Selected Articles

What Do We Know about the Marital Relationship for Stepfamilies?

By Kay Pasley, Ed.D.*

As the new chair of the Research Committee for Stepfamily Association of America, I thought I would take this opportunity to explore some of the common findings from the variety of research studies on remarriage and stepfamilies which are now available. When the findings from one research study support those of another, we begin to get a clearer picture of the nature of stepfamily life. Here I focus on the research literature which examines the marital relationship in stepfamilies and overall stepfamily functioning. In future issues, I'll address the growing literature on stepparenting, the effects of remarriage on children, and the effects of remarriage on the former-spouse relationship and other kin.

Typically, studies of remarried spouses look at marital quality, marital satisfaction, marital adjustment, the general well-being the adults experience. In addition, many scholars have addressed the variety of factors associated with these marital outcomes. One of the most comprehensive studies reviewed the findings from 34 studies and found few differences in marital satisfaction between adults in first marriages and those in remarriages. While there were few differences between marriage groups, men in both groups reported higher marital satisfaction than did women.

These researches also found no differences in the marital satisfaction between (a) those in stepfather and stepmother families, (b) those who had residential and nonresidential children, and (c) those simple and complex stepfamilies (e.g., a residential stepfather family that has no other children but hers, versus a stepfamily where both adults have children from prior marriages) across the studies. The finding that the presence or absence of children has little effect on marital outcome may not fit with the actual experience a particular stepfamily has. In the past, researchers focused on simple questions about the effects of the presence or absence of children on the marriage. However, I suggest that it is not the presence or absence of children per se which affects marital quality. Instead a key to the marital relationship is likely the dynamics of interaction between spouses and between the parent or stepparent and child around child-related issues.

More recent research addresses the dynamics of these relationships, and a number of studies support the conclusion regarding the importance of spousal and parent-child interaction to understanding the marital relationship in stepfamilies. For example, studies found that the quality of the stepparent-stepchild relationship is a strong indicator of marital quality. Other researchers found that in addition to the quality of the stepparent-stepchild relationship, ambiguity about what's expected and acceptable behavior for stepparents was associated with poorer marital quality. In particular, stepmothers who perceive inequities about child care responsibilities (she's responsible for too much of the care of his children), also reported more marital dissatisfaction over time.

Another common finding is that spousal agreement about issues, including those related to the children, is associated with marital outcome. Those in remarriage and stepfamilies report being happier and more satisfied when couples hold similar perceptions and agree on what needs to be done regarding children. In a recent study of stepmother families with adolescent stepchildren, frequency of agreement between stepmother and the father on child-related matters was associated with the stepmother's adjustment to life in a stepfamily.

Some common findings also surface from the literature that focuses on general stepfamily functioning. Interestingly, another important finding reflects the real-life experience of many stepfamilies. That is, many stepfamilies expect emotional bonding and flexibility regarding roles, rules, etc. to be easily achieved. Instead they find that achieving closeness and adapting to changes in stepfamily life is more difficult than anticipated. What we know is that stepfamily members report lower levels of emotional closeness and more chaotic family life than those in first-marriages. However, their level of closeness and adaptability do not represent extreme behavior nor clinically dysfunctional behavior. Instead, when we compare first-marriage families with stepfamilies, the former are typically of longer duration. First-married have more time together to develop a sense of closeness and to work out the issues of everyday living. They have a pattern and routine that they share. Less time in a remarriage means that members are in the process of developing both closeness and the necessary flexibility.

If we look more closely at the interaction within the stepfamily related to member adjustment, some interesting patterns emerge, and findings are supportive of those noted earlier. While newly remarried couples feel satisfied in the marriage, when compared to first-married couples, remarrieds also are more coercive with each other, express more negative moods, and demonstrate poorer problem-solving skills. Earlier work also suggested that stepfamilies had poor problem-solving skills, and that poorer problem-solving skills were associated with lower marital satisfaction. Conflict resolution was found to be lower in remarried couples, and conflict was associated with lower marital happiness. Again, it's important to realize that often comparisons are made between first-marriages and remarriages of different durations. As a result, it is premature to assume that stepfamilies are inherently poorer problem-solvers. On the other hand, it is premature to assume that effective problem resolution will automatically develop with time in stepfamilies. We simply don't know now whether either of these assumptions are true. They should provide researchers with a fertile area for future study and helpful information for stepfamilies.

My assessment of the volume of literature on the marital relationship in stepfamilies is that some progress has been made and some patterns are clearer. However, many questions still remain. We need to know more about the ways in which well-functioning stepfamilies go about resolving the issues they face on a day-to-day basis. Are the ways stepfamilies effectively resolve issues unique to stepfamilies or unique to certain types of stepfamilies, such as those with adolescent children present or residential stepmothers? Is there a pattern to the way in which the spouses go about building a strong marital bond in the face of competing demands on the part of children? Are the same conflict management strategies which predict divorce in first-marriage couples evident in remarried spouses who elect to end the marriage? These and other questions should keep researchers busy for some time.

* Dr. Kay Pasley is Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. If you would like a list of the references cited here, please contact her directly.

Published in the SAA quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Spring 1993.

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