Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decadeby James H. Bray, John Kelly
There are more than twenty million stepfamilies in America. For most of them, the simple, daily issues that challenge every family
Based on a landmark longitudinal study, the nation's leading expert on stepfamilies reveals his breakthrough findings and offers the first detailed guide to easing the conflicts of stepfamily life and healing the scars of divorce.
There are more than twenty million stepfamilies in America. For most of them, the simple, daily issues that challenge every family are even more anxiety-provoking. After conducting a comprehensive nine-year-long study funded by the National Institutes of Health, Dr. James H. Bray has written an invaluable book that explains why over half of all stepfamilies fail and reveals the strategies that help the others succeed.
A stepfamily is assaulted on all sides by difficult and often divisive questions. How much control should a stepparent have over a stepchild? How much authority should a nonresidential parent exert over a child? How should a difficult former spouse be handled? How does an "ours" baby change the emotional dynamic in a stepfamily? Why is there a lack of "honeymoon effect" during the first years of stepfamily life?
The purpose of Stepfamilies is to answer all the important questions of stepfamily lifeto fill in the knowledge gaps that undermine so many stepfamilies today and, crucially, to learn the effect of stepfamily life on children. Based on one of the largest and longest studies of stepfamily life ever conducted, Stepfamilies interweaves the stories of real families to illustrate such study findings as how:
Filled with emotional, gripping stories, Bray's findings pinpoint the three major transitions in stepfamily life and identify the riskiest issues that can throw a family into crisis. Bray is the first to identify the several distinct forms that stepfamilies take and to explore which types of stepfamilies are more vulnerable than others and why. He also describes the natural life cycle of stepfamilies and basic tasks all stepfamilies must undertake to succeed. With a wealth of insight into the positive effects of remarriage, Bray shows how a loving, well-functioning stepfamily can lessen the trauma of divorce and restore a child's and family's sense of security.
Most stepparents remarry with the highest hopes and new resolutions for a better life. Never before have their unique needs been addressed in depth. Through insightful case studies and practical advice, Stepfamilies reveals how a strong, stable stepfamily is as capable as a nuclear family of nurturing healthy development, of imbuing values, of setting limits and boundaries, and of providing a structure in which rules for living a moral and productive life are transmitted, tested, rebelled against, and ultimately affirmed. Bray's positive message and fascinating findingsmany of which defy intuitionwill put stepfamilies on the road to lifelong harmony.
He found each family unique in its struggle to create a close-knit and loving home but was able to identify three general categories and three stages that predict the degree of success. The categories are the Neotraditional family, where husbands and wives emphasize the relationship rather than themselves; the Romantic family, least likely to succeed because expectations are unrealistic; and the Matriarchal family, where the mother is highly competent and dominant.
All stepfamilies, whatever their type, follow a pattern of ups and downs, according to Bray. As with a first marriage, the first two years, when children and adults are sorting out their relationships and coming to terms with shadows of the first marriages, are the hardest. The next three or four years are more tranquil as compromises have been made, but the third cycle can see stress and conflict again, as children and parents endure adolescence. One major obstacle to the emerging stepfamily: stepparents who move too quickly to take over the parentalrole. Detailed and evocative case histories illuminate discussions of these various landmarks in stepfamilies' lives, including the sometimes disruptive but vital role of former spouses. A step up for stepfamilies, who may not fit exactly into the pigeonholes described but can take comfort and guidance from Bray's findings.
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Read an Excerpt
Introduction: The Modern Stepfamily
The videotape opens with a shot of the wedding guests. About a hundred of them are gathered on the lawn in front of Temple Beth-El on what looks like a perfect spring day. The Texas sky above the temple is a flawless blue, except for a single cloud over the head of a woman in an extravagant red hat. As the synagogue doors open, a cheer goes up. The crowd can see what the camera cannot yet: a man and a woman about to emerge onto the steps. There they are now. The man is in his late thirties, tall, balding, thickly eyebrowed, and serious-looking. He has the face of a professor or a professional mana doctor or lawyer, perhaps. But even on this happy occasion, there is something reserved, formal about him. One would guess that he takes himself very seriously.
The woman next to him is about thirty-three or thirty-four, short and slim with dark, closely cropped hair. She is not pretty, not by Texas standards, but her faceanimated, lively, intelligentis attractive and something more. Confident isn't quite the right word, but there is a quality in the face that suggests grace, ease, centeredness.
The woman bends down and whispers something to the curly-haired girl beside her. The little girl smiles and nods; she takes the bouquet of flowers from the woman and throws it out into the crowd.
The videotape ends with another shot of the child, whose name is Naomi. In this frame the seven-year-old stands on the sidewalk waving to a departing black Lexus. The bumper sticker on the back of the car, "Just Married," surprises. It seems out of character for the couple, particularly for the austere-lookingman.
When the videotape is over, I am almost tempted to ask Jeffrey Goldsmith about the bumper sticker. But I decide to reserve my curiosity for another time. He and his wife, Sarah, are eager to talk about their stepfamily tonight. The wedding video, I gather, is intended to be the first page of the story. Jeffrey and Sarah will show me how happy they were on their wedding day, then tell me everything that has gone wrong in the six months since.
As in most marriages, the Goldsmiths have two different versions of what has gone wrong and why. In Jeffrey's version, Naomi, Sarah's daughter and the little girl in the video, bears a major responsibility for the past months of unhappiness. Jeffrey complains that Naomi is distant and cold. Often, he says, she behaves in ways that divide the Goldsmith home, turn it into warring camps. "I live in one camp," Jeffrey declares, "Naomi and Sarah live in the other."
