Elizabeth Marquardt reports on sessions held at the International Conference on Children and Divorce. I have long felt that remarriage can be just as (if not more) difficult for the children as divorce, and the following excerpt does a great job of explaining one of the reasons why. 

Claire Cartwright of the University of Auckland presented moving qualitative interviews with young adults who grew up in stepfamilies and, based on those interviews and other research, made several recommendations for clinical practice. The most striking, and one I couldn’t agree with more, is that parents in stepfamilies need to be told that the parent-child relationship is as important as the couple relationship. Sound obvious? It’s not. She and Scott Browning, a family therapist in Chestnut Hill PA (who gave out copies of his very helpful, brief paper, “Treating Stepfamilies: Alternatives to Traditional Family Therapy,” email him at scobrown (at) chc.edu for a copy) noted that traditional family therapy emphasizes the couple relationship first. In an intact family it makes sense — the mom and dad are often absorbed in the kids and their work and they need to be reminded to priortize their own relationship for everybody’s sake. But in a stepfamily, the kids need tremendous reassurance that they’re not losing their mom or dad to the new marriage. When you tell a stepchild that “the couple relationship comes first” (or, as Cartwright noted, one father’s probably well-intended but all-wrong words to his daughter: “I love your stepmom more than you,”) you reinforce their fears and further jeopardize the chances of the family’s success.

There is definitely a lack of research in this area. My hope is that researchers continue to press on and that it would lead to greater awareness and understanding. Therapists especially need to know what approaches to take when treating divorced and step families, because they come with very different issues and dynamics than intact families.