The traditional definition of a "normal" family life cycle is changing in our evolving lifestyles. There are many different styles that achieve a "normal" life for many people. My focus is on the transitional changes for families when a couple's marriage breaks down and the intact, nuclear family life is disorganized. The couple separates and forms a bi-nuclear family. The marriage has terminated, but biological parents are permanent: both parents to their children and children to their parents. A survey in 1990 reported that one out of three children will experience their parental divorce before they are 18 years old.
The separated partners with children have a big adjustment in terms of what responsibility each partner must recognize about their personal share in the marriage breakup. Both parents must get on with their personal and separate lives to reorganize the separate households into bi-nuclear families. Studies indicate that 3/4 of divorced people go into another relationship, either a remarriage or cohabitation, three to five years after the divorce.
With the growing divorce rate and growing post-divorce remarriage, my clinical practice as a marital therapist was changing. Problems were different. The remarriage family is unique. My clients indicated they were unprepared for many of the problems. I was involved in a cross-Canada research project on remarriage where at least one of the partners had been divorced and at least one of the partners had children by the previous marriage. A unanimous response to the questionnaire was that people were not prepared for the differences involved in trying to create a family life from parts of two previous families. I learned that it is essential for post-divorce marriages with children from the previous marriage to learn in advance that to become a "blended" family takes time and understanding of the unique situation of bringing together parts of two previous families.
From my experience, I have learned some of the difficulties that couples must understand and be prepared to adapt to for the remarriage to work for the family with different memberships.
To begin with, the remarriage family will never be an intact family. The family boundaries will be open to the first marriage via the children to their non-resident biological parent and the extended family. This necessitates that the ex-partners must have contact together in relation to their mutual children. The remarried partners come together at different stages of their lives with different marriage backgrounds and different customs. Studies have conveyed the largest number of remarriages are between two divorced people. Both may be custodial parents, or one may be a custodial parent and the partner may have weekly access to his or her children. There may be children of both partners living in the remarriage home, or one partner's children may live full time, the other partner's may visit bi-weekly. The children may be different ages, different stages in their lives, brought up differently. They may be different sex and same age. Another couple may come together with one partner divorced, the other never married and wanting to have children by the marriage. The newly married couple may have only weekly access to their children. They have a couple of weeks together and have the children weekends.
The couple may be in love and want the marriage, but there is no honeymoon period when there are children from the previous marriage; there is bound to be some form of instant family life.
The ambiguity of step roles and level of authority must be clearly recognized. The myth that loving the partner will mean loving the partners' children immediately can create disappointment and resentment.
For post-divorce marriages with children from the previous marriage to work, it is essential that the couple (and frequently the whole family) be educated and prepared for the unique aspects of a post-divorce marriage.
Lillian Messinger is a marriage counselor in Toronto who specializes in post-divorce remarriage. She is the author of Remarriage: A Family Affair.