Jeffrey tells me he has made attempts to bridge the chasm. "I've tried to befriend Naomi," he says. "Sarah knows how hard I've tried. But all I get is sullenness."
Sarah's response to Jeffrey's criticism is to provide her own version of the Goldsmiths' decline and fall. It has two villains. The first is Barbara, Jeffrey's former wife. "She calls incessantly," Sarah says, "and thoughtful Jeffrey here always takes her calls." Sarah looks over at her husband. "If Barbara says jump, you say how high."
Sarah says Barbara is a constant drain on the Goldsmiths' finances and "crazy to bootpathological even. She scares me sometimes." Jeffrey's younger son, Aaron, also is a "big problem," according to Sarah. Aaron is rebellious and rude, she says, rude to her and rude to Naomi.
"He's still adjusting to the divorce," Jeffrey declares, but Sarah dismisses the remark with an impatient wave of the hand.
"I thought we agreed to stop making excuses for our kids," she says.
The more the Goldsmiths talk, the clearer two things become to me. Despite the mutual recriminations, Jeffrey and Sarah still love one another, and, like so many new recruits to stepfamily life, they are confused and frightened. Only six months ago, standing on the steps of Temple Beth-El on that perfect spring day, it had all looked so simple. How could two mature, sensitive, intelligent people not succeed at stepfamily life? Yet here the Goldsmiths are now, together not even a year and already angry and alienated.
Most popular books and articles about stepfamily life contain a singular peculiarity. They talk about the stepfamily as if there were only one kind, as if all the tens of millions of men, women, and children in all the millions of stepfamilies across the United States were the same, as if these families and everyone in them were shaped by the same set of emotional, psychological, and developmental factors.
At the start of the project, I knew that this one-size-fits-all view of the stepfamily was oversimplified. I had sensed real differences among the stepfamilies I worked with in my clinical practice, and I expected that project data would bear out my anecdotal impressions. That is to say, I expected that I and my coworkers would find several different types of stepfamilies. But I also expected that these types would be shaped by such traditional social science variables as socioeconomic status, educational level, and upbringing. I expected upper-middle-class stepfamilies to behave one way and working-class stepfamilies, another.
I turned out to be right in my first expectation and wrong in my second.
There are indeed different stepfamily types. But traditional social science variables like socioeconomic status play only a small role in their formation. The key variable in determining stepfamily type are the choices a couple makes about the four basic tasks of stepfamily life: parenting, managing change, separating a second marriage from a first, and dealing with the nonresidential parent. Husbands and wives who choose one way on these tasks develop into Neotraditional stepfamilies, husbands and wives who choose another way into Romantic stepfamilies, and couples who choose a third way, into Matriarchal stepfamilies.
These are the names we gave to the three stepfamily archetypes we identified during the project. And of the three, the first, Neotraditional, probably comes closest to conforming to the popular image of the happy stepfamily. The Neotraditional family is a kind of contemporary version of the 1950s white-picket-fence family; it is close-knit, loving, and works very well for a couple with compatible values. At the end of our study, we found that, on average, our Neotraditional couples scored very high on such important markers of success as marital satisfaction and conflict resolution; the children in our Neotraditional families also had a lower incidence of behavior problems.
Our two other stepfamily types represent more of a departure from the media ideal, although, on occasion, glimpses of the Romantic stepfamily can be found in the popular literature. Romantics expect everything from stepfamily life that Neotraditionalists do, but unlike Neotraditionalists, Romantics expect everything immediately. They expect feelings of love and harmony and closeness to begin flowing as soon as the couple and the children officially become a stepfamily.
We found that the early conflict-prone period of the stepfamily cycle is particularly difficult for Romantic stepfamilies. Indeed, Romantics had the highest family breakup rate in the project.
Matriarchal, our third archetype, is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the popular literature. But anyone familiar with stepfamily life will recognize the type instantly. The chief characteristic of the Matriarchal family is the dominant role of the wife. Matriarchal women usually have powerful personalities, a high degree of domestic competence, and a strong desire to be the family leader. This stepfamily, which accounted for about 25 percent of our study sample, is frequently successful if the Matriarchal woman is married to a man with compatible values.
These three archetypes form the heart of the talks I give from time to time on stepfamily life. Invariably, after I have finished describing these types, a hand is raised in the audience. "My family has features of a Neotraditional type," the questioner will say, "but in other ways, Dr. Bray, we sound more like a Romantic stepfamily."
Lifelife as it is lived in the everyday worldis rarely as neat and tidy as a researcher's categories. Many stepfamilies do indeed share characteristics of other stepfamily forms. I encountered this crossover phenomenon dozens of times during the project. But on the whole, most stepfamilies conform to one of our three archetypes, in the sense that they possess most of the characteristics of one particular form.
The chapters that follow explore the characteristics of each archetype through the experiences and choices of three project families. As you follow these families, as you watch how each grows and changes, you also will be introduced to other important project discoveries, including the distinct cycles of stepfamily life and the subtle but critically important interactions between parenting and marriage in such families.
To further illuminate project findings, I have included the stories of other stepfamilies as well; some participated in the project; I worked with others in my capacity as a clinical psychologist. I hope and believe that what you learn from these families will help your stepfamily succeed.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
James H. Bray, Ph.D., is a clinical and family psychologist and an associate professor of family medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. A frequent speaker at national conferences and guest on national television and radio shows, he lives in Houston, Texas.
John Kelly is the coauthor of numerous books on relationships, including Three on the Edge: The Stories of Ordinary American Families in Search of a Medical Miracle and the international bestseller The Secret Life of an Unborn Child. He lives in New York City.
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