When asked whether the divorce or a parent’s remarriage was more difficult to cope with, more than half of the adult children reported that the divorce was most difficult, and approximately one third remembered the remarriage of one or more parents as creating more distress than the divorce. Of those who experienced the remarriage of both parents, two thirds reported that their father’s remarriage was more stressful than their mother’s.

The adult children’s reports of the impact of their father’s remarriage were associated with their reports of changes in father-child relationship quality. Specifically, those who reported that their father’s remarriage had a positive impact on their lives were more likely to report that their relationship with their father got better postdivorce compared with those who reported that their father’s remarriage had a neutral or negative impact on their lives. A disproportionately high number of those reporting that their relationships worsened with their fathers after divorce had experienced his remarriage within one year postdivorce (Ahrons & Tanner, 2003).

The majority of children in the study reported that at the time of the interview, they had good relationships with one or both of their stepparents. Most noted that this was not always the case in the beginning but that relationships had improved over time as they came to know their stepparents better. Some gender differences emerged, with two thirds reporting a close relationship with their stepfathers, and somewhat less than half felt close to their stepmothers. For those children who feel that their relationships with their stepparents were close, two thirds considered their stepfathers as parents, and somewhat fewer felt the same way about their stepmothers. The others, who felt close but did not consider their stepparents to be parents, describe their stepparents as friends or mentors. It is important to note that although there were some differences in their feelings toward their stepmothers versus their stepfathers, these differences were not related to the child’s gender. Boys and girls both viewed their stepparents in similar ways.

The age of the child, the personality match between a stepchild and stepparent, the relationship with each biological parent, and the amount of time spent with a stepfather are major factors that influence the role he takes in their lives. Because most mothers are still the primary residential parent, most stepfathers live with their stepchildren. Although some children who are close with their stepfathers have poor relationships with their biological fathers, others who have poor stepfather relationships are close with their biological fathers. Still others are able to maintain good relationships with both, and a small group of children have poor relationships with both.

The findings also show an association between relationships with their father and relationships with their father’s kin. When relationships with their fathers got worse over time, they reported poorer current relationships with their stepmother, her children (their stepsiblings), and their paternal grandparents. This was most salient when the father remarried shortly after divorce. Adult children who reported that their father’s remarriage had a positive effect on their lives also said that they had better relationships with their stepmothers, stepsiblings, and paternal grandparents. This is important because it relates to the long-term implications of the adult children’s sense of family after divorce. Because children have two sets of kin, whether and how they relate to them carries implications for the continuity of family relationships (Ahrons & Rodgers, 1989).”

So what does this mean in real terms? Clearly, helping to foster strong relationships between your stepchildren and their Dad is the most important action you can take. I will post separately about steps we can take on a daily basis to make sure that our families are the ones that have a positive effect on the children.

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Can romance last?

25 11 2008

The popular notion that romantic love fades after you’ve been married a while is so pervasive in our culture that we almost expect it. Ask people if they think married couples who have been together for several decades can still feel the powerful feelings fore each other that they had as newlyweds and I’d bet that most people would answer an emphatic no.

Journalist Sharon Jayson of USA Today recently reported on some new research that is just emerging that may prove that you can maintain those strong feelings over time. A team of scientists including lead author Bianca Acevedo, researcher Arthur Aron, at the State University of New York-Stony Brook, anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, and neuroscientist Lucy Brown of Albert Einstein College of Medicine used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to scan the brains of people who said they were in love after two-plus decades of marraige.

According to a presentation the team did at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., the brain scans of the people who had been married for a long time lit up in the same places as those of newlyweds. “If you ask people around the world whether romantic love can last, they’ll roll their eyes and say ‘probably not,’ and most textbooks say that, too. We’re proving them wrong,” says Helen Fisher.

This has major impact on stepfamilies, ladies. As I have said over and over again in my book, in radio and print interviews, our first priority is to develop a strong relationship with our partners. Why? Because the relationship between you and your husband is the weakest link in a stepfamily. Without maintaining that strong bond, you might as well sign the divorce papers now. Seriously. It’s that important.

So what are some things you can do to build a bond with your partner that can withstand the onslaught of stepfamily stress? How can you make your romance last?

Declare that you’ll always be newlyweds.
Arne and I did this early on. I know, I know. It sounds cheesy, but look! Now I have research to back me up! When one of our friends asked us how long we could call ourselves newlyweds, we answered, “Forever.”

Be civil to your spouse.
For a story I wrote called Civil Unions for Experience Life magazine, I interviewed P. M. Forni, PhD, author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct and cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. Here’s what he had to say: “Many people think good manners aren’t needed among family and friends, that manners are like a formal jacket that you only put on when you leave home. This is unfortunate, because by using good manners – which is to say by being polite, considerate and kind – you show that your respect and love for your spouse are not just empty words but rather a daily commitment to action.”

Go beyond the golden rule.
Dr. Forni’s advice was so good, I have to include another one of his ideas here. We’re taught to “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” as children, but there’s a problem. What I might want done unto me, might not be what my husband would want done unto him and vice versa. “Sometimes, for example, a husband may not have a clue that one of his behaviors is bothering his wife,” says Forni. “It doesn’t bother him, so from the point of view of the golden rule, he’s blameless. But he’s completely unaware that she has a different sensitivity.” Instead, listen to each other and found out how your partner wants you to show your love.

Take breaks from talking about stressful topics.
I mentioned this briefly in a post last week: Don’t let talking about the ex consume you and your partner. If you find yourself discussing bio mom repeatedly, reserve a specific time each week to negotiate issues that involve her. This is especially hard to do if you’re involved in a custody battle or fights over money as one reader commented on last week’s post. But if you’re in a high-conflict situation between households, this is important. A stepmom I interviewed for my book talked about how the first year of her marriage was so stressful due to a custody battle that she nearly didn’t make it to her first anniversary. Bio mom is not in your marriage. Don’t let her have that kind of power.

Spend time together.
This one is the most important. Need I say more?

So how do you make sure your bond with your partner is a strong one? What things do you do together? What rituals do you have? Share them with your stepmom sisters can we can benefit from your wisdom!

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Compassion Beats Competition

12 11 2008

Diane FrommeThanks to Diane Fromme, the author of Stepparenting the Grieving Child, for asking me to be a guest blogger at Mama J’s Parenting Posts. Here’s an excerpt from the post I wrote, “Compassion Beats Competition” about the tough relationship between stepmothers and stepdaughters.

“Studies show that girls often exhibit more anxiety than boys do after a remarriage. This is an important fact for stepparents to keep in mind. While conducting interviews of stepmoms across the country, I was told more than once that stepmothers were concerned that instead of bonding over shared interests with their stepdaughters, they were in a competition for Dad’s attention and affection.”

If you’ve got stepdaughters, check out the rest of the post at Diane’s blog.